The mid-50s publicity photograph of Ivory Joe Hunter reveals a chubby and bespectacled middle-aged man with a cheesy grin. Hardly the stuff of greasy R&B and rock'n'roll idols. But at the time he was as hip and hot as the proverbial firecracker.
Here's what Atlantic Records' Jerry Wexler has to say about Ivory Joe's legacy in his book, 'Rhythm And The Blues': "I place Ivory Joe Hunter alongside Chuck Willis. They were both sweet balladeers leaning towards country signing - Ivory Joe a touch more than Chuck. I believe Ivory Joe, together with Ray Charles, set the stage for the merger of black blues ballads and white country music in the 60s - and singers like Solomon Burke, Arthur Alexander, Betty Lavette, Dorothy Moore, Joe Simon and Clarence Carter".
Before coming to Atlantic in 1954, Ivory Joe (his real name) had three records that had made #1 R&B: Pretty Mama Blues (Pacific), I Almost Lost My Mind and I Need You So (MGM). All told he had no less than 15 R&B chart records between 1945 and 1950, including seven for King Records.
There followed a barren period until Atlantic moguls Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler waved their magic wands, and the hits flowed again from this sensuous vocalist/pianist. The biggest record of all was the enchanting Since I Met You Baby, a blues ballad that itself was based on his equally haunting I Almost Lost My Mind. Since I Met You Baby made #1 R&B before becoming one of the early crossover hits into the pop charts eventually making #12 at the turn of 1957. It stayed on the national charts for an incredible 22 weeks.
All the ingredients of classic 1950s Atlantic R&B (with a hint of pop) are here. There are the oh-so-well-crafted songs, mostly written by Hunter - the blues ballads highlighted by Since I Met You Baby, the bluesy All About The Blues, the rocker Shooty Booty and even the Latin American rhythms of I Got To Learn To Do The Mambo. Then there is first-class vocal group backing on the earlier tracks by the Ivorytones (aka the Cues) and musical accompaniment by top New York session men (from Sam 'The Man' Taylor to Kenny Burrell and Billy Mure). All are supervised unerringly by Jerry Wexler, with impeccable engineering from Tom Dowd.
This generous 28-tracker, then, is the most comprehensive ever look at Ivory Joe Hunter's singles for Atlantic, with six choice LP cuts making up the balance. Much of the mastering is done from the original singles tapes, so the sound is exemplary. The gorgeous looking package is rounded off by Bill Millar's reliably insightful notes.
And to show Ivory Joe Hunter is still hip among collectors, here are the prices for his prime UK singles from Atlantic, according to Record Collector: A Tear Fell (London) - £300, Since I Met You Baby (Columbia) - £150 and Empty Arms (London) - £125. Enough said!
By John Broven