Ivory Joe Hunter

TrackSingle / Album
Blues At SunriseExclusive 209
Blues At MidnightPacific 630
Pretty Mamma BluesPacific 637
Waiting In VainKing 4291
I Almost Lost My MindMGM 10578
I Need You SoMGM 10663
It's A SinMGM 10818
Since I Met You BabyAtlantic 45-1111
I'll Never Leave You BabyIvory Joe Hunter
Can't Explain How It HappenedStax S-155

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I Almost Lost My Mind

Since I Met You Baby

 

Ivory Joe Hunter photo 2

Ivory Joe Hunter

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

SINCE I MET YOU BABY

“If he had never written but this one song, Ivory Joe Hunter should go down in history as one of the true greats.”

None other than Sam Phillips is reported to have said that. While I wouldn’t want to disagree with Sam and, yes, the song is great, there was just something else about this record.

It was single #5 in Ivory Joe’s stay at Atlantic. Prior to the switch in 1955, Joe’s hit making career seemed to have stalled after regular forays into the R&B Chart in the second half of the forties. He might well have looked on with some envy at another blues oriented artist, Joe Turner, a gentleman of similar vintage, for whom Atlantic proved to be an absolute godsend. But while two out of the preceding four Ivory Joe Atlantic singles had gotten into the low end R&B Top Twenty there could well have been a feeling that the label’s magic wand wasn’t really producing the results yet.

Enter stage left, one Pat Boone, something of a hate figure for many R&B and rock and roll fans for his habit – largely led by his label, Dot Records – of covering black records and ‘stealing’ sales from the original versions of songs. Wiki put it rather well:

“Many of Boone’s hit singles were covers of hits from black R&B artists. These included: “Ain’t That a Shame” by Fats Domino; “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard, “At My Front Door (Crazy Little Mama)” by the El Dorados; and the blues ballads “I Almost Lost My Mind” by Ivory Joe Hunter, “I’ll be Home” by the Flamingos and “Don’t Forbid Me” by Charles Singleton”.

You’ll spot Ivory Joe’s I Almost Lost My Mind in there. His original had come out in 1950, and it resulted in a #1 on the nation’s R&B Chart. While nothing remotely similar happened to the record in the Pop Chart, someone was evidently listening: in 1956 it got selected, presumably by the label’s A&R Man or equivalent, to be Pat Boone’s seventh Dot single and it only went and earned him his second national pop number one. Now to be fair to Boone and Dot, this wasn’t strictly a cover – ‘version’ might have been a better word – since any sales that had accrued to Joe’s original would have been history long since. And Joe didn’t lose out that heavily: look at the composer credits on the Boone single and there’s “Hunter” so a few royalties wouldn’t have done him any harm. And, for people of my age, it’s probably actually the Boone single we remember; the original didn’t even see release in the UK at the time. And, although it might cause me pain to say it, the Boone version wasn’t a bad record providing a lot more than outright mimicking of the original.

It’s about here that I should ’fess up and tell the reader that this story – it’s more than mere theory – appears in the essay on Ivory Joe in Bill Millar’s excellent “Let The Good Times Rock” (a book I’d strongly recommend), though in my defence I’d add that I had more or less worked out the sequence of events before purchasing the Millar book. Bill quotes Jerry Wexler of Atlantic, thus:

“And we were very hipped on what Pat Boone was doing. He lifted a technique and style from Ivory Joe and we went back and lifted from Boone. We took the entire idea of using the vocal approach and alto sax in harmony, that whole gentle approach.”

Jerry is a tad modest. That little piano trill that Joe and the Atlantic guys cooked up was new, and it found its way into many of the covers/versions of the song. It’s particularly noticeable on the near unplugged version from Joe that leads off the Live At The Grand Ole Opry album several years later (and he gets a great reception from the country audience too).

The provenance of the song is unclear. Joe (according to Millar) claimed to have written it back in 1942 as Since I Met You Jesus, but the similarity in melody line between I Almost Lost My Mind and Since I Met You Baby is so strong that one can picture Ertegun and Wexler almost commanding Joe to come up with something similar. The sentiments in the two songs differ strongly – compare first line pairings below – but both share a sadness in Joe’s delivery on what was essentially a slow 12 bar blues, almost regardless of the heavy saccharin coating, which wasn’t entirely absent from Joe’s I Almost Lost My Mind.

When I lost my baby
I almost lost my mind

and

Since I met you baby
My whole life has changed

There’s another curious linkage between the two versions of I Almost Lost My Mind and Joe’s Since I Met You Baby and that is Joe’s habit of dropping the pitch on certain words at the end of enunciating them (that may sound weird but you’ll know what I mean after one listen). It wasn’t a regular feature on his records though did pop up every now and again – a sort of very limited melisma if you could call it that. Joe didn’t ‘do’ melisma apart from that. Boone picked up on it on his “Lost My Mind” which not surprisingly resulted in Joe being requested to do just the same in Since I Met My Baby (see also Footnotes).

There are considerable differences present in accounts of the early life of young Mr Hunter both online and in the Bill Millar essay on him, but I gleaned the following which I think is reasonably reliable:

* He was born in Kirbyville, which is approximately 40 miles from Beaumont, East Texas in a south westerly direction.

* His grave shows a birth date of 10th October 1911. That date is also confirmed by Bettye Berger who managed Joe in his later years (source: the Ivory Joe feature in Bill Millar’s book). However, several features including Wiki, have the year as 1914.

* His parents were Dave and Anna Hunter and he was one of a family of fourteen. Both parents were religious and musical and the children were encouraged in these directions.

* And, yes, unusual as it may seem, Ivory Joe was the name his parents gave him; there’s unanimity on this point.

* Some accounts have it that his parents died (in the same year apparently) when Joe was relatively young, leading to him leaving school and helping to support the family via his music.

* The Bill Millar essay states that Joe started playing piano by ear at the age of thirteen and sang with a number of spiritual quartets, though there’s variation on such points elsewhere.

* In 1933, Joe recorded the song Stackolee for musicologist Alan Lomax, which song is now in the Library Of Congress. I’ve seen one account state that he did this under the name Ivory Joe White. I would add that Joe’s Stackolee – a number that is more frequently seen as Stagger Lee – is on Spotify but not YouTube.

Joe built up experience playing solo or in a small group in bars along the Gulf Coast. For a brief spell, he hosted his own programme on Beaumont’s KFDM radio service. By the mid to late thirties he was leading his own band based in Houston.

In 1942, he had made the decision, like others before him, to move to the West Coast. The biographer on Joe in Encyclopedia.com, the source of much of the information in this paragraph, reckons that with WWII underway and entertainment-starved service personnel occupying the west coast ports, the area was just right for a man of Joe’s skills. That’s as maybe, but the fact remains that a number of other Texas born blues musicians, including T-Bone Walker, Floyd Dixon, Charles Brown and Amos Milburn, also moved to the coast (mainly to L.A.), some before and some after Ivory Joe. According to Bill Millar, Joe left Texas because he didn’t like being treated as a second class citizen.

At this time, the big band era was starting to wane, in part due to the economics of keeping a large ensemble of musicians on the road. Bill Millar has a good description for what replaced it on the West Coast:

“There were two main strands: jump blues, a fierce and exhilarating dance music popularised by Roy Milton and Joe Liggins, and cocktail blues, a lighter, sophisticated, often introspective style typified by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers including pianist Charles Brown …”

By 1945, Joe, whose style was more in the cocktail vein, had established a sufficient reputation for himself playing up and down the coast, and he was determined to make a record. His entrepreneurial skills were sufficiently advanced that he managed to set up his own record label, Ivory Records, and, because of the limited supply of shellac (due to WWII), arranged for pressing and distribution via Exclusive Records, the label which had already signed Joe Liggins and his Honeydrippers.

That record was Blues At Sunrise on which Ivory Joe was accompanied by the just mentioned, Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers.

And what a debut record. While that left hand on the keyboard occasionally threatened to break out into boogie, the cool guitar work from Johnny Moore himself just managed to keep the whole thing on an elegant keel. Blues? Yes, but of a sophisticated nature even if there was a mildly salacious sting in the last verse. A showing at the #3 spot in the R&B Chart was just reward for this effort.

Not every record that Joe cut turned to gold in quite the same manner but he hit the R&B Top Twenty fourteen more times between 1945 and 1950. He switched labels several times during that period going from Ivory/Exclusive to Pacific, to King, to 4 Star and to MGM. It was while he was at MGM in 1950 that he released his most successful record to date, I Almost Lost My Mind. Over the years, recordings of this number could well have exceeded those for Since I Met You Baby. Versions have come from artists as varied as Bing Crosby, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Duane Eddy, Wes Montgomery, Ernest Tubb and Zal Yanofsky (this one is on YouTube).

There were more R&B Chart Hits but, after the start of 1951, they ceased completely until Joe made the switch to Atlantic. The breakthrough to the National Pop Chart with Since I Met You Baby was short-lived. Its follow-up, the strongly country flavoured Empty Arms only squeaked into the Top Fifty. That was about it for chart hits but Joe continued to maintain a decent income from his song writing; he’s reputed to have written over 7,000 songs.

The success of a revival of Since I Met You Baby by pop cum country singer Sonny James in 1969, persuaded Joe to embrace his country leanings more fully. He moved to Nashville, got himself a regular spot on the Grand Old Opry and cut an album called I’ve Always Been Country (among others) and maybe there was some truth in that. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to savour his success with this new market for too long since he died of lung cancer in 1974.

So what are we to make of this bespectacled, tweed-suited, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth, blues + boogie + jazz + rock + soul + country + easy listening star, and were there a few categories too many in that set of descriptors?

Certainly, a number of records featuring the word ‘boogie’ in the title appeared in the first few months of Joe’s recording career though they’d virtually disappeared by the end of ’46. A late one, We’re Gonna Boogie featuring Wardell Gray on tenor and the loudest and punchiest horn section to appear on any Ivory Joe record, was one of the better examples of our man in boogie mode. Substitute ‘rock’ for ‘boogie’ and you would have had one of the earlier attempts at rock and roll probably by a white band, ironically, but such a record wouldn’t have captured the energy of Joe’s gang.

Joe’s first numero uno in the R&B Chart came in early 1947 with Pretty Mamma Blues, a title that sounded as if it should have been a jump blues affair but wasn’t. As a slow blues it was one of Joe’s more raw and tough sounding ones though ‘raw’ wasn’t an adjective you’d associate with his music over the next few years. Possibly what caught the record buyer’s attention was that mere hint of a melody in the rising first phrase. Joe’s ability to include sometimes only fragmentary tuneful sequences in his numbers was something that would stand him in good stead.

In contrast, Blues At Midnight, which was released shortly before Pretty Mamma Blues (but was from the same session), had almost the opposite pattern in terms of arrangement. On a basic 12 bar blues structure, it was the riffing horns that delivered one of those stick-in-the-brain melodic snippets while Joe’s vocal was little more than a monotone. And in order to keep the interest level up, that pattern of vocal, horns and rhythm changed on each verse.

When that midnight hour went chiming,
I was in my room alone (repeat both lines)
Yes, and when I came home this evening,
I found my baby gone

B.B. King recorded Joe’s Blues At Midnight several years later but it must have been the words that appealed because the arrangement was totally different. No matter, the Blues Boy evidently liked the song and the delivery was up to his usual standard.

There was another singer/pianist operating in a similar vein to Ivory Joe in the forties who hasn’t had a namecheck yet. That man was Nat “King” Cole and there’s a strong argument that he started the whole cocktail blues thing but then went on to make a gradual switch to romantic ballads in the second half of the decade. His success was such that the vast majority of the white audience who bought those ballads in the fifties and beyond, would have had no awareness of his blues/jazz background (and for more on Nat, see Footnotes). Whether it was Nat or Joe who moved to out and out ballads first is a matter for debate – and it was probably Mr Cole – but it was certainly the case that those slow blues that Joe was initially known by, blurred into ballads with a hint of blues or even ballads that verged on easy listening as the decade progressed. Joe’s vocal delivery, though, still contained touches of melancholy regardless of lyrical content.

I would have selected Don’t Fall In Love With Me, (recorded in December ’47 but an R&B Chart hit in early ’48), as one of his earliest examples of such ballads but it’s not on YouTube (though is on Spotify and this phrase will reoccur). So instead I’ve gone for Waiting In Vain from the following year. The mournful alto sax which opens the piece sets the mood for the bluish melody and vocal to come. An immaculate performance which typified many of his records in the late forties/early fifties. His arrangements were rarely as lush as those given to Nat Cole but you could argue that his (Joe’s) move to more romantic material came from a bluer baseline,

Having established credibility in more of a pop role – and I mean forties pop – might well have given Joe the confidence to tackle a country number in 1949. The song Jealous Heart had been written by established composer Jenny Lee Carson for Tex Ritter, one of the singing cowboys. The Ritter version complete with weeping pedal steel was a country hit in 1944, and then the song, via a version from the now forgotten Al Morgan, spent six months in the pop chart in 1949. There were several more versions both from dyed-in-the-wool country singers, Ernest Tubb included, and from artists in much more of a pop vein. So when Joe recorded his take on Jealous Heart in October ’49, the number was already very much in the public domain. However, traces of the song’s origins had been vigorously removed in Joe’s version and it was decked out in that same soft jazz style accompaniment as his ever-so-slightly-bluesy ballads. Make no mistake though, this was a black blues artist singing a country song.

A more wholehearted embrace of country music by Joe came a year or so later, with It’s A Sin. This time the arrangement had started to move towards the sort of country pop trappings that we’d see used later in the fifties, and by that I mean specifically banks of strings. I hear a groan from the reader and he or she has my sympathy. However, this was a very early attempt at such an endeavour and it still managed to retain a degree of old fashioned elegance. It’s a song that you feel was almost crying out for a more OTT cover from Elvis. It duly got one but the take from El (on Something For Everybody in 1961) was atypically restrained. In contrast, the original, from Eddy Arnold was real country with some rather nice picking going on. I can’t offer you an Ivory Joe clip because the only one on YouTube is actually a later one, even though the visual shows the 1950 MGM single. The correct one is on Spotify and therefore on our playlist.

It’s A Sin in 1950 was Joe’s last R&B Chart entry prior to his move to Atlantic in 1955. Elsewhere I have, with slight tongue in cheek, credited Joe’s 1957 Atlantic disc Empty Arms as the first country soul single. I should instead have given that title to It’s A Sin from over half a decade earlier. While it might lack a little of the polish of Empty Arms, the date makes it a more valid contender for this title. Were Ray Charles and (a rather young but probably precocious) Solomon Burke listening, one wonders.

Two more records must get a mention before looking at the Atlantic era. I Need You So from 1950 was for me, his best outing on a blues ballad of the type later recorded by the likes of Little Willie John. Even with an arrangement that wasn’t looking forward to the dramatic affairs that got the label ‘soul music’ attached to them, it had the feel of such music, and this was in 1950, well before any of the artists we call pre-soul pioneers were up and running. Quite apart from Joe’s fine performance, the suitability of his song (in soul terms that is) is demonstrated by a version of the number recorded by Chuck Jackson and Maxine Brown in 1965. There was a take from Elvis too.

I Almost Lost My Mind released at the tail end of the previous year was important not only as a precursor to Since I Met You Baby, but also as a pointer to simpler, less jazz oriented arrangements – the only link to jazz on the single was the distant trumpeter. Maybe if MGM had followed this pointer they might have achieved better than a chart success drought during the years ’51 to ’54. While it’s true that the competition for R&B Chart places was hotting up – early rock and roll mainly from a gent called Fats Domino, a new choral thing called doo-wop, Chicago erupting with electric blues, fresh blues faces like B.B. King, New York’s indie Atlantic Records flexing its muscle via Ruth Brown and more, were just some of the factors – a common theme on many of the new records hitting the charts was that they sounded different. They didn’t sound like the music which had largely ruled the roost since the end of the Second World War. And by and large, Ivory Joe’s music was now starting to sound old fashioned with only the occasional exception like I Almost Lost My Mind.

You could say that Atlantic followed the advice that I was proffering in that paragraph. Joe’s first four records for the label were ballads but ballads that reflected some of the newer sounds that were appearing in the charts. While two of these singles made the lower end of the R&B Top Twenty, none of them were great records. Joe sang perfectly well but the songs and arrangements didn’t give him much to work with. There could well have been a we’ll-try-anything mindset in the air when they approached record #5, with a consequence being that the Wexler proposal for the near cribbing of the arrangement of a Pat Boone version of one of Joe’s songs wasn’t greeted with more scepticism by Atlantic’s other bigwigs. And this from a label that had launched or relaunched the careers of Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, Joe Turner, Ray Charles and with Chuck Willis about to appear. But I would comment that all these folk were in the broad R&B category albeit with stylistic variation. Romantic ballads were not Atlantic’s forte at that time.

Atlantic weren’t all that successful at following up Since I Met You Baby either. It’s immediate successor, Empty Arms was a Hunter-written pop country outing with a big vocal chorale providing support. This one nearly got in the Ten but the presence of those vocal mannerisms caused it to lose out to It’s A Sin in terms of country or near country in my selections (and the fact that it has a tendency to invoke Engelbert’s Release Me in my head didn’t do the track any favours). The record made #43 in the US Pop Chart. His only later brushes with that chart came with his final Atlantic single, Yes I Want You, and his first Dot single, a version of Bill Anderson/Ray Price’s City Lights. Both made the 90’s and were Joe’s last chart entrants.

But I shouldn’t leave the reader with the impression that Joe’s stay at Atlantic was without value apart from SIMYB. Atlantic couldn’t make bad records if they tried and there were some decent ones tucked away in there. Two up tempo tracks, Shooty Booty and It’s A Doggone Cryin’ Shame echoed Joe’s early boogie approach but wrapped it up in classic Atlantic R&B glossy production. The second of those tracks appeared on Joe’s first Atlantic album, Ivory Joe Hunter. While both of this pair were strongly under consideration, I finally plumped for another track from that album, I’ll Never Leave You Baby, as my second Atlantic selection. The title suggests a Part II SIMYB and indeed there are resemblances: it’s a medium tempo blues again with strong melodic lines though it’s probably less close to SIMYB than that record was to I Almost Lost My Mind. What makes the record is the interplay between Joe and the backing vocalists. A post modern approach to the blues perhaps (“Oh lordy lord, Oh lordy lord”)? Whatever it was, it worked in my book.

After Atlantic it was Dot – Pat Boone’s label – then Goldisc, then Capitol, then VeeJay, then Smash, then Stax, and yes, I did say Stax. He was there in 1964 for one single only, the pairing of Can’t Explain How It Happened and This Kind Of Woman. Now, people don’t always associate Stax with blues but there was that marvellous string of singles from Albert King in the second half of the sixties and Rufus Thomas recorded a couple of slow blues before he got stuck into the dance routines. But Can’t Explain How It Happened is a slow blues and a good ’un at that. This is a rare opportunity to hear Joe in a modern blues context even if he does cling on to his trademark trill (with the word ‘modern’ being relative but how much has blues advanced since then?). Initially it’s just Joe and his piano with more space than usual. The Memphis Horns put in an appearance at the beginning of the second verse and a guitarist, who just has to be Steve Cropper, adds those touches of acidity which make the disc something of a sweet and sour masterpiece.

With an artist who’s made as many records as Joe there just had to be a few honourable mentions, so …

I Like It (King 1948) – Joe and the band get close to jump blues territory – it’s almost raucous compared to the majority of Joe’s late forties records – and it doesn’t take long to discover what he likes about this particular lady.

S.P. Blues (MGM 1949) – Joe’s debut disc for the label and it’s a slow to medium blues. It’s also a train song with S.P. standing for Southern Pacific. In addition to the subject matter there’s a scream just after the break starts, something highly unusual on Ivory Joe records (and something I find endearing) – “I had a funny feeling when I heard the SP blow.”

Landlord Blues (King 1949) – There was a period in 1949 and 1950 when both King and 4 Star continued to issue material they had in the can, regardless of the fact that Joe was by now signed to MGM. This was one of those records. Like the last one there’s plenty of fine piano, this time set against a gently riffing band. And my remark re Joe’s keyboard has to be put in the context of Joe’s ballads where often that piano seemed to have disappeared for good.

She’s A Killer (4 Star 1950) – Believed to date back to 1947 in terms of recording which would explain its more dated sound than some. However, as a jumper it’s probably a good reflection of the sound the King Cole Trio and Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers were getting, albeit slightly supplemented, instrumentally. Think also very early Ray Charles.

Yes I Want You (Atlantic 1958) – Should have been his final single but they still had material in the can so put out a further disc after Joe had started at Dot. Thankfully, Atlantic were cutting Joe with blues more frequently at this juncture. Bill Millar compares this record to (Texan) Joe Pullum’s 1934 disc Black Girl, What Makes Your Head So Hard and he has a point.

Just A Girl I Used To Know (Paramount 1973) – From Joe’s album This Is My Country, composed by Jack Clement and first recorded by George Jones. Together with a pianist who sounds a lot more like Floyd Cramer than Joe, our man delivers a slightly more sombre reading of the song than George with his bright and brittle approach. Joe also cut George’s She Thinks I Still Care on one of his other two country albums, I’ve Always Been Country (the other member of the trio was Live At The Grand Ole Opry).

I’ll Make It All Up To You (versions present on the other two country albums mentioned just above) is written by Charlie Rich and although generally classified as country, it’s imbued with blues feeling. Charlie’s own version and that of Sun label mate Jerry Lee Lewis are both masterly but Joe’s near unaccompanied take on the Opry album brings an air of fragility to the number that’s not present on the original. I’d love to be able to include a clip here but it’s not on YouTube (so we’ve added it to our Spotify playlist). There’s a second take of the song so evidently the compiler – the content comes from several live shows, not one – recognised the quality of the performance.

So how does one sum up Ivory Joe Hunter? He might well have been a forgotten man had it not been for that unusual sequence of events which went into the making of Since I Met You Baby, a record that just sits there deep in the mind of all pop record buyers above a certain age, and one that continues to resonate with performers – witness versions from Neil Young (live in 2013), Willy DeVille and Black Joe Lewis.

I’d put Joe somewhere on a line between Jimmy Rushing, the man who fronted the Count Basie band from 1935 to 1948 and was the epitome of the jazz based blues shouter, and Nat “King” Cole, someone who managed the shift from the delivery of strongly jazz oriented but relatively lightweight material to romantic ballads including standards like Autumn Leaves, Unforgettable and When I Fall In Love. Put it like this, when Nat sang one of those ballads, the words ‘easy listening’ didn’t enter your mind. His timing was immaculate, his sense of rhythm, understated but perfection itself and his vocal tone utterly distinctive. Though Joe came close to Nat in other respects – and he was never lacking warmth on his ballad outings – his voice wasn’t quite as instantly recognisable. Curiously for a ballad singer, he never took on the big standards of the genre. Atlantic put out an album entitled Sings The Old And The New which one might have expected to have its share of such numbers but they weren’t really there. Instead there were songs like I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen and Worried Mind, and that’s no criticism of those songs, merely a comment on expectations.

On the blues front, Joe just wasn’t as rough as some of those names that sometimes got bracketed with him. To use the title of a Billie Holiday song, Joe was “Fine and Mellow” and maybe that’s where we should leave him.

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Since I Met You Baby appears at #518 in Dave Marsh’s “The Heart Of Rock And Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made” and Dave starts his comments on the record with my opening quote from Sam Phillips.

2. Recently, while putting together another Toppermost with Cal Taylor – the one on Silas Hogan and the “rest of” the swamp blues artists – I stumbled over a record from Eddie Shuler, the man who set up Goldband Records. The record was Broken Love which was recorded in Lake Charles in 1945. Lake Charles is in South Western Louisiana, and what I found interesting was that Eddie affected that pitch-dropping vocal mannerism that Ivory Joe had. Before his move to L.A., Joe often worked the Port Arthur area in South East Texas. Given the way in which music travelled in both directions across the Louisiana/Texas border line, plus Joe’s interest in country music from the early days, is it too tenuous to see a connection here?

3. Joe’s self-written Blues At Sunrise shouldn’t be confused with Leroy Carr’s Blues Before Sunrise. Both are 12 bar blues but the lyrics differ. The writer in Encyclopedia.com makes the mistake of assuming both numbers are the same.

4, The piano work on Blues At Sunrise actually came from Charles Brown rather than Joe. The latter was on vocals only for this record.

5. The writer in Encyclopedia.com noted in regard to the Sonny James version of Since I Met You Baby: “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”.

6. A gentleman who certainly seemed to have a liking for covering Ivory Joe songs was one Elvis Aaron Presley. I’ve mentioned his take on I Need You So but he also covered My Wish Came True, Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby (not the Jimmy Reed song with that title), I Will Be True and It’s Still Here. In the Spring of 1957, Elvis invited Joe to visit him at Graceland. The two spent the day together singing songs we are told.

Elvis Sings Ivory Joe Hunter photo 2

7. In conducting the research for this essay I came across a long, and I mean long, review of the record Waiting In Vain. There are several interesting ideas contained therein, particularly the one about Joe coming from a generation which revered song writers as much as, if not more than, performers, with the financial reward largely measured on that basis. Joe’s ability to deliver his own songs, and even experiment with his delivery, is seen as almost a bonus.

8. Nick Tosches has an excellent feature on the early Nat “King” Cole in his book “Unsung Heroes Of Rock ‘n’ Roll”. In his opening paragraph, he states:

“Drawing from jazz he remade the blues into a thing of his own time and place. Though possessing all the ineffable forlorn wisdom of the old blues, Cole’s music also embodied the sophistication and street-smart savoir faire that was burgeoning on both sides of the tracks in New York and Los Angeles.”

A couple of tracks from 1946 might help to illustrate, both billed to The King Cole Trio. Route 66 has just that elegant sense of swing that Nick refers to, while on I’m In The Mood For Love some of those romantic tones are starting to appear (after the long instrumental intro that is). By early 1948 and Nature Boy, Nat is almost a different man, and the backing team has changed a bit, though that swing has by no means disappeared.

9. Though usually classified as a blues singer, Jimmy Rushing who was born in Oklahoma City in 1902, spent much of his working life in front of big bands. In that role his repertoire would extend to ballads – indeed Rushing saw himself as a ballad singer – as well as blues. It’s for that reason that I’ve used him as a comparable figure to Ivory Joe, plus the fact that Joe liked to surround himself with classy sidemen, like members of the Duke Ellington band on recording sessions. The most famous number associated with Rushing is possibly Every Day I Have The Blues though its origins lay elsewhere. This is his recorded version of the number.

10. In 1970, Johnny Otis had a slot at the Monterey Jazz Festival within which he featured an impressive list of, let’s say, the more mature blues singers who were still around. On that list were Ivory Joe, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Joe Turner, Roy Milton, Roy Brown and a lady who I shouldn’t label with the “mature” adjective, the one-time Little, Esther Phillips. Joe of course performed Since I Met You Baby and if it was on YouTube you’d have it here from the accompanying double LP. It’s not, but I can give you one of the relatively rare live clips of Joe singing his song on the Alan Freed Show back in 1956:

 

Ivory Joe Hunter (1911-1974)

 

Ivory Joe Hunter at Discogs

Ivory Joe Hunter biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #725

2 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jun 10, 2018

    Dave, thanks for this excellent piece. What a superb singer Ivory Joe was. Was interested to discover that Ivory had recorded a song called “Ivory Tower’ (I know- I like bad puns). Wonder if that is where Van the Man got the idea for his song of the same name.

    • Dave Stephens
      Jun 11, 2018

      Thanks Andrew and you could well be right re Van. He would have grown up with Ivory Joe even if he was something of a fading memory from his (Van’s) childhood. From when he used to turn the radio on …

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