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KING 4314; SEPTEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

Few rock artists heading down the home stretch of 1949 could compete with the commercial success of Ivory Joe Hunter, the esteemed songwriter, pianist and singer who’d notched an impressive nine hits in his career to date.

At the same time however few rock artists were as endlessly frustrating with what they chose to record as Ivory Joe Hunter, an easygoing man by nature whose music often reflected this placid demeanor, which in rock circles came across as being decidedly bland at times, even though it was usually exceedingly well-done.

Everything about him seemed at odds with rock’s growing image as a restless, sometimes aggressively rebellious, form of music. Whereas rock generally rewarded the raucous sounds of honking saxes, stomping backbeats and increasingly as of late some slashing guitars, Hunter played a decidedly melodic piano. While much of the biggest noisemakers in establishing rock’s popularity were in fact noisy themselves, Ivory Joe’s hits were primarily tranquil ballads. And for a music whose attitude was largely centered around the edict Take Shit From Nobody… Hunter by contrast took it from everybody and generally smiled while doing so.

He was rock’s ultimate pacifist it seemed, a mild mannered craftsman who never raised his voice, never forced his music upon you and insisted you listen. Yet people listened all the same which put him at odds with the style’s dominant image and found him always on the verge of having his credentials questioned.

So here, perhaps in an effort to remove doubts that he did indeed belong on the roster of rock ‘n’ rollers, King Records released a vibrant performance from their star… something seemingly up to date with the recent developments in rock which constantly preached pushing the tempo and declaring your allegiance to the music in no uncertain terms.

Only one thing about it was odd though… the song itself had been cut by Hunter two whole years earlier!
 

 

You’ll Find My Boogie Is The Best
I suppose you could say the fact this fit into the current landscape showed that Ivory Joe Hunter had been ahead of his time all along. You could also say that it showed that King Records, who sat on this cut for two whole years was completely oblivious to the growing trend in black music during the time which was increasingly demanding these types of songs, IE. rock ‘n’ roll.

This in fact had been the very first song he laid down upon entering the studio November 18, 1947 for a marathon double session right after signing with King. With so much to choose from they instead went about issuing his more typical output, the lazy wistful ballads sung with a warm tone and hint of resignation in his voice, all of which seemed to place him outside the rock community as it grew from just a handful of artists in late 1947 to an onslaught of acts by mid-1949. Yet as stated Hunter connected with many of these subdued performances anyway and he did so by appealing to the same audience that were propelling rock to the top of the charts.

On one hand this perhaps isn’t so surprising, as rock fans need to take a breather every so often in between heart-attack inducing sax instrumentals and raving gospel-fueled vocal songs boasting of all sorts of gleeful debauchery. Those craving such wild songs may be a bunch of hoodlums, harlots and assorted moral degenerates but even such lowlifes aren’t immune to more tender sentiments and occasionally they too need an outlet to voice expressions of doubt and uncertainty in between their bouts of drunken brawling, sexual conquests and stints in the local penitentiary. As a result ballads by The Orioles, and occasionally a few sides by Roy Brown or Andrew Tibbs, and of course Ivory Joe Hunter proved to be welcome respites from the constant barrage of storming rockers.

That all makes sense and it’d be hard to argue with the quality of songs like Pretty Mama Blues or to find fault with the aching fragility of Waiting In Vain even if you wanted to.

But on the other hand the more Hunter veered in that direction and the more successful he became with it the more he was at risk for being permanently shuttled off to the pop realm and taking his place alongside other mellow black balladeers like Nat “King” Cole and Billy Eckstine who were smoothed out for white pop consumption.

That’s why it was so refreshing to hear him come out with All States Boogie, an energetic performance instrumentally AND vocally wherein Ivory Joe finds a groove and settles in with absolute comfort as if it was his most natural inclination. That he’d done it so early in rock’s lifespan showed that he hadn’t been avoiding rolling his sleeves up and cutting loose out of choice in the years since, but rather he’d done so out of the demands of commercialism when his lighter side found favor and necessitated him recording more of the same.
 


 

We’ll Rock The Joint Tonight
As grateful as we are to hear Hunter step up the pace and show some actual spirit and verve both in his vocals and pounding the piano, that doesn’t mean a two year old performance written and recorded before rock had even scored its first hit is going to be completely up to date in September 1949. In fact it has a few drawbacks that can’t help but undercut its promise just a bit.

For one thing this had been cut in Nashville which at the time was still something of the hinterlands when it came to the studio scene. Though the pieces were already in place for the ensuing country music takeover of the region they hadn’t quite gotten a firm foothold in the business and the musicians he’s working with are a somewhat odd lot. One of the participants on this record in fact was Owen Bradley, still drawing paychecks as a session musician but who in short order would go on to make a name for himself as one of country music’s top producers, legendary for his work with Patsy Cline, Conway Twitty, Brenda Lee and Loretta Lynn.

It’s Bradley who takes a prominent role in this arrangement on guitar, playing what sounds almost like a steel guitar with a Hawaiian flavor. It doesn’t twang so much as shimmers, slicing through the speakers with a sharp distinctive sound. Considering that the guitar was an anomaly in rock music for the most part until early 1949 this is an interesting precedent of sorts. Though not many other rockers featured this specific tone on guitar over the years – Bill Haley, another country music refugee perhaps being the closest as he often gave solos to Billy Williamson, the Comets steel guitarist who was held over from their days as The Saddlemen.

In a way I suppose Bradley being utilized here as he is hints at the influence Hunter’s music had in bringing a country flavor to rock ‘n’ roll years before anyone else. But whether that’s a commercial sound – in 1947 or 1949 for that matter – among the rock crowd is another story. Considering that even the more enthralling guitar performances of late from Goree Carter and Pete Lewis were having trouble bending ears to the instrument, its presence on All States Boogie probably wasn’t to its benefit when it came to pulling in listeners.

That left it to the more traditional boogie instrument, the piano, on which Hunter had a sterling reputation as a live act, but on record as of late he kept his work on the keys on the modest side as befitting the types of slowed-down songs he was featuring.

Here he doesn’t quite bruise the keys in his playing but he shows how he was able to make his living early in his career as a barrelhouse pianist in clubs long before he ever stepped into a studio. His left hand lays down the driving rhythm that the song rides to the end, never in danger of shaking the speakers until they crumble, but never letting up on the intensity either. When he takes a solo mid-way through it’s nimble in its execution, quirky in its choices and entirely fitting within the context of the song, offering an unexpected change of direction that most piano players locked in a boogie trance might want to avoid for fear of breaking the spell.

What marks this as a bit unusual is that despite having a full fuselage of a horn section on this session they sit this song out altogether, another way it ties itself in more with the country-rock excursions of future years which usually steadfastly avoided brass instruments altogether. Still, it’d would have been nice to hear some horns here even if it had been in just a minor role as an accent piece as their inclusion might’ve done wonders for bridging the gap between the two mindsets. Their absence also probably distanced All States Boogie even further from the rock fan’s sensibilities which wound up killing its chances in the marketplace in spite of the commercial hot streak Hunter was riding at the time.
 


 
 

I Know You’ll Agree With The Rest
We haven’t even mentioned Ivory Joe the vocalist yet, someone whose docile approach on a succession of ballads probably had a good many people wondering if his vocal chords had the strength and flexibility to handle something that wasn’t confined to the slow lane.

So it’s good to report that Hunter’s voice carries this well, still every bit as engaging as his more usual fare even as he shifts tactics. He always was a deceptively effective singer whose phrasing and tone never was shocking in what they offered but always revealed the workings of his mind trapped behind that typically stoic façade. Here he comes across as buoyant and a little frivolous even to be honest, which presents a different side to his personality which is most welcome for someone who had a tendency to appear bland even on his best work.

Considering when it was cut this could just be reflective of his general excitement in getting a fresh start with an increasingly strong record label after Hunter’s ordeals at trying to simultaneously write, play and sing his own material while also running the sessions, pressing the records and shipping them to distributors as he chased overdue creditors for payment as the head of his own record company, Pacific, which he shuttered upon signing with King.

It could also be a way to get off on a good foot with these musicians, whom he’d never worked with before, as something a little bouncy and carefree would loosen them all up and get them in the right frame of mind for tackling eight songs in a marathon six hour session. If so that speaks well of Hunter’s respect for the recording process, something he was held in high regard for over his career.

As for what he’s singing on All States Boogie however, it doesn’t quite live up to our expectations and is actually fairly trite, albeit in a somewhat endearing way.
 

 
The gist of the song is that he’s celebrating the spirit of making engaging music for receptive audiences. It probably goes without saying much of the time but the fact is it IS fun to create something that gets people to shake off their cares for awhile as they get together to listen or to dance to what these guys do for a living. I mean, how many professions are there where at the end of your work you not only get paid for your efforts but applauded for them?

That’s the perspective he’s tapping into here, paying homage to others who’ve gotten renown for playing boogies – name dropping Freddy Slack for one – and then stating that HIS boogie is something bound to appreciated in any region – hence the title – but also, considering the amalgam of musical styles within, appreciated by fans of different types of music as well.

From there he just expounds on this assessment, though in ways which show that his primary concern was musical, not lyrical, as he suggests he saw “a cat boogieing with a mouse” a neat twist on words maybe, until you realize he chose this because it rhymes with “south”. Also someone needs to explain how a bulldog also finds its way to this dance, which might indicate it was held next to a veterinarian’s office or something.

It picks up in the end stretch as he uses a stop time rhythmic pattern to lay down the goals of the musicians on songs like this in pretty simple but enduring terms.

Make them jump and shout? Check. Keep them in the groove? Check. Get them to clap their hands? Check.

I think you’ll find that most bands in most styles in most years have that same basic game plan each night and Hunter was no exception in that regard. Though All States Boogie is not something that was going to make too deep of an impression on the average rock consumer in 1949 thanks to the unusual sound textures gotten from the instrumental support, not to mention being a few years behind the curve in many ways, it did show that Ivory Joe had more of a pulse than it sometimes might have seemed.

That in of itself was cause for celebration I guess.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Ivory Joe Hunter for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)