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KING 4208; FEBRUARY, 1948

 
 

 
The second single of Ivory Joe Hunter’s on King Records and the second straight flop. Not quite the auspicious start they all had likely envisioned.

As we’ll see as the blog unfolds over the next decade of reviews, Hunter had quite a fascinating career with numerous commercial and artistic high points, but also quite a lot of stylistic missteps and flat out duds. None of it was poorly done mind you. He was far too good a songwriter and performer for even the stuff that didn’t connect to be truly awful, so even when he missed it was with a certain amount of class.

What’s most amazing though is none of it, the highs or the lows, ever seemed to effect Hunter’s approach or his mindset. He just kept writing and recording prolifically, almost oblivious to the reaction. In a way he was the ultimate musical lab technician, constantly tweaking the formula to come up with the desired result of his clinical trials as it were. If anyone was rock’s professorial figure, it’d be Ivory Joe Hunter.
 

Come On, Let’s Get Started
Hunter’s success came in two major stages lasting a few years each, neither of which we’ve gotten to quite yet, with a notable draught in the middle.

He did have one pre-stage hit though, back in 1945 with “Blues At Sunrise”, cut with Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers which hit #3 on the Race Charts, and in a way he was still riding that hit three years later when he signed with King. A hit, even a few years old in the era before mass media proliferation put everything on a much faster track to fame – and then just as quickly to oblivion once it became over-saturated in the public’s mind – meant audiences would be more inclined to take a chance on a recognizable name again. It also meant a record company had proof of the artist’s commercial appeal when signing them and the artist themselves had a taste of the limelight and therefore hopefully a better understanding of what it took to get back there.

In the late 40’s as rock emerged the field was a barren one when it came to established hit-makers so any slight edge that a label might have in securing a hit of their own was desperately sought. King Records was in the process of establishing themselves in this field as well and for them getting Hunter was a strong move that showed they were going to be aggressive in pursuing the big time.

So that’s why it’s so surprising – and disappointing – to see their choice of material to release once he signed. His debut on the label, Don’t Be No Fool, Fool, was one of his weaker outings, something that gave the listener no reason to sit up and take notice. It was just kind of there, polite and pleasant, bouncy but not insistent about it, careful not to intrude on you for talking over it or ignoring it altogether. Not awful by any means, just rather bland and immediately forgettable.

Come On Let Your Hair Down is better than that. To start with it’s definitely catchy, featuring a neat little start and stop effect that’s more smoke and mirrors than anything but will definitely stick in your head awhile. Ivory Joe knew his way around a melody (and with its subtle passing resemblance to Bull Moose Jackson’s hit “Sneaky Pete” from the previous fall on King, he may have been hedging his bets in that regard) and Hunter was a fine piano player and both of those skills get put to better use here than on his previous effort. But usually he was a good lyricist too and that’s where he lets himself down with this one.
 

I See You Breathing So I Know You’re Not Dead
There’s a thin line between simple and simplistic and here Hunter straddles that line throughout. If you’re the type of listens mostly to the phonetic aspects of lyrics – HOW they sound being sung as opposed to WHAT is being sung – you may find this a bit more appealing and I wouldn’t fault you for it. But with Hunter what he’s singing is often the most intriguing part of his songwriting and so it’s hard not to listen to the actual words themselves and unfortunately when you do you’ll find they came straight out of the Remedial Songwriting Handbook, on sale for $1.98 in the discount rack in the lobby on your way out after the show.

All of this means it comes off sounding like a song Hunter was initially not that serious about, almost as if he was just messing around at the piano, came up with a likeable little progression, then went back to the beginning and sang whatever came to mind to fill in the blanks just so he could get it down on paper before moving on to something else. How else to explain:

Come on, let’s get groovy
Like they do in the movies

Hardly Shakespearian stuff, Ivory Joe.

Songwriters do this a lot though, inserting dummy lyrics that soon get replaced when they sit down in earnest later on to craft the story. But sometimes those initial lyrics manage to stick around, either for lack of suitable alternatives, or because they start to grow on you, or just because you never really get around to going back to polish it up, thinking it won’t be the song that’ll get used anyway. A throwaway in essence.
 

Stiff As A Board
But throwaways rarely get used as singles unless they’re hauled out of mothballs years later when the remaining material is running dry and the artist may have since departed the company, or for that matter departed the earth altogether.

Since Hunter was still very much a sentient being who was firmly ensconced at King they couldn’t have been grasping for sides already, even though this technically is the B-side (the A-side, “I Was Only Playing” is pop drek of the highest order, slow, unmelodic and should an anesthesiologist take a longer than expected lunch break before surgery you could easily use this as a sedative and hack the patient to pieces without them waking up as long as that was playing).

We can’t be sure what happened or just who it was who thought either side was a potential winner in the commercial sweepstakes, but even though Come On Let Your Hair Down seems the more promising of the two, it doesn’t stand out enough to really be worth the effort to press, ship and promote it.

Everyone involved has been gone for decades and even when they were around there was seemingly nobody who cared about the backstories behind failed singles in the earliest days of rock to ask about this stuff for posterity, so it’s all pure speculation. Who knows, maybe he worked on this for months and thought this was a surefire hit, but whatever the case it certainly sounds as if he was almost ad-libbing the lyrics, which is just as damning in the end because it got recorded and released and was expected to sell.

The more pressing question though isn’t what Hunter was thinking when he wrote it, but what King Records was thinking when they chose it to try and break him out in the marketplace after their first misstep with him from December. You may find it to be sort of a nice, inoffensive, carefree little ditty, and it is I suppose, though that’s sort of a backhanded compliment at best, but nobody in their right mind would say this had HIT written on it. That’s what makes its release – at this juncture especially – somewhat odd.
 

 

I Know You Must Have Rhythm
Oh well, despite the pedestrian, almost amateurish lyrics at times, the song retains a certain simple appeal enough to recommend it with a few reservations. The chorus is the best part (giving more credence to the idea that he had simply been fooling around at the piano and hit upon something that caught his ear); it has a sing-along quality that is captivating if nothing else and he infuses it with an easygoing vocal charm, almost giving us a new side of him – a rakish Ivory Joe Hunter if you will.

It’s almost a shame when the rest of the band comes in for a prolonged instrumental passage, well played though it may be, simply because it loses the nonchalant breezy air of a bunch of slightly toasted longtime pals hanging out at a seaside bar after closing, tossing one back and just knocking this one out at the piano for fun, everybody joining in as he calls out, “Just follow me and repeat”. In that sense while it might not be high art but when everyone there is having a ball I suppose that wouldn’t matter as much.

But that off-the-cuff quality, while somewhat enjoyable in an appropriate setting, makes it hard to commend it as a purely commercial record, as its greatest strengths are in many ways its biggest flaws. It’s all just too casual for its own good, robbing it of not just lyrical depth but musical passion and drive. Since the point of these reviews is to judge the record itself I won’t mislead you into thinking it’s better than it is. But it’s also hard to flat-out dislike something so good-natured and jovial too, so I won’t do that either.

So take it whichever way you want it served up – as decent records go it’s got some very notable weaknesses, while as failures go it’s got some definite charm, but even with that halfhearted recommendation you’d still need another 78 cents in 1948 to come away with something with a bit more than just charm the next time you’re in the record store.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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