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KING 4255; NOVEMBER, 1948



In the days of conniving independent record companies who were rarely above board with such things as songwriting and publishing royalties not many artists wound up with a lot of money for their efforts.

For many artists a recording career was a glorified version of indentured servitude, one that came with a lot of gaudy trappings (a flashy wardrobe and a new car to tour in paid by the company in lieu of royalties, plus the added acclaim of stardom itself) which were designed to take the onus off the fact that they were essentially living off their continued ability to draw audiences to their club dates based on the popularity of their records. Once the hits dried up so too did their options and they’d often leave the industry bitter and resentful, forced to work menial jobs or, at best, playing ever smaller clubs for ever dwindling audiences.

Ivory Joe Hunter was a little sharper than most however. He’d run his own record company – two of them in fact – in the mid-1940’s and so he had some insider knowledge of the way in which the bigger labels profited off their artists and of course Hunter was a prolific songwriter who was well aware of the royalties that aspect of his craft could generate.

None of this knowledge likely made him lots of money, there were still far too many crooks who wrote the recording contracts before handing them to you with a smile along with the pen to sign away your rights, but because he took such control of his own creative process – and because he was never afraid to sell his services to another company who gave him better deals – Ivory Joe Hunter was hardly an artist who was reliant on getting lucky to sustain a career in music.


No Place To Call My Home
In the course of his two years with King Records of Cincinnati, Hunter had just five true sessions. Part of this is due to the fact that for almost a full year there was a recording ban so he wasn’t legally allowed to cut records for most of 1948, but what’s interesting about his stint with King is that only two of those five sessions actually took place in Cincinnati.

I’m sure Syd Nathan wasn’t too pleased with Hunter’s independence as he cut sessions in Nashville, New York and Los Angeles, well away from the scrutiny of Nathan and his minions, but Syd could hardly find fault with the commercial results as Hunter was rapidly becoming one of his biggest and most consistent sellers with his peak still to come. Yet healthy sales or not, stylistically Hunter was a little harder to pin down. He skirted the edges of multiple genres, working with jazz sidemen one time and country musicians the next, yet always retained a strong personal identity no matter the material with his mild vocal textures and his discreet piano playing with a thematic perspective to match those two attributes, making him in some ways almost a category unto himself. Maybe that’s why rock ‘n’ roll needed him so much – to provide a counterweight to the controversy and cockiness exhibited by everybody else.

No Money, No Luck Blue came out of a long studio date in Nashville in November 1947, one of two double sessions (eight songs, rather than the standard four) that he cut during this time. A few weeks later he was in Cincy for the second of these and it’s from these marathon sessions that King would draw his singles for the next year.

Because of this need for an abundance of material the usually meticulous Hunter may not have had much time to hone the compositions to his liking, making them seem more like rough sketches at times rather than detailed master plans.

As a consequence of these rush-jobs we’re often left with half of a good idea that needed to be fleshed out more, making it frustrating for us – and I’m sure frustrating for Ivory Joe too – as we try to convey why he was a budding star and viewed as one of the more multi-talented individuals in rock without having the hard evidence to defend those impressions.

Well fear not, because with this we don’t get just half of a good record, we get… well, we get maybe two thirds of a good record… or two thirds of a really good record even.


When I Had A Good Job
As befitting the location and at least one of the backing musicians, future country producer Owen Bradley who played guitar on these sides, some of the material from this Nashville date had definite country shadings, a first for a rock act, something which Hunter typically isn’t credited with introducing as much as he should be.

But No Money, No Luck Blues has absolutely no country flavor to it and may just as well have been cut in Peoria, Pittsburgh or Podunk… provided they had a stellar horn section that could back Hunter like the three men on this side who stand out with their understated charms.

The most prominent sound – and the best passage – appears early on and is taken by Andy Goodrich on alto sax which I’m sure is something of a surprise to see for regular readers who know full well that in our long-established horn rankings the alto comes in third behind the more robust tenor and baritone saxes, and is kept from the bottom position only by the trumpet which we often want to forcibly eject from the premises any time it dares to show its face.

But not so here. Not at ALL!

The alto’s lighter tone is perfect for establishing the distant reflective aura of this record, something which is accentuated brilliantly by it being shrouded in a fair amount of echo. I’m sure this had to be intentional though I have absolutely no idea who’d be the one responsible for such a choice, whether Goodrich, or whoever was acting as producer or maybe even Hunter himself. For all I know it may have been something that nobody in the room was even fully aware of as it was being played. But the “decision” to do it, or conversely the decision not to stop it once it was heard, is ingenious as it paints a scene that appears as if it were filmed through gauze to create a hazy effect which makes Hunter’s moaning vocals all the more stark sounding.

The other horns are by no means incidental here either, as the trumpet of all things contributes a very low key addendum to these lines which make it even more haunting as they methodically go up the scale. Honestly this section spanning forty seconds after a surprisingly harsh piano intro that sounds as if it’s leading somewhere else entirely, is about as atmospheric as horns have gotten to date on the songs we’ve covered. All Ivory Joe needs to do to pull this off is simply not break the spell it creates and since he’s not a dynamic wailer or a boisterous shouter by nature, that’s all but a given.

Sure enough Hunter keeps his vocals melancholy without quite letting them veer towards maudlin. The story naturally suits this point of view as he tells us he’s broke and alone and has no prospects for finding a place to settle down and establish roots and most telling of all he confides that he really has no hope that this predicament is bound to change in time. He sells all of it with the proper amount of dejection, letting his words ride on the measured sigh he delivers them with, stretching them our for emphasis but not to show off his honeyed tones by any means. You feel for him because he’s not begging for sympathy, just merely stating facts and letting the music subtly work on our emotions.


Don’t Give All Your Money To Your Friends
This is Hunter the craftsman at work, establishing a very vivid scene with a minimum of sweat and strain. It appears effortless because he’s mostly content to lay back and let the arrangement frame the picture for him so that he’s just left to fill in the colors.

But as we approach the second minute the desolate arrangement has no choice but to change tactics a little and does so by having the alto step back and let the trumpet take over.

No, it doesn’t ruin things by any means, as I’m sure you were expecting, for Sonny Turner plays with the proper amount of restraint, never trying to overwhelm the sentiments so it actually works in that regard but it just doesn’t captivate you nearly as much as that first section. The pace also gets quickened ever so slightly which again certainly makes sense on paper, you want to shift things just enough to give a sense of forward momentum after all, but in doing so you let out some of the air in the baited breath effect of the earlier part. To compensate for this Hunter’s piano is forced to move into some of the voids left behind and when the drums kick in as this part wraps up the spell you were under breaks and it starts to get predictable, almost routine by contrast to what preceded it.

Yet the thing is it FITS the song just fine, as do Hunter’s lyrics during that second movement which finds him recounting the transition from helping friends in need to seeking assistance from those same friends himself who turn a cold shoulder to him and his troubles. All of this is really well crafted but we’ve already heard what is sure to be the most aurally captivating parts and so instead of being drawn in to the character’s story even more we wind up yearning to revisit what we’ve already heard.

Likewise, Sammy Ford’s tenor sax solo which follows is suitably modest, full of contemplative starts and stops, sounding nice but not riveting, giving you an excuse to let your mind wander ever so much.

Hunter’s return on vocals steps things up in terms of energy, closing No Money, No Luck Blues with a warning regarding the topic at hand but since the topic didn’t delve into many details along the way it comes across as more of generalized advice than the pointed lessons he surely intended it to be.

As the song winds down you’re left with a feeling that nobody did anything wrong whatsoever on the recording itself – each note was played exquisitely, there were no ill-fitting parts, lyrical gibberish or misleading plot – but that for all of its class and the skill shown by everyone involved in carrying out their roles the end result doesn’t quite live up to those high standards.

It underachieves… not by much maybe, but just enough to leave you feeling almost cheated and wanting a little bit more.


An Expert’s Advice
The lesson learned in this record is that even if you put together a song with the utmost care there’s still the matter of perception which is going to play a big part in how it’s received by the audience.

On No Money, No Luck Blues their “mistake” was that the arrangement’s highest point came right off the rip, raising expectations and making everything which followed – all of which was suitable for the song and carried off with grace – seem like a slight let-down by comparison. Instead of having each subsequent section pull you in more, one building off the last and closing it out with whatever will deliver the strongest musical impact, they flipped that formula, surely not realizing the effect it was having on listeners, and in the process the grip they had on you loosened enough so that when the song ended you had slipped free.

But don’t let that deter you from seeking this out altogether, this is still really good, the first side for King Records that Hunter released in which there were no weak individual moments and gave every indication as to his abilities in all facets of music, from the creative side to the performance itself.

But there’s a reason why in life you don’t start off anything of value with the emotional or physical climax and here Hunter and company are left trying to figure out just what tweaks they need to make in order to come away with a record that can nail that final third of the formula they require to reach the top.


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