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MGM 10618; JANUARY, 1950

 
 

 

Some lessons in life are hard to learn.

Maybe it’s the inherent stubbornness of human beings in general, or perhaps it’s just your own shortsightedness that’s at fault, but everybody has a confounding blind spot in their vision regarding something which should be plainly obvious at a glance.

If you’ve read this website from the beginning and then glance up at the name of the artist this review centers on you certainly don’t need me to tell you what lesson is having trouble sinking in around here so I’ll come clean in the hopes that I can rid myself of this embarrassing public affliction regarding the career of Ivory Joe Hunter by proclaiming publicly…

Stop Underestimating This Man!.

There, I said it. Now we can move on and start giving him the credit he so rightly deserves.
 

 

Last Night I Learned My Lesson
On the surface Ivory Joe Hunter was the unlikeliest of rock stars. Bespectacled, neat in appearance, mild mannered and leaning heavily towards introspective ballads rather than storming barn-burners, Hunter appeared to be a lamb thrown to the wolves so to speak.

That he’d spent the last two years on King Records, home of the most wicked wolf in the forest, Wynonie Harris, probably made Hunter’s unusual qualifications stick out all the more. But it’s worth noting that it wasn’t Harris who was King’s most consistent hit-maker during that time, it was Ivory Joe Hunter… and that’s even with his biggest hit coming for another label in the midst of that!

But despite being commercially successful his image – both personally and musically – seemed just a little out of line with the more flamboyant attitude rock was accentuating. His mellow baritone, silky piano playing and his tendency for writing lyrics that had him grappling with insecurities and self-doubt rather than making boastful proclamations of his ability to swill booze with one hand and molest women with the other hardly made him the poster boy for rock ‘n’ roll rebellion.

As if that weren’t enough he was so musically diverse, playing with jazz legends, blues guitarists and country pickers and fitting in seamlessly with all of them, that you never quite were certain he would stick it out in rock. If anyone was positioned to challenge Nat “King” Cole as black America’s designated pop balladeer it would seem to be Hunter, something which seemed more likely than ever when he left King Records at the end of 1949 and jumped to MGM, a wanna-be major label with pop aspirations which was connected to a movie studio.

Yet his first release for them, I Almost Lost My Mind, promptly became his biggest hit ever and one of the most enduring rock ballads of all-time and while we were worried about him making the transition to pop to compete with Cole, it wound up being Nat “King” Cole who covered Hunter’s hit this month!

As for Ivory Joe’s long term music plans, well of all the rock artists who scored multiple hits in the 1940’s the only one to also score multiple hits after rock’s mid-1950’s “crossover” was none other than Ivory Joe Hunter.

So that’s my mea culpa for constantly questioning his creative decisions… and now here’s where the real fun begins, as S.P. Blues solidifies his artistic reputation while giving him yet another hit to hang his hat on.
 
 


 

I Can’t Have No Sleep
Though Hunter is not breaking any new ground here – indeed, thematically this is standard fare for this perpetually unlucky guy who never found a girl to treat him with even a modicum of respect – he’s not merely rehashing previous glories but rather this is both a refinement of the concept and a slight stylistic shakeup, both of which allow it to stand out.

Case in point, where as most of his songs dealing with this topic the mood is forlorn, the pace is crawling and there’s often a string section to add to the weary resignation and tearful memories, on S.P. Blues Hunter kicks it off with a jittery percussive piano which gives the track an immediate jolt of energy, something emphasized by the horn coda to that section. As a result the record has a steady propulsive feel to it throughout and shifts the pacing at various times, primarily through a change in lead instruments in the arrangement which keeps you in a groove as well as making sure you remain slightly off-balance trying to guess what will follow.

Even during the verses when the trumpet takes over the primary responsory role – something often a death knell for a rock song – it’s used very effectively, letting Taft Jordan improvise his lines while the arrangement itself forces him to keep them fairly concise. In other words, there are no elongated spiraling solos that cause you to lose focus.

Melodically this also one of Hunter’s more catchy tunes, his voice rising and falling in a way that’s easily remembered and encourages singing along, which in of itself helps to remove some of the sorrow from the sentiments. After all, if you’re swaying back and forth and harmonizing as he recounts his bad luck it’s kind of hard to get choked up about his predicament, giving it a surprisingly optimistic undercurrent to off-set the lyrical despondency.

The sax solo is judiciously used as well as it features two rather surprising vocal interjections, the first of which kicks it off as Ivory Joe urges him on with an atypical (for him anyway) cry of “Go! Go! Go!”, giving it a more powerful launch. The second comes midway through that same horn solo, which is more slinky in nature than scintillating, as Hunter lets loose a very effective scream – for what reason we can’t fathom unless a mouse ran across his piano keys – yet its sudden appearance works wonders, transforming the impression the sax is making without needlessly altering the lines themselves.

In other words, the solo needs to be restrained to fit in the song, but he seems to know that exciting solos are what rock fans crave and so he manages to give them both in a way that someone works even though it really shouldn’t. It’s doubtful people think of screams as being a part of a musical arrangement, outside of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or Little Richard I guess, but quiet, reserved Ivory Joe Hunter shows how much it can add if used at the proper points. The record gets its second much needed jolt with that and coasts home on the afterburner effect alone.
 


 

My Head Hung Way Down Low
But all of this talk about the musical side of the equation has crowded out what is usually the primary focus of Hunter’s material, his lyrical gifts.

Part of this might be due to the fact that it IS a bit of a new wrinkle in the production side wherein the usual vibe he takes on is swapped out for another, but it also could be that underneath that new veneer is a familiar sight as once again Ivory Joe is the spurned guy left standing at the station (literally in this case) watching his baby leave him for reasons he can’t fathom.

Rather than be cause for concern among his fans however, a troubling sign that he might possibly be running low on ideas, Hunter is such a master of nuance and technique that you don’t mind him revisiting the topic to see what new elements he uncovers along the way.

The title alone – S.P. Blues – is the first hint that is at least coming at you from a different angle than previous “down in the dumps” Hunter songs. The train line in question – The Southern Pacific – was one of the most vital in America for over a century and undoubtedly was the very train (if he came by train that is) that Ivory Joe himself rode when coming west from Texas to California early in his career.

Aside from the setting though which finds him watching her board the train to leave him he’s mining his emotions far more than the circumstances surrounding it, letting us see his conflicting emotions as his world is turned upside down by the sudden end of his relationship. Of course most of us in life don’t want to ever admit to weakness or uncertainty, particularly when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex, as the male ego stigmatizes such thoughts from a young age, and so Ivory Joe is unlikely to find much sympathy in public settings such as a train depot when he’s on the verge of tears. But in private that’s another matter altogether and his eye for detail here is as good as always.

Check out how deftly he works in the internal struggle he’s having with himself as she boards the train, wanting to say something to get her to change her mind, but owing to either indecision or the more powerful inclination to keep a stiff upper lip, he remains quiet and immediately regrets it as the train pulls away.
 


 

There’s not a soul alive who hadn’t wished they’d said something to someone at some point who can’t relate to that and Hunter manages to convey those feelings, both at the time it’s happening and then hinting at the nagging self-loathing he’s bound to have in the future whenever he thinks of what he might’ve said to her.

Even his pondering in the moment how he would feel that night without her there in bed beside him manages to pull together so many swirling emotions and translate it in a perfectly concise way. Then, just as it’s getting to be too much to bear he looks for an escape and finds it in his piano solo, a form of mental distraction that most people faced with a heavy heart hope to find in some fashion.
 

Fully Decided
One of things that rarely is talked about with artists in general, but certainly of this earliest era of rock, is their intelligence. We tend to equate musical sophistication with brains and so I’m sure classical composers or jazz virtuosos are deemed by casual observers to be somehow smarter than mere rock acts, even rock acts like Ivory Joe Hunter whose fastidiousness set him apart from those who wailed and screamed and drew attention to themselves for their antics.

But when examining his career it’d be hard to deny just how bright he was and how much he understood the market, his role IN that market and just how to take advantage of each opportunity.

In this, his first session for MGM, he cut four sides, three of which were top ten hits, giving the new label his best ideas right away to get the partnership off to a good start and make sure they were in his corner in terms of promotion for the rest of his tenure there.

Musically he capitalized on the audience’s familiarity with his past work to make sure that S.P. Blues upended their expectations by altering its sonic structure, giving them something different enough to seem surprising, yet containing the same basic components he knew they appreciated so it wasn’t a radical departure for them either.
 


 
We’ve said before that Hunter, who resembled a college professor in appearance and who had more hands-on experience than most in the industry by virtue of running his own record label in the past, was a shrewd operator and if you needed further proof this is it.

As a calculated move to consolidate his position in the music kingdom it was brilliant and as a record it was hardly less so. It may have taken us awhile to fully come around on his many gifts, but rest assured we won’t be underestimating him anymore.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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