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MGM 11195; MARCH 1952



It was just a B-side pulled to give the label a song to pair with a hastily recorded cover of a song by their current biggest star, but as if he needed any further evidence as to his growing irrelevance, it had to be bittersweet for Ivory Joe Hunter to realize that not long ago HE seemed to be MGM’s biggest star.

Such is the music biz, where you are often only as good as your last record.

In Hunter’s case the view was he was never going to be as good as his last, last, last (x 11) record and so they even coaxed him into cutting this, a knock-off of his past glories, hoping that it might result in the same response from two years earlier… what must’ve seemed like another lifetime ago.


Each Night I Pray
It’s always interesting to see the rather obscure songs that rock artists pull out of their own record collection from time to time.

Like most people, future stars were once just young fans and the music they experienced in their formative years left an indelible impression on them. For Elvis Presley, whose immersion in music defined the shy dreamer for eternity, one guy he clearly admired as much as anyone was Ivory Joe Hunter.

A lot was made out of their getting together at Graceland in 1957 where the host (a white kid from deep in the American south in an era of vile racial segregation no less) showed Hunter every courtesy, honored to have such a great artist in his home as they sat side by side at the piano and played music together.

Asking Hunter if he had any songs for him, Ivory Joe gave him My Wish Came True and the surprisingly uptempo Ain’t That Loving You Baby, giving Elvis two more Top Twenty entries to add to his growing list of hits.

Whether it was gratitude for the generosity in the reception he received that day in Memphis, or if you’re more cynical and see only a mercenary shrewdness after having gotten a windfall in royalties for Presley’s earlier recording of I Need You So, the #1 hit of Hunter’s from 1950 that today’s song borrows liberally from, there’s no debate that two singers genuinely hit it off, connected by music that coursed through their veins.

In 1971 Presley returned to Hunter’s catalog for a very tender and heartfelt version of I Will Be True accompanying himself on piano at 4 in the morning after the studio had cleared out after the session. Though his voice is slightly ragged after a long day recording it’s truly one of his most effecting performances as he managed to capture every nuance of the song’s melody and poignant lyrics, imparting it with an almost unbearable earnestness that Elvis often showed through music when he let his guard down.

Ivory Joe Hunter would’ve been wise to take the same approach on the original version. Though the words are the same and Hunter’s voice has a keening sincerity to it, there’s nowhere near the gravitas in his reading, as he almost skims over the deeper meanings of the story he’s telling.

Some of this might be a side effect of the arrangement, which uses a guitar as the primary responsorial instrument and which gets more and more removed from the primary melody being carried by Hunter’s vocals. You can see they were trying for a different feel here, something distant and reflective, but while the tone of the guitar might suffice for that purpose, it doesn’t blend well with Ivory Joe’s blocky piano chords nor does it compliment his voice very well.

Then there’s the overt melodic link in the title line to his own earlier song which throws your senses. Though it’s still a lovely four note ascending refrain, when it’s being delivered by the same voice in the same halting tone it’s exceedingly hard to divorce it from the source and if that causes you to not focus on the lyrics, which are good here, or even replace them in your mind with the more familiar words from the hit from a few years back, that’s another strike against the effectiveness of the record.

By contrast Presley invested the story with a deep-seated loneliness that reveals itself in each pause and every elongated note. Whenever he drops his voice it comes across as if he’s ashamed to admit to his devotion before rising up again in almost majestic fashion to take ownership of those same feelings… and truth be told, of the song itself.

I think Ivory Joe would’ve been proud to hear his old friend’s performance had it been released at the time, but unfortunately the lesson in how it would work best came too late for MGM Records who watched this sink like a stone in a very calm lake.

Until The Day I Give Up All Hope Of You
Great artists can never be written off entirely. They have in them the ability to create moments that reach you on some level even after it seems they’d lost that magic… or at least misplaced it.

In 1971 Elvis Presley was still getting hits – and still a ways off from becoming a bloated parody going through the motions on stage – but he was already in artistic decline whether your point of reference was his Sun Years, his early meteoric rise after going to RCA, his post-Army comeback when a more mature performer emerged, or the late 1960’s version when a forsaken king reclaimed his throne.

Yet even as he sank into a morass of aimless self-indulgence – wearing a cape and gold chains large enough to anchor a boat for this session – he still had the ability to strip away the dross and deliver something aching moving when he sat down at a piano to sing a song of one of his now-forgotten idols.

In 1952 that idol was still a productive, if similarly wandering, artist in his own right. Just two years removed from his commercial peak, Hunter was now reduced to covering his labelmate Hank Williams on I’m Sorry For You My Friend, ultimately a derivative song from the country star which shows that he too was drawing on past glories melodically himself.

Williams himself may not have been in a commercial slump – he’d have five more #1 hits from this point forward – but most of those would be posthumous as he died just nine months later. Meanwhile Presley after cutting I Will Be True hung on for another six years but a few inspired performances aside, his legacy doesn’t rest on anything he did from that point forward.

Though you wouldn’t guess it from this single, it turns out Ivory Joe Hunter had the best professional future of any of them, as he’d rebound with arguably his strongest run as an artist in the mid-1950’s, scoring a flurry of hits while releasing his most consistently rewarding material on Atlantic.

At a time when such a prospect seemed far-fetched, it’s hard to imagine him thinking many of his greatest achievements lay ahead of him. But like we said you can’t ever give up on great artists, especially when they haven’t yet given up on themselves, and so when listening to him yearningly sing, “When I open my door I’ll find you there”, you wonder if maybe he too somehow sensed his best days were still to come.


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