MGM 11378; NOVEMBER 1952



Here’s a song most notable for showing just why Ivory Joe Hunter continues to be intriguing to us, despite lengthy departures from the music we want to hear out of him, but also shows why he remains his own worse enemy when it comes to capturing anyone’s sustained attention.

As an artist he is versatile, hard-working and committed to his craft as a skilled writer, pianist and singer.

As a judge of the marketplace he is utterly clueless, possibly delusional and certainly ill-equipped to make his own decisions without the constant supervision of a sarcastic 15 year old to snidely put him in his place each time he steps out of line or loses his way.


What Time Is It?
When it comes to potential there is a lot about this song to like, most notably that it’s got a really nice groove to it, something to keep your shoulders moving with a low-key swagger laying just under the surface.

As a prospective inducement to the long-neglected rock audience whose support made him enough of a success that he’d get courted by a major label, it’s just another example of Ivory Joe Hunter not going nearly far enough to suit our tastes.

All of which means Music Before Dawn is at once a record that could only realistically appeal to our constituency in the manner that might get him a hit out of it, yet at the same time ensures he won’t fully win us over because of his conscious efforts to pull back on the way he delivers it so as not to upset those he still feels might be curious to hear him in passing.

Either that or he thinks that jazz-combo singles actually have sales potential in 1952, in which case he might be too far gone to salvage.

The thing is, even though this is built on 1940’s jazz mindsets with its subdued sax riff, the brighter and livelier responses by the other horns and topped off by Hunter’s own piano workouts, the model he uses is perfectly suited to early Fifties rock ‘n’ roll with just a few simple adjustments.

Not surprisingly the first – and really only mandatory – move, would be to ditch the horns he’s using and replace them with more saxophones, thereby letting them trade off one another during the main groove sections of the song with the kind of gritty back and forth that would almost compel you to get out on the floor to shake your hips.

That change would then lead to more powerful interludes, for even as they boost the energy here as the trumpets are razzing the sax, it does so in a way that gets a little too shrill for its own good. Instead of being suggestive, it’s merely fidgety.

The extended soloing break which follows does in fact feature a saxophone but it’s a mellower sax that ratchets down the intensity, both from what we’ve already heard, but also from what this requires to take it to the next level.

Though it ramps things up considerably by the end, it never gets as far gone as it should because of how subdued it was to start with. After all, there’s only so far you can travel in a short distance so you need to launch yourself into it a lot better than this does to make sure you’re far enough along to hit maximum speed by the end. When Hunter takes over with his own solo he suffers from the same fate, showing off his dexterity on the keys rather than his power and intensity.

Yet that initial groove itself is so well crafted, if decidedly simple, that you leave this feeling both disappointed for what it might’ve been, and optimistic that with another spin maybe the components will seem more powerful with somewhat lowered expectations a second time around.

Maybe it will at that, but a great rock instrumental never should have to rely on compromised outlooks to earn your praise.

Wake Up Call
So many of Ivory Joe Hunter’s problems come back to the decision to choose MGM as his home in late 1949 after a string of hits in a variety of stylistic approaches, most of which he wrote himself, made him such a hot property. We know why he did so, they were a budding major label with deeper pockets and potentially greater inroads to cross-market appeal, but it’s not hard to see why that almost ensured he wasn’t going to succeed in the long term, as he had with King Records before that and will again once he gets to Atlantic.

Both of those labels, while willing to indulge in the lighter offerings he frequently favored, had enough awareness of the rock market to not tolerate it without better returns, and they had the organization skills to make sure when he turned back to rock it was with the right people around him to get the best out of his ideas in that realm.

By contrast there’s nobody at MGM to encourage Hunter to move further towards rock in the studio, even when he brings in a song with a lot of potential in that area like Music Before Dawn. Their producers weren’t attuned to rock ‘n’ roll and thus could offer no competent suggestions, exert no psychological pressure, and had no taste or experience to know when something hit the mark or when it still fell a little short.

The changes required to give this song the impact it was capable of delivering were exceedingly simple, something any kid who bought rock ‘n’ roll in 1952 could’ve told you in a matter of seconds. Hell, they could’ve conceivably done it without even replacing the horn section altogether, just demand the parts get played with more assertiveness… and say the same to Ivory Joe when it came time for his solo. But the ones in the studio with him not only didn’t understand this, they weren’t the kind to insist upon anything so forcefully.

But we on the other hand would’ve had no such qualms and should the musicians resist, lock the doors and tell them the only way they were getting out was to play loud enough to break them down. After a day or two without food or drink my guess is they’d have had no problem delivering the kind of performance with this same song that would’ve made rock fans salivate.

As it stands now though, while it’s still better than most of what we’ve heard from Hunter as of late, it’s not good enough to be the solution to his problems, which only means those problems will continue and since the people in charge of the label aren’t getting any younger or more hip, they might even get worse.


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