Rob Conlon 5th May 2019
“We’re a proper pub; we smoke, we drink, we swear,” says Julie Lockwood, pointing to a neon-lit sign which reads “Fuck off” in a newly refurbished, saloon style bar dedicated to her father’s memory at The Lion.
The Lion is indeed a proper pub. Found in the heart of Castleford, labourers wearing paint-stained overalls file in throughout the afternoon to sup lager and play on the fruit machine. One worker sits alone at the bar in a grey vest singing along to Stop Crying Your Heart Out by Oasis. The male and female toilets are signposted by the respective “Knobs” and “Minges”.
It’s also what you might call a rock pub. The walls are covered in Easy Rider posters, murals of icons with hair as big as their riffs — Jimmy Page, Gene Simmons — and various pieces of Harley Davidson paraphernalia. There is a small stage to one side of the bar which hosts weekly gigs for local bands. A sign outside advertises the weekend’s visit of Pancho Bullit and Sex Shop Ram Raid.
You can’t argue with The Lion’s credentials as a rock pub, because it’s where Tommy Hunt, a bonafide inductee of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, comes to sit, minding his own business in the corner, and drink gin and tonics every Sunday.
He’s the man inducted into the Hall of Fame thanks to his work with the doo-wop band The Flamingos, dubbed by Billboard magazine as “one of the finest and most influential vocal groups in pop music history”. He’s the man for whom Burt Bacharach and Hal David originally wrote I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself. He’s the only man with his picture hanging on the walls of the foyer of New York’s Apollo Theatre twice, having headlined the iconic venue both with The Flamingos and in his own right. He’s the man who has shared bills with Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin. He’s the man who casually namedrops the likes of James Brown (“the devil”), Ike Turner (“evil”) and Stevie Wonder (“we became friends”).
Put simply, Tommy Hunt is the biggest star you never knew.
The first time I met Hunt, in a bar in Leeds, he looked every bit an 85-year-old man. Aided by his broad-shouldered, Essex-twanged manager, Gavin Webb, he shuffled in hunched over his walking stick and shook my hand. Like many natural-born performers, off stage he’s shy and unassuming, with his greying eyes emitting an almost timid, puppy-dog expression.
Eventually, we found common ground and he started smiling, and then he started laughing, and before long stories were unravelling out of him like a lost tapestry on life in show business. It’s impossible to cover everything with Hunt in just one sitting, so we arranged to meet again at his local pub, where a photographer, Lee Brown, would also be able to come along.
I’m not a good speaker, but I talk a lot
Whether it’s the promise of the camera or the fact he’s in more familiar surroundings, when Hunt walks through the door of The Lion, he’s almost unrecognisable from our first meeting. Whereas in Leeds he had dressed reservedly in all black, today he’s clad in a striking tan leather jacket and shimmering silk flares.
Greeted with the welcome saved for the local legend he has become, he’s clearly at ease around “his” people. Lockwood, the landlady, has such affection for Hunt she paid to renovate a property she was hoping to sell so he could move in as a tenant. On another occasion she hired a Cadillac to taxi him to the pub so he could relive the lavish lifestyle he relished as a soul star in New York. “She saved my life,” Hunt says, warmth radiating from his smooth American accent which has remained resolute over the past half a century living in Europe.
For a man who had been so bashful when we first met, I now struggle to get a word in edgeways. “I’m not a good speaker, but I talk a lot,” he laughs. “Maybe sometimes I talk too much.”
It’s fair to say Tommy Hunt has a lot to talk about.
Tommy Hunt was used to spending time in the company of mobsters.
He initially moved to New York while a member of The Flamingos and remained in the city after leaving the group. His first solo single, Human, was released in 1961 and reached number five in the US R&B charts, making him something of a star in town.
During his early years as a solo artist, he became entangled in a curious relationship with a woman named Marie Latizia which lasted for nine years. Latizia was in her forties, almost twice Hunt’s age. He made it clear from the start that he wasn’t physically attracted to her, but she was infatuated by him and actively sought to bankroll his luxurious tastes in return for his companionship.
Everybody that new I was with her — everybody –– wouldn’t touch me
“Fast,” Hunt replies when asked to describe his life in the Big Apple. “You’ve got to move with the groove.”
Hunt has always maintained he didn’t know where Latizia’s wealth came from to start with. She bought him two Cadillacs, diamond rings, diamond watches. One Christmas he returned home after working away to discover she had bought him a rack of 15 designer suits, each one in a different colour.
But he quickly noticed that people began to treat him differently after they found out they were together. “Everybody that knew I was with her — everybody –– wouldn’t touch me, they’d love me. It was strange to me.”
Eventually, he discovered why Latizia was happy, and able, to pay for his indulgences. She was the madam of one of the biggest brothels in New York, with 24 women working under her and some useful connections with the Mafia to boot.
Given the line of her work, Hunt, who around this time also developed a taste for expensive shoes and cocaine, started to find himself occasionally surrounded by the sort of people he would rather avoid. Whenever he was in the company of gangster and talk turned to “business”, he would find a way to excuse himself.
“I never saw a killing or them in action. I was around them when they were talking, and you don’t want to be around them when they’re talking. If you hear what they’re talking about then you know about it. Then you’re implicated right from square one. I always told them whenever they started talking, ‘I’ll see you later.’”
One night, he was unable to excuse himself from the company of Richie Castucci, a mob boss who owned a number of strip clubs in Boston. Castucci insisted on showing Hunt something and took him to the back door of his club, which he opened to reveal a lime green Cadillac Eldorado.
“I said, ‘Wow, I like that, have you got a new car? You sure got a pretty one. Maybe you’ll give me a ride in it sometime.’
“He said, ‘Tommy, Tommy, please shut up.’ He took out the keys from his pocket and said, ‘They’re yours.’
“I turned around and I said, ‘Rich I love you but I can’t accept it.’
“He said, ‘Why can’t you accept it? It’s a gift from me.’
“I said, ‘Richie, you know me. I work for you. I love working your club. I love all you guys. I know you. I play with your children. But no gifts. I don’t know what’s in the tyres, I don’t know what’s in the engine. I don’t know what’s in the doors. I could take that car and drive to New York and somebody could pick it up and it be full of drugs.’”
Despite being initially hurt by Hunt’s refusal, Castucci eventually relented. A few years later, Castucci was found murdered in the boot of his own Cadillac. His killing had been ordered by Whitey Bulger, the mobster popularised by Johnny Depp’s portrayal of his character in the film Black Mass.
I was horrified to find out that behind my back people called me ‘the biggest pimp in New York’
Hunt, meanwhile, managed to kick his coke habit while touring American army bases in Germany, but he believed his career suffered due to his association with Latizia. “I was horrified to find out that behind my back people called me ‘the biggest pimp in New York’,” he writes in his autobiography Only Human.
“[Marie] asked around to see if anyone knew who was spreading the lies, and demanded it should stop. It did eventually, but the damage had been done, and by this time it had begun to seriously affect my career.”
Hunt always struggled to record a suitable follow up to Human, a sweeping, grandiose lament to the folly of humanity. “Oh Lord, why did you make me human? I’ve gotta laugh, I’ve gotta cry, I’ve gotta live, I’ve gotta die.” While his career stagnated in America, he had loved life touring in Germany, which helped him escape the drug scene in New York. As Latizia’s own work began to suffer, he made the decision to return to Europe, although he didn’t have the heart to tell her it would be the end of their relationship.
It just so happened to coincide with the fact that he had gotten another woman pregnant, and she would be accompanying him back to Germany.
There’s something you should know about Tommy Hunt: his name’s not Tommy Hunt. He was born Charles Wilson. Tommy stuck when friends at high school decided he didn’t look like a Charles; Wilson became Hunt when he enlisted for the US Air Force and discovered on his birth certificate that his father — who had never known — was in fact a different man to those of his sisters.
Growing up in Pittsburgh without any male influences, he found it difficult to fit in with the boys at school. He was further alienated by his sole obsession: show business. From an early age, he sang and he danced and he took the ridicule from his peers. That was all he wanted to do, and all he still wants to do.
“I don’t know where it comes from, unless it was something instilled in me before I was born when I was still inside my mother,” he says. “When I came out, the first thing I knew when I was getting into the five and six year old stage was music, from start to finish.
“My mother was a dancer. In the old days she was one of those variety dancers, vaudeville they called it. I have three sisters, but they were never interested in music, they were all just interested in marrying a guy, settling down, having children. I was the only boy, and the youngest, so I had to find my own way, and my way was music.
“I started hearing gospel music in church, that’s what made me interested in pop music. I was a paperboy and every penny I made I bought records. I’d lay at home on the floor and I’d learn those songs and learn them and learn them. Some other kids would say, ‘Why won’t you come out to play?’ That’s just what I’d do. I was just into music.
“It wasn’t like I was going to be in the music business then tomorrow saying I was going to be a doctor. It was like, from the beginning, the love I had for music… I knew that’s what I had to do. It’s amazing when you feel something like that when you’re a kid and you’re not guessing about it. It’s just there. And you say to yourself, ‘This. Is. It.’
“I was only a kid saying that, and I didn’t know my head from my butt. I was so strong in my belief of music. And you know what? I feel identically the same way now. I’m not the best singer and I don’t claim to be. I never did claim to be. But it was just something that was in me. I tried working in factories and things like that, I couldn’t do it.”
There’s something else you should know about Tommy Hunt, something which has become a theme throughout his life: he has an uncanny knack for getting himself into trouble but, to his credit, always manages to get himself out of it.
I’d forget about school, like it was a summer holiday or something
It didn’t take long for this theme to emerge. As a child he was separated from his family and sent to a reform school on account of the fact he was a chronic truant. The problem was that the school he was supposed to be attending was at the top of a hill. He could never make it up the hill as he had to pass a radio station at the bottom on the way. Whenever he got to the radio station he found himself stood, nose pressed against the window, completely transfixed by the music being played by a DJ called Mary Dee, who broke ground as the first African American female broadcaster in the US.
“I’d be standing there looking at her all day. I’d forget about school, like it was a summer holiday or something.”
Dee was one of the first people to encourage Hunt to sing, taking him to a talent show in wider Pennsylvania, where he came second after singing Nat King Cole’s Sentimental Journey.
“I couldn’t thank her enough. I could get down and kiss her feet. It was enough to make me feel like I’m a singer. She said, ‘Well you did pretty good, we’ll have to put you on another.’ She put me on about two or three and I did pretty good with them, but my schooling was losing touch with me.”
I wasn’t a bad kid. I was just in love with music. I couldn’t explain myself why it was affecting me so much
It wasn’t long before local authorities sent Hunt to Thornhill, a reform school in the countryside, over three hours away from his home, where he lived in a cottage with boys who had similar behavioural issues.
“They put me in this school thinking it was going to help me, but I wasn’t a bad kid. I was just in love with music. I couldn’t explain myself why it was affecting me so much. My sisters saw me and said, ‘Oh, you’re not going to be a singer. You’ll never make it.’ I said, ‘Well it’s what I love to do.’”
Given the boys couldn’t be trusted at conventional schools, they were essentially forced to work on a farm, but a familiar problem followed Hunt to Thornhill. Again, he often struggled to replicate the machismo of other guys and as a result was bullied. He was excluded from sports during recreation periods, and so instead spent his time tinkering on a piano inside.
Eventually, Hunt’s patience snapped. He refused to tolerate the bullies and decided to fight fire with fire. After getting into one too many fights, he was thrown into solitary confinement, having his food slid in on trays through a small opening in the door.
One day he decided to try escape from his cell, smashing the glass window on the door with his bare hand, tearing his wrist open in the process and almost bleeding to death. He was taken to hospital after people were alerted by his screams.
After a spell in hospital, he returned to Thornhill and found the other boys no longer dared to try intimidate him given the bravery and bravado of his attempted getaway. Six decades on, across the Atlantic Ocean, he rolls up the sleeve of his jacket to show me the scar on his wrist, still prevalent all these years later.
It serves as an ample reminder: Tommy Hunt gets himself into plenty of trouble, but he always gets himself out of it.
US Air Force
While life in Thornhill became much easier after that incident, Hunt was soon given a fortuitous escape to reunite with his family. His mother had married a man from Chicago and decided to leave Pittsburgh to live with her new husband. As Hunt’s new family home now fell outside the state jurisdiction of Pennsylvania, he was allowed to leave.
Moving to Chicago almost gave Hunt a chance to start life afresh, and it came with the added bonus of the fact his new stepdad, a man named Paul Holt, was a drummer in a band called The Five Blazers.
When those people in the club that night applauded me the way they applauded, I felt like a star
Hunt’s unbridled enthusiasm irritated his stepfather but he bonded with The Five Blazers’ guitarist, Shorty, who helped hone his voice. Suitably impressed, Holt was eventually persuaded to allow Hunt, then aged 16 or 17, to sing with The Five Blazers at a show.
“They were working in this supper club in downtown Chicago. I went down that night and my stepfather said, ‘My stepson is in the house, ladies and gentleman, and I’d like to give him a chance to sing. He wants to be a singer, so we’re gonna let you be the judge whether he can sing or not.’
“They called me on the stage and I sang — I’m never gonna forget it — Oh Danny Boy. The house went up. It was great. Everybody was saying, ‘The boy can sing! The boy can sing!’ From then on I just concentrated on singing and hoping and praying that somebody was gonna discover me.
“When those people in the club that night applauded me the way they applauded, I felt like a star. I was very shy. I said [to the band], ‘Thank you, I hope it will further my career,’ as if I was a grown man. Further my career! I sounded so important!”
Shortly afterwards, Hunt formed his own band, Friends, but his ascent into show business stardom proved more difficult than he anticipated. When the group naturally disbanded he decided to join the Air Force. He had read about a section of the Forces in which he would be used as an entertainer for his fellow troops, allowing him to continue improving his craft while also hoping to make up for the education he had lost in Pittsburgh.
Another factor for his decision to join the Air Force at the age of 18 was the hope of escaping the everyday racism which was simply taken as an inevitable part of life in America in the 1940s and 50s; segregation, separate phone booths for black and white people, separate public toilets, restaurants which would refuse to serve “niggers”.
As Hunt would soon discover, the Air Force was even more feral with discrimination than the outside world. “I went in thinking there’s no racism; I can breathe and live. But it was worse in there. I was better off on the street.”
More worryingly, soon after completing his training, he was informed that his mother was in hospital after being run over by a taxi on her way home from work and had her skull split open. Hunt was given seven days’ leave to be by her bedside but pleaded for just one more week so he could nurse her back to health. The commander refused, a decision Hunt was convinced would not have been the case had he been a white officer.
“If I’m going to be in the Air Force I feel like that’s a family. They shouldn’t say, ‘Who do you put first: your mother or your country?’ If it wasn’t for my mother I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.
“I didn’t know if she was going to die. She was that far gone when I walked into the hospital she looked at me and said, ‘Are you the photographer?’ So there was no way I was going to leave her.”
When his leave was up and he was due to return, Hunt decided to risk prison by deserting the Air Force. For the next five months, he spent time moving around friends’ houses to avoid the police, while also forming a group called The Five Echoes.
One night after a show with his new band he went to visit his mum, only to find police waiting for his arrival. He was arrested and later sentenced to five years in Leavenworth Prison in Kansas, a facility notable for later being the home of a certain James Bulger, AKA Whitey.
Once again, Hunt had to use his fists to earn the respect of his fellow inmates, although he needed the help of his cousin, who just so happened to be serving a sentence at the same time, to ward off a certain section of prisoners who made sexual advances towards him.
Just as he had in the Air Force, Hunt still had his mind on show business, joining the prison’s choir, building up credit with the chief warden for putting on a particularly successful Christmas show. After serving just 18 months of his five-year sentence, Hunt was granted an early release.
“You don’t deserve to be in a place like this, Hunt. This is for criminals. You’re no criminal,” the chief warden said, as noted in Only Human.
Yet again, fortune had provided Hunt with another lucky escape.
For a man who has been in show business for over six decades, with a CV which would make Liberace blush, Hunt doesn’t hesitate for a second when asked to pinpoint the highlight of his career.
“I can tell you that real quick: when I met The Flamingos.”
They saw me doing the splits and the flips and the Northern Soul moves that they do now. I told them I created it
After being released from Leavenworth Prison, Hunt returned to Chicago to continue working with The Five Echoes. They had modest success as a local act, releasing two singles, but Hunt began to stand out; not just for his rich vocals but also for his fast feet. The combination of those two talents alerted The Flamingos, who were already an established group thanks to their 1955 hit I’ll Be Home.
“They came into this club called the Beige Room in Chicago and my little group were working in there for a couple of nights. Two of The Flamingos came in while we were singing and saw me. In those days I did a lot of dancing. Because of my mother I had the dancing gift. I had more of the dancing gift than the singing gift.
“They saw me doing the splits and the flips and the Northern Soul moves that they do now. I told them I created it. After I got off after the show one of The Flamingos called me over to his table. He said, ‘You’re pretty good, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. That’s for you to tell me, not for me to tell me.’”
Hunt was initially reluctant to join The Flamingos as he felt guilty walking away from The Five Echoes. He had to be convinced by his fellow Echoes, who felt it would benefit their own careers to have a bandmate who graduated to greater success.
I asked Elvis ‘Why do you sing like that?’
His first show as a Flamingo saw Hunt thrown in at the deep end, appearing on a bill which included Bill Hayley and the Comets, Gene Vincent, and an Elvis Presley beginning to take America by storm. Upon hearing Elvis for the first time, Hunt was dumbfounded by black influences in the voice of a white man. He couldn’t help but ask The King, “Why do you sing like that?”
“I wanted to know how he learned to sing like that. I was working with him in Canada and when I went to his dressing room he invited me in and we were talking about music. I said, ‘How do you get this soulful feeling that you get? It’s close to how we [black people] sing.’
“He said, ‘Well I learned it from you. And I said, ‘But how? How did you find that voice within yourself; that groove, that feeling?’ He said, ‘I used to go to black clubs, stand outside with my nose in the door and listen and listen and listen.”
It didn’t take long before Hunt was leaving a lasting impression on The Flamingos. He assumed the role of costume manager, ensuring they looked as sharp as his hero Billy Eckstine, and put his piano practice from Thornhill to good use when the band became one of the first self-contained groups to play their own instruments as well as sing.
In 1959, they appeared on national TV to perform Jump Children, their single which was used on the classic rock’n’roll film Go, Johnny, Go!. The energy and, most of all, the sheer fun of the performance remains infectious when watching back the footage today, as Hunt and Paul Wilson splinter midway through the song to dance off against each other; their feet, splits and spins blurring with what feels like dangerous velocity amid the cacophony of the horn section.
“Me and Paul, we were always good like that. He was faster than me, but I was trying!”
Hunt enjoyed the biggest success of his career with The Flamingos, as their single I Only Have Eyes For You reached number 11 in the US Billboard 100 and was ranked 157th in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
But he also endured notoriety when the band became infamous around America after their arrest for possession of marijuana on a journey from Los Angeles to Hawaii became national news. Hunt maintains he didn’t take drugs, at least not at that period of his life, but the arrest proved the final straw for him.
Resentment had already been building inside him. Cousins Zeke and Jake Carey, founding members of the band, had always acted coldly towards Hunt, who believed this was due to the fact he would not follow their lead and convert to Judaism. After moving to New York, the group collectively bought two Cadillacs, but only the Careys were allowed to drive them, even when Hunt wanted to use the cars for business, such as going to buy new clothes for the band to wear onstage.
“Whatever we wanted to do it was always no. Whatever they wanted to do was fine. It was one of those things. I love the guys. I still love them, even though they’re all dead now. I just couldn’t live with it. I knew I was good with the group.
“I said, ‘Zeke, I’m gonna leave you guys if you don’t stop pushing me around.’
“‘Where you gonna go? You can’t do nothing by yourself.’
“I said, ‘Well that’s something I have to find out for myself.’
“One day I woke up and said to myself, ‘That’s it, you’re finished.’ I didn’t even contact them, I just left. When they saw me again three or four months later, believe it or not, I had a hit record.”
The north of England
“Let me get this right…” Tommy Hunt ponders, sipping a cup of coffee in the bar of The Lion. Asking somebody how many women they’ve married and how many kids they’ve fathered is meant to be a straightforward question. With Hunt, it’s not quite so simple.
“I would say I’ve been married five times,” he eventually concludes. “I was searching for that right woman.”
He also has five children. Rick, who still lives in Chicago, was born when Hunt was just 17 to a girl whose grandmother would not allow him to see the child. Now, however, they’re in contact. “He’s as big as this room. I said to him, ‘If a tiger jumped on you he’d have a meal for the rest of his life.’” A year later, at the age of 18, Hunt got married for the first time, to a different woman, with the ceremony taking place while he was still in prison.
His other children are dotted around the world. There’s Martha and Melanie, who also live in the States, plus Tommy Jr, who lives in Canada and plays in a “heavy” band. Then there’s Victoria, his only child who lives in England, and the only child he is no longer in touch with. “She doesn’t want to know me.”
Hunt first moved to England after leaving New York and Marie Latizia in 1969 at the age of 36. Typically, it was hardly a straightforward process. He had gotten a woman named Leah pregnant – “Leah. Leah. What a girl,” he sighs — and they planned to live in Germany, where Hunt could continue working on the army bases he had so enjoyed during the spell in which he managed to come clean from cocaine.
Upon arriving in the country he discovered the agent he planned to get work through had himself moved to England. Holed up in a hotel with no money, they had to escape Germany in an almost farcical routine which involved Hunt drugging the hotel porter in order to ensure the police wouldn’t be alerted to the escapades of an American soul singer running away without having paid his bill.
We just wanted to sing, that’s all we saw: singing and the girls screaming
Once he started working in England, he became popular on the Northern Soul circuit, with hits including Crackin’ Up and Loving on the Losing Side. There is a funny juxtaposition to Hunt’s autobiography, in which he describes the glamorous venues of New York and Los Angeles with the same reverence with which he lauds Batley Working Men’s Club and Wakefield Theatre. One venue, however, stood out above all others: Wigan Casino.
“To be honest with you, the first time I went up there I didn’t want to get out the cab,” he recalls. “It looked like a dump. That’s when Russ [Winstanley, a DJ] and Mike [Walker, Wigan Casino’s manager] came out and said, ‘Come on, Tommy. Get out of that taxi and go upstairs and see what it’s all about.’
“I went in and seen all these bodies laying around. I thought it was a morgue instead of a dancehall. I said, ‘Everybody’s dead in here.’ They said, ‘No Tommy, they sleep for a minute then they get up and dance, then they sleep, then they dance.’
“I’d never seen that before in America. It was new for me but when I went on the stage and did the show, the applause I got I’d never heard that in America neither. They don’t applaud like that in America. If they did they never did for me.”
Tommy was living a life like none of us could imagine, he was the envy of all the guys
There is a cruel irony that the man who became popular by singing Loving on the Losing Side and The Work Song now finds himself living in Knottingley, West Yorkshire, with five failed marriages behind him as he continues to play shows up and down the country at the age of 85 in order to earn enough money to get by.
Like so many performers in the 1960s and 70s, he never received the royalties he should have been due from record companies, and it’s now left to his manager Gavin Webb to chase up any lost money he can try to recover.
“In those days, we didn’t have common sense,” Hunt says. “We weren’t business-like like you guys are today. We just wanted to sing, that’s all we saw: singing and the girls screaming. That was all we wanted.”
Webb later confides: “He’s one of those artists that was so close and should have just gone… bang. When he was in America he was on that point of doing it. He was working with big artists. A lot of the decisions in his personal life probably stopped that.
“I once sat in a studio with Sidney Barnes, another music legend, and he was saying, ‘When Tommy Hunt was younger, he was The Man. Tommy was living a life like none of us could imagine, he was the envy of all the guys.’”
But to rue what could have been is to miss Hunt’s greatest achievement. The rest of The Flamingos have all passed away, along with plenty of his other peers, whereas Hunt remains as defiant as ever, still singing his songs, as one of the great survivors of rock’n’roll.
A lot of faces that I grew up with are gone. I feel like an alien
“I think I’m the last of the Mohicans,” he says. “A lot of faces that I grew up with are gone. I feel like an alien.
“I’ve been down a lot. But you’ve been down. You’ve had down days. But you’ve just said to yourself, ‘Tomorrow’s another day.’ That’s what I do. I still have that same feeling.”
Tommy Hunt is the man who has seen it all, done it all, and is here to tell the tale. One of the last gunslingers who hasn’t won all of his duels yet still lives to fight another day. Those eyes which had seemed so grey when we first met are now bright and alive with a glint which belies his modest shrug as we say our goodbyes: “It’s a life, I guess.”
Photography: Lee Brown
Rob Conlon 5th May 2019