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MGM 10663; MARCH 1950

 
 

 

Ambiguity is a hallmark of a lot of great songwriters, the ability to offer up a song that has potential dual meanings without seeming like a cheap gimmick is where so many tunesmiths get a lot of their acclaim. After all, it helps your standing if each listener is free to interpret a song as they see fit and not have that assessment deemed wrong.

But while few of rock’s early songwriters were as admired as Ivory Joe Hunter, he was rarely so opaque with his meanings. Hunter’s songs usually dealt with their emotional baggage in a pretty straightforward manner, relying on plaintive sincerity to hit upon common feelings that he’d then explore with masterful understated wordplay tied together with melodic assurance that made it all seem deceptively simple and direct.

So on this one record is it possible that he radically changed his approach to feature a more ambiguous perspective… or is it just more likely that the accumulated exposure to a lifetime of hearing songs with shifting meanings have colored the way we think of all music?

Either way though it’s hard to dispute the results of what arguably may be the best composition of Ivory Joe Hunter’s long storied career.
 

 

If I Can’t Have You
Longing, yearning, hopeful, haunting… pick an outlook and Hunter has mastered it already, so it’s safe to say that virtually any song he offers up will be merely a variation on a theme. Since love is the one theme that no one ever seems to get tired of writing about, singing about or listening to it stands to reason that expressing an all-consuming emotional bond with someone is going to be used more than any other when it comes to music.

But Ivory Joe Hunter’s experiences with love thus far, at least on record, haven’t always been cause for much happiness. While he seems to have no trouble falling IN love it’s the falling OUT of love that he’s been ill-equipped to handle as he often finds himself having to deal with love gone wrong when the one he’s given his heart to winds up being a lying treacherous bitch, flagrantly cheating on him, or callously disdainful of him, or merely bored with him, all of which results in a lot of tears and melancholy tunes coming from Ivory Joe’s pen.

You’d think this could make him a little cynical when it comes to the fairer sex, maybe even resentful of their sometimes manipulative self-centered actions. If so you’d never know it from listening to him, for he rarely expresses anger, frustration or even mild irritation with their wicked ways, choosing instead to softly bemoan his fate without protest, seemingly resigned to the fact he’s unlucky in love if not altogether cursed.

While this might make him either a gullible sap or a hopeful optimist, what it didn’t make him was a typical rocker wherein the general attitude when it came to relationships was often less about romance and more about conquest… by both men AND women, or have you forgotten Chubby Newsom’s frequent calculated seductions?

Yet Hunter was really good at expressing these more conflicted, insecure feelings that guys like Wynonie Harris would be at pains to honestly acknowledge. Despite Hunter’s hulking 6’4” frame he was a softie at heart, a teddy bear looking for hugs rather than a grizzly bear looking for prey.

That can be a tough thing to convey at times, especially in rock, since it requires dropping your guard and opening your heart. But if done well, if the words and the feelings behind them are honest and heartfelt and if they’re tied to an effortless dream-like melody like I Need You So, then… well, then you have a record that is as guileless and touching as anything you’re likely to encounter.

Or is it?
 


 
 

To Keep Me Happy
Not to keep you hanging on the larger premise of ambiguity here even longer, but to delve into it properly first requires us to look at the “more likely” perspective that Hunter is using here, which is to take the lyrics at face value.

I Need You So opens with Hunter laying down a stuttering melodic lead-in that seems apprehensive in nature, as if he’s worried about what he hopes to find waiting for him might not actually be there behind the door as he walks in.

The lyrics match this mood beautifully, keeping with Ivory Joe’s wary outlook on life which comes from having been burned so often in the past.

By the sounds of it they’re already past those first giddy moments of being swept away by one another when such underlying thoughts might be more appropriate. They’re living together, or so it’s implied, and from what he tells us she’s given him absolutely no reason to fear that her love for him isn’t every bit as strong as his feelings for her.

Any nagging doubts he has about their bond comes across as nothing more than the insecurity of someone who considers himself lucky to have gotten a girl so perfect for him and thus in the back of his mind feels that luck can’t possibly hold out forever.

Hunter is mesmerizing in his delivery, the ache in his voice as he longs to see her walk through the door, the evident joy as he recounts being with her and the way he suggests the almost idealistic circumstances of his existence as a result of their union would be bordering on sappy if he weren’t so disarming in his sincerity.

Of course it’s helped greatly by one of the most instantly captivating melodies ever put to wax, a music box motif that is fragile and lovingly caressed with each note of his piano and the delicate horns that paint the picture of domestic tranquility.

Unless… unless they show something else entirely in which case… well, in which case it might actually be even better, though that would mean it’s no longer the perfect song to play for the first dance at a wedding the way it was shaping up to be.
 


 

I Miss Them Nightly
Let’s go back for a moment and recount Hunter’s long track record as the the founding member of rock’s lonely heart’s club band. Don’t forget that this is the same guy who on the heartless Landlord Blues found out over breakfast one morning that his wife was cheating on him with the owner of their apartment and he continued eating his grapefruit in silence, blinking away tears.

This is also the singer who was audibly choked up while singing Waiting In Vain, pining away for the girl of his dreams and it’s the same cat whose insecurities upon getting said girl later caused the breakup of that relationship as detailed in Jealous Heart, both huge hits for Hunter which led him to be courted by aspiring major label MGM when his King Records contract was up at the end of 1949.

In other words, confident, self-assured and contented were words that were usually pretty foreign to Ivory Joe’s experience.

So by that measure – if your cynicism subverts your faith in his declarations of love everlasting here – then it’s easy to see how ELSE you may take the story of I Need You So… one that finds a lovelorn Hunter – stick with me here – paying for a lady’s company, either directly through her pimp, or if you blanch at such seedy activities then you can merely chalk it up to her playing him herself as she spends a night or two a week with him to have access to his bank account while she shacks up the rest of the week with various other male suitors with less puritanical aims than Ivory Joe’s Valentine Day’s card come to life.

In truth the song works equally well in both scenarios. In the latter, a far more jaded and lurid dime novel plot for sure, he’s singing to her from his apartment on one of the night’s she’s not going to be stopping by because she’s straddling some other fella’s hips across town. She may not even be hiding it, chances are she wouldn’t be, Ivory Joe being just one of many willing partners on her dance card. She goes out with all of them, spreading her love around equally, getting what she can from each and in Ivory Joe’s case he’s not angry about having to share her, but rather hurt by the fact that she can’t see he’s different than the rest because he really and truly cares for her.

Tell me that lines like “I lie awake to hear your knock upon the door” doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot more sense in this B-movie plot than it does if they were a happily married couple, unless she was a nurse on the night shift who forgot her keys at the hospital all the time.

But the thing is, Hunter’s emotionally naked yearning for her is no less poignant in this rendition… in fact, it may be even more heart-wrenching to listen to because you know he’s just too trusting and innocent to handle a cruel and unforgiving world such as ours.
 

When Day Is Done
Songs of course had always utilized some form of lyrical interpretation, dual meanings and ambiguity, those weren’t rock innovations by any means, but rock tended to dial up the cynicism in the process which laid the varying interpretations in stark relief.

I Need You So could’ve render these questions moot had they given this a more sharp-edged musical backing. Even without adding more uncertainty to the mix greatness is often achieved through tension – one element working against another – and so it’s at least worth considering that such a tactic if done right could’ve made this so powerful no matter which view on the story you took that it would’ve risked melting the record on the turntable before it got done playing.

Maybe that’s why they chose not to give it slightly more edgy accompaniment via some sharp electric guitar licks or crackling drums in the turnaround, or most promisingly a grittier horn section led by Budd Johnson’s tenor sax rather than letting the trumpet and alto take center stage.

Nitpicking, I know, because what they give us instead creates such a fragile mood that you can envision it all collapsing if so much as one more emphatic note was offered up.
 


 

In the end though audiences either never suspected anything was amiss in his declarations of love, or if they did think he was being a total sap for letting himself be used once more they still couldn’t get enough of it as this became his second chart topper in his first three tries for MGM, in the process establishing Hunter as the undisputed king of the hopelessly love-struck ballad.

Or the lovelorn ballad. Take your pick.

Whether its ambiguity is intentional or circumstantial and whether you’re a cynic or an idealist, the record is equally gripping whichever way you choose to take it and stands as an enduring monument to the delicate art of song craft from an absolute master of the form.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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