Sunday, December 2, 2012
Ivory Joe Hunter - I'm Coming Down With The Blues
R&B's smoothest innovator, Hunter could pound bawdy boogie like Fats Waller, create intimate swing like Duke Ellington, and bring out the best in simple, tender ballads Nat King Cole-style. Moreover, the Texas-born Hunter was sneaking elements of country music into his jazzy ballads and jump blues as far back as the 1940s. By doing so he was helping to lay the groundwork for the cross-cultural musical revolution that would one day be named rock 'n' roll.
By all accounts, Hunter was actually christened Ivory Joe by his father, Dave Hunter, a small time musician and itinerant preacher. Both of his parents were musically inclined. One of 14 children—eleven boys and three girls—Hunter proved to be a quick study on the piano. The classical musical training he enjoyed in Port Arthur, Texas, was soon supplemented by the gospel music of his local church and by the more worldly sounds of Fats Waller and Duke Ellington. Tragically, both of Hunter's parents died when he was eleven years old. Subsequently, he quit school and helped support his family with his music.
Hunter built up his professional skills playing at small bars in and around Galveston and Port Arthur. Playing in the stride piano style of Fats Waller, he recorded a version of the folk/blues standard "Stagolee" for folklorist Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress in 1933. Still struggling, he briefly hosted his own program on Beaumont radio's KFDM, where he was billed as "Ramblin' Fingers" Hunter. A few years later, his sound matured somewhat and the bespectacled Hunter formed his own Houston-based jump band that enjoyed a five-year residence at the city's Uptown Theater. But the outbreak of World War II made the West Coast scene, with all its military ports and entertainment-starved servicemen, a more enticing proposition. It was a move that would eventually change his life.
Working the bars in Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles eventually put Hunter in contact with the Three Blazers (Charles Brown, Johnny Moore, and Eddie Williams), who backed him on his own 1945 Ivory label release "Blues at Sunrise." The remake of Leroy Carr's tune did so well locally that it was picked up by Exclusive Records, who helped it rise to number three on the national R&B charts. Still in an entrepreneurial mood, Hunter leased recordings from his Pacific label, "Ivory Joe's Boogie," "She's a Killer," "Jumpin' at the Dew Drop," and his 1948 number one R&B hit "Pretty Mama Blues" to the 4 Star label. Recording with the likes of Pee Wee Crayton, Wardell Gray, and Eddie Taylor, Hunter captured the raw essence of the post-war independent label R&B sound. Although his music didn't leer the way Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown's did, Hunter's ability to alternate jump rhythm with sensual ballads quickly made him a national favorite.
Rejecting the idea of running his own label, Hunter signed with Syd Nathan's King Records in 1949 and had an enviable string of mostly self-written hits, including "Guess Who," "Don't Fall In Love with Me," "Landlord Blues," "I Quit My Pretty Mama," and many others. During his fertile King period, he continued to bang out first-rate boogie, but on songs such as "Jealous Heart"—previously recorded by western star Tex Ritter and yodeler Kenny Roberts respectively—he embraced country sounds years earlier than Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, or Solomon Burke. Moving to MGM in 1950, Hunter scored a number one hit with his finest composition, "I Almost Lost My Mind," a haunting blues number that also sounded pretty country for its time. The song would be revived by Pat Boone as a number one pop song in 1956, and was covered by dozens of artists during the ensuing decades. "S.P. Blues" and "I Need You So," later covered by Elvis Presley, were solid follow-ups, but Hunter's hit machine suddenly ran out of gas. It would take a label change to get him back on the charts.
In 1954 Hunter signed with Atlantic, who accentuated Hunter's velvety country vocals with slick orchestration and choral arrangements. "A Tear Fell" and "You Mean Everything To Me" were decent sellers, but the 1956 romantic rock-a-ballad "Since I Met You Baby" was a million-selling smash, climbing to number 12 on the pop charts and number one on the R&B charts. In Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, author Jerry Wexler likened Hunter's appeal to two another R&B greats. "I place Ivory Joe alongside Chuck [Willis]," he told co-author David Ritz. "They were both sweet balladeers leaning towards country singing—Ivory Joe a touch more than Chuck. I believe that Ivory Joe, together with Ray Charles, set the stage for the merger of black blues ballads and white country music in the sixties—and singers like Solomon Burke, Arthur Alexander, Betty Lavette, Dorothy Moore, Joe Simon, and Clarence Carter."
The singer-songwriter's country-pop influenced waxing of "Empty Arms," backed with "Love's a Hurting Game," became a modest two-sided hit in 1957, but the formula did not yield many more hits. "Yes I Want You" was his last chart success before leaving Atlantic. Hunter's final entry on the pop charts was his rendition of country singer Bill Anderson's "City Lights" on Dot Records.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s Hunter recorded without much commercial success for a wide variety of labels, including Vee-Jay, Smash (where he re-recorded all his old hits), Capitol, Veep, Paramount, Lion, Strand, Epic Stax, Goldisc, Teardrop, Sound Stage 7, Home Cooking, and Home of the Blues. During the 1960s he briefly worked as a staff producer at Motown, although he is not credited with creating any hits for Berry Gordy's label. However, a 1970 appearance as part of the Johnny Otis Show at the Monterey Jazz Festival proved his talent was undiminished, even though his days as a hitmaker were over.
Country music was always a big part of Hunter's sound, but he had never thought of it as a career possibility until Sonny James's revival of "Since I Met You Baby" spent three weeks at the top of the charts in 1969. James told Tom Roland, author of The Billboard Book of Number One Country Hits, that Hunter himself had encouraged him to record his smash as a country song when they first met backstage at the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957. "He said, 'Someday, why don't you do it?' .... and I said 'I will,'... and he said he was going to hold me to it." James's version paled next to the version Jerry Lee Lewis cut for Smash Records that same year, but both renditions encouraged Hunter to follow Lewis and other rock pioneers into the country field. Securing a regular spot on the Grand Ole Opry, where he earned the respect of such icons as George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Hunter was able to cut an album whose title proclaimed his new approach, titled I've Always Been Country (1974). Pleasant and prolific to the end—he reportedly wrote more than 7,000 songs—Hunter remained a well-respected, well-reviewed artist until his death from lung cancer in 1974.
LP contains a mixture of unreleased tracks from the 50's and some newly recorded tracks. Not the best place to start if you're listening to Ivory Joe for the first time.