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MGM 10578; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

When debating the top rock artist of the 1940’s we’ve essentially declared it a three man race between Roy Brown, who launched the genre itself; Wynonie Harris, who covered Brown’s debut and scored the first #1 hit in rock history with his rendition of that song; and Amos Milburn who scored the most charted hits of any rocker during the decade with ten (two more than Brown and Harris each notched in the rock field) including two #1’s which is tied for the most of any rock act of the 1940’s.

Any one care to guess who Milburn shares that honor with?… Who also had the second most charted hits in Billboard with his rock output?… Who also plays piano, writes and sings and who is making the jump from King Records, the top indie label of the day, to MGM, an aspiring major specializing in pop which has thus far failed to make an impact in rock ‘n’ roll?

Look no further than Ivory Joe Hunter, arguably the most underrated superstar of rock’s first full ten year stretch.
 

 

I Passed A Million People
It feels a little strange saying that Hunter is historically underrated when in fact he’s probably just as well known, if not more so, than the other three candidates for rock’s top star of the Forties… primarily because by the mid-1950’s when the rest of society (read: white America) finally caught on to this music and its market suddenly grew exponentially Hunter was the only one of the four who was still just as popular, reeling off a string of hits on Atlantic Records in the mid-1950’s including one of the signature rock records of the entire decade.

So Hunter’s not exactly forgotten even if he IS underrated and the reason he’s underrated should come as no surprise to those who’ve read all of the reviews we’ve posted of his earlier work on this site, namely the fact that he’s a songwriter whose music is intentionally modest in every way. For the most part they contain no flamboyant displays of vocal or instrumental prowess and no shocking lyrical declarations… even his most notable musical impact came by incorporating mild country touches into rock ‘n’ roll, something which is historically significant and influential but hardly the type of thing that knocks you off your feet when you hear it.

Then there’s also the fact that Hunter never seemed entirely sure he was a rocker, at least not exclusively, as he’d pull even with Milburn in total number of hits released in the 1940’s rock era if we had included a pure pop offering that went Top Ten. Throw in another song which pre-dates rock ‘n’ roll by three years and he’s got more charted records released in the Forties than anyone who could claim to be a rock act.

Yet as impressive as those credentials are he’s rarely considered one of the true immortals of this era, even by us who’ve taken it upon ourselves to bring much needed attention to the pre-crossover period of rock as we approach nearly six hundred in-depth reviews of virtually every rock record that came out during this time. It seems no matter what he does he still can’t get a fair shake.

Which is why on the surface this move to a bigger pop-centric label doesn’t bode well for his chances at changing that perception. How seriously can we take him when he’s departing King Records, a label specializing in rock ‘n’ roll which remains one of the most revered independent companies in history almost three decades into the following century, so he can jump to MGM of all places, a label recently started to try and sell soundtracks associated with their primary occupation as movie studio!?!?

Surely this can’t be good for his prospects when it comes to wracking up more hits in rock ‘n’ roll or in gaining the long overdue respect for his output.

But as always seems to be the case you underestimate Ivory Joe Hunter at your own risk.
 


 

When I Lost My Baby
Now of course we know WHY he made the switch and we have to hand it to him for striking while the iron was hot. Coming off a succession of big sellers and with his two year King contract now up there was no better time to test the market to try and get either a better royalty rate, a hefty signing bonus up front or simply more honest accounting when it came to paying what he was due for both his songwriting and performing.

We don’t know for sure how much King Records ripped him off in one way or another but chances are it was something. MGM might not have been any better truthfully but the fact they were associated with a major film studio and were cultivating a classier image probably meant that he at least had good reason to believe he’d be dealt with fairly which was more than he could say if he’d stuck with Syd Nathan at King.

Furthermore though MGM had yet to prove they knew how to market to black audiences with their music (or for that matter their films), there’s a little something called upward mobility that we’re forced to consider when judging Hunter’s decision. In 1949 the number of black artists signed to major labels, even aspiring major labels, was relatively small so it stands to reason that he viewed this as a way to improve his status and boost his ego. Considering the circumstances it’s a good bet that MGM actively courted Ivory Joe because he’d not only been so successful, but had been successful without resorting to shock tactics like so many other rockers had.

Yes, we here in the rock community tend to LIKE shock tactics when it comes to musical output, but major labels, aspiring or not, seem to prefer artists who can tone down their baser instincts and incorporate pop touches, not to mention who’ve worked well with jazz sidemen (Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges) and country figures (Owen Bradley) without it negatively impacting his own creative vision. Surely MGM was thinking that Hunter might be the just the guy who could give them a foot in the rock door but at the same time could perhaps be their answer to Nat Cole who was now scoring pop hits for fellow Los Angeles aspiring major label, Capitol.

So whatever financial incentives the deal contained Ivory Joe Hunter and MGM Records both entered into this two year partnership with high hopes. Luckily for MGM Hunter also entered into the deal with a stockpile of great songs ready to be recorded, starting with I Almost Lost My Mind, which got the pairing off to a rousing start when it topped the charts in early 1950, but which also served as Hunter’s most enduring composition in a career which saw him pen more than 2,500 songs.
 


 
 

I Had My Fortune Read
Hunter and MGM wasted little time once the deal was cut as he entered a New York studio on October 21st for a double session, emerging with three hits among the eight songs recorded, two of which went to #1. It’s fair to say the label got their money’s worth before the ink was even dry on the contract.

In the past when studying Hunter’s first few releases on King after he signed with them in the fall of 1947 we stated that many of those early songs that comprised his output throughout 1948 seemed to be not fully polished, most likely because he was pressed for time because of the impending recording ban set to begin at the start of 1948. We also said that over that next year when he was unable to record Hunter spent his time writing and more importantly working out those compositions on the road, fine-tuning them and getting them ready for their commercial unveiling.

Sure enough when he returned to the studio in 1949 the hits flowed like water and his songwriting ability, which we’d been touting without too much first hand evidence to back up the claims of how good he was, began to stand out.

But on I Almost Lost My Mind he outdoes himself. The song is as artfully put together as anything we’ve come across in rock to date, starting with one of the most alluring and memorable melodies of all-time.

This would be Hunter’s most covered song in his catalog with Pat Boone most famously scoring a #1 pop hit five years down the road with it when he was still trying to convince people he was a legitimate rock artist. But it wasn’t only the straight remakes of this song that made it so ubiquitous, where other artists turned in their own interpretation of the same exact tune, but rather the real evidence as to how enduring this song was was seen by how many thinly disguised variations of it turned up in the next few years. From instrumentals (Jimmy and Walter’s harmonica rendition they called Easy which was one of Sun Records first releases) to re-written vocal take-offs on it (The Teen Queens with My Heart’s Desire in 1956), the melody was appropriated shamelessly for countless records over the following decade.

Hunter himself would retool this down the road in fact – though much better than the other rip-off artists – after Boone scored with this and Ivory Joe realized that he could milk another hit out of its framework and did just that by writing Since I Met You Baby, which would become his most memorable hit thanks to it being released after the rock crossover had opened up the audience tenfold.

In other words, the slow, dreamy melody had legs and Hunter showcases them flawlessly here, giving it plenty of room to breathe within the arrangement. His piano sets a contemplative mood and they bolster the song with the most haunting trumpet part imaginable courtesy of Taft Jordan, answering Hunter’s mournful vocals and playing in almost hushed reverence.

It’s all delicately framed yet doesn’t come across as light or wimpy in any way. Hunter’s piano fills are exquisitely chosen with the prancing subtle rhythm behind him sounding like a heart slowly beating before falling asleep while the trumpet never overstays its welcome, just dropping in tastefully and pulling back so discreetly that you almost don’t notice he’s left again.
 

My Head Is In A Spin
Hunter’s stock in trade were always these kinds of gentle lullaby-esque melodies but there have been times when the lyrics – for whatever reason – came up a little short. Snapshots rather than technicolor films.

Not so here. I Almost Lost My Mind is simple but direct, his voice lending credence to his… let’s call it “dismay” over his (latest) breakup.

It has to be hard to plow the same lyrical ground so often and in music falling in and out of love remain two of the most common subjects and unless you’re to create full-blown characters, a relationship backstory and then cite specific examples of the behaviors that caused you to either fall for the person in question or dump them – or have them dump you – then you’re stuck working in generalities.

Now the fact that most listeners have been in love and had their hearts broken at some point in their lives does make it easier to connect with them if the sentiments you voice are reasonably accurate but you can wear out your thesaurus searching for new words for “hurt” or “cry”. But here Hunter’s creativity shines through with striking details that are incredibly memorable… going to see a gypsy for instance in a desperate last-ditch attempt at seeing if the relationship is worth salvaging.

Because of these kinds of vivid scenes he paints you get a very real sense of his internal conflict without him breaking down in sobs or ever taking it out on the girl who decided to move on. His line about passing a million people without actually seeing any of them because he’s so lost in his own thoughts is something everyone has done at one time or another, yet it’s phrased so poignantly that the depth of its meaning becomes far more apparent. I Almost Lost My Mind catches him at that precise moment when he realizes that the relationship is over but it hasn’t quite sunk in yet, when your emotions swing back and forth between hope and despair, between incredulity and resignation.

His voice swells as he touches on each new emotion laying under the surface, modulating to keep himself under control and to keep each line in check with the melody. It’s as good as we’ve heard him sound – utterly believable yet not pandering to us just to gain our sympathy. He’s not so much singing TO us as he is ruminating to himself in something of a daze which we just happen to overhear.

We feel for the character in every way, in part because it’s so well written but also because we’ve come to know and like Ivory Joe himself over the past few years. Because of that shared history with him and his previous affairs of the heart we know he’ll be alright in the end, if only because Hunter has been through this kind of thing before and has proven to be resilient. But just to be sure that we’re not worrying over him too much he tosses in a spoken faux ad-lib at the end, telling her “Bye baby” which puts him back on the road to emotional recovery, making the perfect farewell to the girl in question but also the record itself.


 

I Can Tell You People…
All of this – the voice, the words, the melody, the instrumental touches – mesh so perfectly that it seems organic by nature, a moment captured in the wild rather than conceived in a sterile environment.

Any thought that Ivory Joe Hunter had been merely the beneficiary of a strong label like King when it came to establishing him as a force on the rock scene goes out the window with this. If anything it demonstrates the charms of Hunter are what helped establish that label when making the move into rock back then and now he’s doing the same for MGM, giving them immediate credibility with his first effort.

Any way you slice it I Almost Lost My Mind is a perfect record, arguably the best rock ballad to emerge from the 1940’s and proof that Ivory Joe Hunter, a big name historically who began rather sluggishly in the rock field, was worth sticking with all along.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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