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MGM 11052; SEPTEMBER 1951



Any way you look at it, Ivory Joe Hunter is in a commercial and creative slump.

Two years ago he was at his peak as his contract with King Records wound down and with a few more sessions owed them he managed to keep his powder dry for his next stop, which would be aspiring major label MGM, and as a result he’d saved a few of his best ideas for his new employers and got two #1 hits in rapid succession to kick off 1950… then sort of floundered ever since.

So the dilemma facing the estimable singer/songwriter is whether he just needs to tweak his formula and hope to hit upon a more infectious melody, or if he should attempt to overhaul his game plan altogether after seeing the changes taking place in rock ‘n’ roll over the past year.

With this one, he sort of tries to do both and only succeeds in doing neither.


Over And Over Again
Although he made his name as a wistful balladeer, forever getting the short end of the stick in relationships without holding grduges or getting mad about it, Ivory Joe Hunter was perfectly capable of changing his approach.

He’d first made a name for himself as hard-rocking pianist before ever getting a record deal, earning the nickname The Baron Of The Boogie… yet the evidence to support that moniker has been decidedly lacking over the years.

While he was firmly established as a rock act, he’d been one of the genre’s more experimental figures in the studio, working with jazz ensembles, blues sidemen and country pickers in the heart of Nashville, not to mention string sections right out of the pop playbook and while not all of those directions are our cup of tea as rock audience, it showed that he was not averse to stepping outside the narrower definition of what it took to excel in this field and since he’d scored hits with many of those efforts he would hardly be faulted for trying something new yet again to get him out of this dry spell.

Admittedly this advice comes a little too late to be of much use to Hunter, since he died in 1974, but had he tried adapting to the more aggressive sounds that were consistently hitting on the charts… maybe bringing in a honking tenor sax or a guitarist who had no compunction about attacking the strings in a manner most unbecoming the kind of clean cut professionals he favored, that would hardly be the worst thing, especially since the flip of this – I’m Yours ‘Til Eternity – is more lightweight pop fluff.

Anything that locks into a groove, kicking up some dust in the process, would offset that and give Hunter a perfect test case to see which direction the public was leaning when it came to him. Instead he gives us Wrong Woman Blues, a song that is the musical equivalent of someone who can’t make up their mind on what to have for dinner until it’s too late and he winds up eating a bowl of cereal long after the sun has set just to fill his belly.

Likewise, this record may prevent him from starving, but it will hardly be nutritious enough to keep his strength up in the long run.

Here I Sit This Evening
Since the overall tenor of this review can hardly be called enthusiastic, let’s start off by saying that this song is in fact fairly well written, nicely played and Ivory Joe is singing it up to his usual standards.

There’s nothing altogether wrong with it in other words. You could even see this spending a few weeks in jukeboxes and not gathering dust.

But then again what you CAN’T see is Wrong Woman Blues being the song that half the people coming into the joint were going to be digging nickles out of their pockets to hear again… and that’s the problem.

It’s a perfectly fine B-side, which is technically what it is, albeit for a really poor choice for an A-side. As such this doesn’t go far enough to give us a new impression of Hunter even though at times he seems as if he really is striving to do just that.

Of course when it starts off so mundane, who could blame anyone for giving up on it being very revealing. To open this he chooses horns that sound as if they just stepped off the stage at some placing calling itself The Palladium or The Orpheum, their tuxedos still neatly creased, and when they thankfully recede into the background he doesn’t replace it with anything very forceful, just more light orchestration, melodic but easily forgettable.

Luckily his vocals are front and center on the track and they are by far the best element of the record, giving some sign he’s not going down without a fight.

Not Foolin’ Me
Usually Hunter is the epitome of vocal control, someone who considers projecting a placid demeanor on record to be a virtue rather than a curse.

Yet here he’s singing with a bit more urgency and, dare we say, actual bitterness than we’re used to hearing out of him when faced with yet another love affair gone wrong. Though obviously the subject is nothing new – I believe this girl was the 57th who has treated him badly so far if our math is right – and we don’t even get many juicy details about their split other than she vowed to be true and seems to have had others suggest she could do better, it’s not the specifics that capture our attention here, but rather his suddenly stiffening backbone.

Where Hunter surprises us is in his mounting intensity, almost as if he started off taking the high road and the more he sang the more his anger swelled inside him and he couldn’t help but let it out. It’s hardly vitriolic, but from someone as mellow as Hunter usually is this comes across as downright fiery.

The best – and most unexpected – moments of Wrong Woman Blues come when he starts acting like a 7 year old, essentially delivering a patented “Oh, yeah? I’ll show YOU!” temper tantrum before stomping off indignantly. His mindset is that of someone that young too, as he tells us he’ll get a girl that no one else wants and then he won’t have to worry about being dumped.

I know, hardly much of a display of confidence on Ivory Joe’s part, but it’s an admirable first step on his way towards emotional independence… although what girl is going to want to be this test case after hearing this record, I can’t fathom.

Unfortunately his barking out this line with a glimmer of ferocity is the limit of the excitement shown as the music behind him during all this is completely unfazed by his defiant spirit and is taking his break up in stride. As a result it’s hard to get too invested in the outcome when we know all he’s doing is blowing off steam and will be the same docile sad sack when he wakes up in the morning.

To Worry When I Worry
What does it say about the status of a former superstar – which for about 18 months was exactly what Ivory Joe Hunter was, scoring more national hits (13) than any rock act of that era – who at this stage of his career delivers something that gets a half-hearted, “Oh well, it’s listenable at least!” and has to consider it a minor victory?

Yet that’s where Hunter is right now and Wrong Woman Blues not only won’t change that, but it’s not even the best song that’s come out this year under that title, as Roy Brown released a Wrong Woman Blues of his own a few months back that used many of the same thematic components – a weak man whose crumbling relationship had as much to do with his inability to stop it as anything else – and yet who crafted a deeper story with dynamic vocals… and even Brown couldn’t turn that into a hit.

Hunter therefore has no chance with this, a modest record with a glimmer of life to it that doesn’t get explored enough to make a difference. As a result it represents just a holding pattern for him, something to keep from going completely dormant in his rock output but nothing that will change his fortunes.

We know he has it in him to turn things around again, but how many chances does one get before you give up on him ever being great again and decide to focus your attention instead on all of the other much fresher displays of greatness that are almost everywhere you look in rock this year?

If THAT doesn’t stir Hunter into action, maybe there’s no hope for him in the long run after all.


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