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KING 4183; DECEMBER, 1947



What to do if you’re King Records and you’ve just signed an artist who already has scored a huge hit (Blues At Sunrise in 1945, his debut, which went Top Three on the charts), who had owned and operated two record labels, which was rare for any artist in the 1940’s let alone a black artist, and who was a prolific composer, a studio habitué and who was versatile enough to cover virtually all styles of the musical spectrum by himself if you wanted him to – blues, country, jazz, pop and now rock ‘n’ roll.

For Syd Nathan, owner of King Records, this was a dream come true. Having branched out from the label’s initial focus of country music Nathan was aggressive in picking up established black artists whose success was recent enough to still be a viable, yet who were suffering through a dry spell over the past year or so which made them available to be signed. It was a strategy that would soon pay off.

Yet Hunter, as detailed on the flip side of this one, Don’t Be No Fool, Fool, posed a specific problem, one that was good to have I suppose but which still had no clear-cut resolution and that was simply Where to market him? Cocktail blues? Jazz? Harder edged blues-boogie? Nat Cole-like Pop? Or maybe this still unnamed, uncertain, unproven rock ‘n’ roll stuff.

With Hunter the decision would never be definitively made, by King Records or for that matter by Hunter himself. On one hand it enabled him to appeal to a potentially broader audience with each release, as different constituencies would all be at least willing to check him out to see what he came up with. But on the other hand it would never result in him capturing one specific audience’s heart, lock, stock and barrel.

The previous spring when he was still recording for his own Pacific label Hunter had delivered a very solid proto-rocker in Jamming Down In Town. Of course it was a bit too early to connect with the audience that was now starting to flex its muscles but it showed that Hunter could easily jump into the fray that was springing up and do so quite well. But – as so often was the case with Ivory Joe – he doesn’t quite commit to it, or any one thing for that matter, and instead offers glimpses of a variety of different approaches all within the same song.

Having just cut his last session in San Francisco, the inexhaustible songwriter that he was Hunter promptly came up with a song celebrating his stay there… which he then cut in New York of course, having already moved on to his next stop, forever the nomad.

Though a stronger performance than Don’t Be No Fool, Fool, and a little more in line with what was starting to connect in this field, San Francisco Blues still isn’t a bold step in the right direction.

I Couldn’t Even Sleep Or Eat
What we alluded to on the other side of this in terms of his general mindset – he was at heart a mellow balladeer with a knack for melodies and lyrical introspection – holds true here. This genial approach is Hunter’s stock in trade. Whereas most rock acts were predisposed to living larger than life and celebrating their feats in boastful tones, Ivory Joe by contrast was more of a journalist, watching with an observant eye from the sidelines and commenting on the goings-on with keen insight that was rarely heavy-handed or declaratory.

When he was pulled into the story himself in his songs he tended to keep the action at arm’s length, detached in a way that could be frustrating at times, so intent was he to maintain his neutrality, envisioning himself more as an objective reporter on the human condition than a main character in the tales he spun.

San Francisco Blues finds him with a little more emotional investment than he normally reveals which should give us a better sense of personality but oddly enough he still doesn’t open up to us, choosing instead to keep the sentiments he does convey rather vague.

The storyline itself is fine and the viewpoint he offers – that of a guy burned by the love of his life in New York after she became a lush who hit the town each night and so he heads cross country to “put his mind at ease” – is pretty well conceived. But it almost seems as if he either didn’t have time to replace some placeholder lyrics (rhyming sleep with… sleep?!) or he ran out of inspiration, as the insights he offers up are trite and unconvincing, the kind of basic descriptions that would be written on a postcard where space is limited rather than explained with more detail in a letter. With Hunter brevity wasn’t an asset and so while he conveys the mood okay, the shorthand approach is lacking.

More vexing for our purposes of trying to peel back the layers of his soul is that what he tells us about his plight only scratches the surface. We KNOW there’s more to it than what he’s letting on – who is this girl he’s going to see in San Francisco for instance and is he serious about reconnecting with her for the long term rather than just a weekend fling to drown away his troubles in cheap booze and no strings attached sex? It sounds as if they had quite a past together at one point but no details are forthcoming and we’re left to read between the lines, almost as if he didn’t want to commit to anything before talking it over with the girl in question first.

But even while remaining fairly aloof in his presentation Ivory Joe Hunter is never a chore to listen to. He was such a dedicated studio performer, always recruiting the best sidemen from across the music world to join him that the songs can always be counted on to be well-performed while his vocals are usually warm and inviting and pleasant to hear if nothing else.

Here the music lifts up the overall impression of the song with a nice walking bass keeping the sound subtly surging forward, very effective drums playing some choice fills along the way, a nice counterpoint trumpet during the first half before jazz sax great Ben Webster takes the spotlighted solo that’s modestly steamy without fully giving itself over to heating up the record. But as strong the support basically is, never overwhelming but notable and noticeable, the brief turn by Hunter stretching out on the keys is the real treat of the record, even if here too he’s reluctant to play too loudly for fear of being accused of trying to draw undue attention to himself.

Though widely acknowledged as a terrific piano player, on record he was usually much more restrained for the most part. A lot of this has to do with his emphasis on ballads which of course have fewer opportunities to show off, but Hunter the composer was simply someone who believed no one aspect, no matter who or what it was, should ever stand out too much and risk overshadowing the rest of the arrangement.

His playing here certainly isn’t at risk for that but it adds some really good color to the overall feel nonetheless. His right hand starts off with some higher class trills before his left hand takes over and adds the rhythmic emphasis the song needs, and while even if it’s not mic’d properly or is kept purposefully low in the mix, its mere presence alone makes the entire record feel more alive than it probably would seem otherwise.

Put Me To Sleep
Granted none of this was going to do much in the way of announcing his presence at his new label and was unlikely to put King Records on the charts in this new arena either. Even the local sales they might’ve gotten in the Bay Area from the title alone probably weren’t what they could’ve been simply because San Francisco is a long way from Cincinnati where King was based and it’s kind of hard to get the records distributed and promoted half a continent away.

But all of this is fairly typical for the likes of Hunter, and so it’s fair to warn you that Ivory Joe is going to shape up to be a very tricky – almost elusive – artist to pin down over the years here on Spontaneous Lunacy. He’ll have a good deal of success in a variety of guises for multiple labels, far more that most over rock’s first fifteen years as a matter of fact, but you always get the sense that even those companies who were glad to have signed him, hoping for a run of hits he was always capable of churning out, were never quite sure themselves what they’d get out of him when inking him to a contract.

He seemed almost a politely intractable figure, determined to follow his own meandering muse wherever it might lead, commercial success be damned. Sometimes it’d happen to fall squarely in the trends of the day, other times it’d seem completely out of step with what else was happening and as a result occasionally what he did would hit big while the rest would fall by the wayside without a trace. Yet none of it seemed to effect Hunter one way or another.

Nothing he did was never going to be bad, everything was always well executed and delivered with class. He never caused trouble for any company that signed his checks, in fact you couldn’t find a more solid professional than Ivory Joe Hunter. But in the music biz, especially in something as reliant on timing and trends as rock ‘n’ roll, Hunter must’ve been maddening to pin your hopes to.

I Must Go
In many ways he was rock’s absent minded professor, smart and talented as can be, yet blissfully unaware at times of the more necessary artistic compromises that all artists and labels are faced with, when to stay solvent the company needs to sell a certain amount of records each month to pay the bills. In Hunter they had someone who could conceivably churn out hits in whatever style was currently in vogue if he so chose, yet he rarely conceded to lower himself to pandering for an audience’s transient attention. Ironically when he finally allowed himself to do so in the mid-50’s he proved that he had it in him to do so all along and his artistry didn’t suffer in the least because of those more blatant commercial aspirations.

But most of the time when he connected it was on his terms and if that meant a company like King had to settle for releasing modest songs like San Francisco Blues, which at best would only elicit passing interest, all in the hopes that eventually he’d come up with something more marketable, then they’d just have to go along with it. That was implicit in the deal you agreed to when employing Ivory Joe Hunter.

I guess you have to admire someone like that, an artist who views their work as a statement of self and not a disposable product, but that didn’t always make those personal statements worth the 79 cents they were selling for.

In this case you wouldn’t necessarily wish you had spent your money on another record that came out at the same time, after all it was good enough to provide some mild enjoyment, but if you had picked this up in mid-afternoon when you hadn’t had a bite to eat since breakfast you probably would have wished you bought a ham sandwich instead and waited for Hunter to really get inspired. Likely Syd Nathan felt the same way.


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