Ivory Joe Hunter (Born 10/10/1914, Died 08/11/1974)
|Although Ray Charles gets justified credit for the merging of R&B with the sounds of C&W, Ivory Joe had been sneaking elements of country into his ballads and jump blues as far back as the 1940s.
What also set Hunter (the man Arnold Shaw described as "The big Texan with the owl eyes and Cheshire-cat smile") apart from many of his contemporaries was that in his heyday in the 50s, he was selling as many records to the white audience as well as the black - and this despite the fact that much of his material was hijacked by those aiming specifically at the pop charts.
Having grown up in a large and musically active family, Ivory Joe started off life as a Fats Waller style boogie pianist, scoring a #1 R&B hit with 'Pretty Baby Blues' - prior to that, he had already come of age during the Depression, playing carnivals and tent shows and wherever else he could get a gig. Ever the entrepreneur, Hunter set up and recorded on his own label (Pacific) but by 1947 he was with King records and he scored a string of successes with mainly self penned material such as 'Guess Who' and 'Landlord Blues'. Throughout this period, he knocked out boogie woogie with the best of them, but on songs such as 'Jealous Heart' he embraced country many years before the likes of Ray Charles, Solomon Burke or even Fats Domino.
When Hunter moved to MGM in 1949/50, he scored another big hit with 'Almost Lost My Mind' (covered for the white market by Floyd Tillman), one of two or three truly great recordings which were to become his signature tunes - it was a song still drenched in the blues but which sounded pretty country for its time. 'S.P. Blues' and 'I Need You So' (a lovely ballad) were solid follow-ups and in 1954 Hunter made the move to the Atlantic label - it was here he had his greatest commercial successes. Early on, 'A Tear Fell' and 'You Mean Everything To Me' were modest sellers but then in 1956 'Since I Met You Baby' hit both the R&B (#1) and pop (#12) charts. Atlantic was by now expert in accentuating what sold without usually diluting the talent on show and in Hunter's case the label emphasised Hunter's velvety country vocals and added slick orchestral and choral arrangements (you can't tell the Primer that these weren't the blueprint for Ray Charles' 60s country explorations!). Ironically enough, the formula didn't generate that many more big hits, although releases such as 'Empty Arms', 'Yes I Want You' and 'Love Is A Hurting Game' all hit the R&B charts and dented the lower reaches of the pop charts. All the great Atlantic recordings can be found on the compilation "Since I Met You Baby: The Best Of Ivory Joe Hunter".
Throughout the 60s and 70s, Ivory Joe recorded extensively for a variety of labels, including Dot (his last real pop hit 'City Lights'), Vee Jay, Capitol, Paramount and Strand. Throughout this period, his talent remained undiminished but his days as a hit maker seemed well and truly over - the material is still worth hearing however.
Hunter was a fine pianist and writer and a truly exceptional singer, a stylist who influenced many who followed and achieved far higher profiles. It is difficult to imagine the forages into country which were taken by artists as diverse as Solomon Burke, Ray Charles, Fats Domino and Chuck Willis without the pioneering work of Hunter.
Anyone who has a taste for these artists will not be disappointed by the Razor and Tie release "Since I Met You Baby: The Best Of Ivory Joe Hunter". 25 tracks of sublime material from the MGM and Atlantic years, beginning with 'Almost Lost My Mind' (1949) through to the 1958 Atlantic recordings of 'I Just Want To Love You' and 'You Flip Me Baby'. Criminally, it's now unavailable in the UK. Those who want more should try to get hold of the King release "Sings 16 Of His Greatest Hits" which is more boogie orientated and included the aforementioned King hits such as 'Guess Who' and 'Landlord Blues'.
When Ivory Joe died of lung cancer in 1974, he also died broke, despite his catalogue of hits and writing credits on around 2,500 songs. Medical bills alone were enough to kill off the spirit almost as thoroughly as the cancer which eventually did. At least he got a tribute he deserved when, on October 1st, 1974, he enjoyed a last hurrah with a benefit at the Grand Ole Oprey House which featured, amongst others, George Jones, Tammy Wynette and Isaac Hayes - Ivory Joe was loved throughout a diverse music industry; and his impact as both stylist and songwriter on R&B, country and pop was considerable.