BIOGRAPHY AND DISCOGRAPHY

 


One of the most prolific singer/songwriters in rock history whose career as a musician lasted four decades (1933-1974), the bulk of which found him as a key figure in the birth and subsequent evolution of rock during its first fifteen years.

One of fourteen children, he was christened Ivory Joe at birth giving him a natural affinity for the piano which he learned as a child. His musical family included his preacher father who played guitar, his mother and sisters who sang gospel while his nine brothers included other pianists and drummers. In 1933 Hunter was first recorded singing “Stagolee” for folklorist John Lomax on one of his national tours collecting material for The Library Of Congress, describing Hunter as an outstanding barrelhouse pianist.

After years singing and playing clubs in Texas Hunter moved to the West Coast where he started his own record label, Ivory, then later another called Pacific, making him among the few artists, and fewer still who were black, that oversaw their own company at the time. He scored his first hit however in 1945 on Exclusive with “Blues At Sunrise”, a song which B.B. King later sang in an audition to secure his first job on radio.

Hunter gave up his labels (though got his first chart topper with one release on Pacific) and signed with growing independent powerhouse King Records out of Cincinnati and recorded in a variety of styles from jazz to cocktail blues before he began hitting the charts regularly with a mix of pop fare and lighter rock ‘n’ roll. His musical versatility meant he was adaptable to whatever trends were hot at the time and as rock became more popular he concentrated largely on that, though he also dabbled in combining country with rock long before anyone else.

Following eight Top Ten hits in two years Hunter left King for MGM Records where he became an even bigger star, scoring two #1 hits in his first six months on the label, one of which, “I Almost Lost My Mind”, became one of the most covered (directly and indirectly, with the melody ripped off by dozens of other songs) in rock history. Two other Top Ten hits that same year were all he could manage in his five years there and by 1954, despite cutting some of his most scorching rock sides to go along with his more typical rock ballads, he was in a prolonged commercial draught and sought a change in scenery.

Atlantic Records had become over the previous half decade the hottest and most forward-looking rock label in the business and had a reputation for steering their artists into commercial sounds while simultaneously reconnecting them with their roots. Hunter’s arrival came at a time when rock ‘n’ roll was crossing over to younger white audiences which made his re-emergence as a vital force all the more unlikely. He was now past forty years old, balding and though more than capable of delivering the beat-heavy sound that was connecting with the rapidly expanding audience, his preference was always for more mellow introspective sides.

Yet as soon as he landed with Atlantic he regained his golden touch scoring a half dozen hits over the next three years including one of the most immortal slow-dance favorites in rock history with “Since I Met You Baby”. His catalog, both past and present, was now regularly mined by other artists (often pop acts) for hits and during this time he befriended Elvis Presley, giving him two songs he’d written (“My Wish Came True” and the storming “Ain’t That Loving You, Baby”) both of which Elvis turned into Gold records.

By the early 1960’s Hunter’s time in the spotlight was largely over though he recorded sides for a handful of big labels, including Capitol, Vee-Jay, Stax and Goldwax, before resuming his explorations into country music as other black rock artists such as Ray Charles and Solomon Burke, both of whom were inspired by Hunter, had done to great effect over the previous few years.

Though his pure country records resulted in no further hits he was a regular on The Grand Ol’ Opry and when diagnosed with lung cancer a benefit concert for him was held which included numerous country stars along with rock icons like Isaac Hayes. Soon after celebrating his sixtieth birthday in 1974 Ivory Joe Hunter passed away.

The writer of thousands of songs, Hunter’s greatest legacy is found in those compositions which touched upon almost every popular style of American music and by a decade of huge hits that helped to define one style in particular, rock ‘n’ roll.
 
 
IVORY JOE HUNTER DISCOGRAPHY (Reviews To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):
 
DON’T BE NO FOOL, FOOL
(King Records 4183; December, 1947)
A mild reprimand to a lover which can’t bridge the gap between the reasonably effective lyrics and Hunter’s polite delivery, giving every indication as to why this woman walked all over him in the first place. (3)

SAN FRANCISCO BLUES
(King Records 4183; December, 1947)
Hunter’s predilection for only scratching the surface of the emotional undercurrents even his most personal songs contain holds true here, but even holding back on the sentiments it’s done well enough with some solid playing by Ivory Joe on piano to boot. (4)

COME ON LET YOUR HAIR DOWN
(King 4208; February, 1948)
Catchy but ultimately rather shallow sing-along type offering best suited for a friendly nightcap to an evening that has long since settled down. (4)

PRETTY MAMA BLUES
(Pacific 637; Re-issued as 4-Star 1254; April, 1948)
Exquisite yearning ballad that defines the singer-songwriter style which so many would mine over the rest of the century, played and sung with understated class on its way to the top of the charts. (7)

SIESTA WITH SONNY
(King 4220; May, 1948)
Rousing instrumental performance by Hunter who shows he was indeed a good barrelhouse pianist, but the outdated horn section, while whipping up as much excitement as they’re able, means this is going to pale in comparison to the more modernized arrangements of others. (4)

WHAT DID YOU DO TO ME
(King 4232; June, 1948)
Fairly effective ballad, but simple and predictable and hardly exciting, albeit with some inventive piano playing to spice it up just enough to keep you interested. (4)

I LIKE IT
(King 4255; November, 1948)
An another reasonably pleasant, yet far too mild offering by Hunter whose delivery still doesn’t match the harsher sentiments he’s voicing here. The sound of contentment in rock, but hardly exhilarating. (3)

IN TIME
(King 4275; February, 1949)
Hardly invigorating and without the emotional wallop of many recent rock ballads this nevertheless possesses a good melody and lyrics and capped by Hunter’s breezy charm this is enjoyable enough to overcome its lack of cutting edge qualities. (5)

WAITING IN VAIN
(King 4291; May, 1949)
A beautiful, haunting song replete with weeping strings that add gravitas to Hunter’s mournful vocals, this is slightly too classy for rock but he pulls it off so deftly that you barely notice its awkward fit. (7)

THAT’S THE GAL FOR ME
(King 4291; May, 1949)
The unlikely introduction of country music elements – namely the fiddle which carries the rhythm – highlight this effervescent song and shows Hunter’s creativity finally coming to fruition. (6)

LANDLORD BLUES
(King 4306; August, 1949)
A decent concept that’s done in by Hunter’s lack of a forceful response, both lyrically and musically, leading to the question: which was more inexplicable, that they pulled this two year old recording out for an A-side or that it actually became a hit? (3)

GUESS WHO
(King 4306; August, 1949)
One of the most vulnerable expressions of desire yet shown in rock, done without any inhibitions by Hunter who keeps the message simple and heartfelt while framing it in an alluring melody that exudes class. (7)

ALL STATES BOOGIE
(King 4314; September, 1949)
A two year old track pulled out of mothballs shows Hunter had it in him to be more spry from the very beginning as this is a fairly effective uptempo workout with a slight country feel thanks to the Nashville sessionists behind him. (5)

JEALOUS HEART
(King 4314; September, 1949)
A rush job to cover a song that was hitting for another artist making it among the few of his hits that Hunter didn’t write himself, but its overall mood fits well with his recent output and seems to perfectly wrap up a period of musical yearning he’s shown of late. (6)