Ivory Joe Hunter – Still Here

YouTube Playlist of all tracks belowif you scroll down and hit ‘play’ you can listen while you read the notes!

By the time Ivory Joe Hunter signed with Atlantic in late 1954, he had been a regular visitor to the upper echelons of the R&B Charts for almost a decade. Of his thirteen prior top ten hits, three had climbed to number one and spent over two months in the top position, including two massive hits for MGM in 1950, I Almost Lost My Mind and I Need You So. Since he had taken the follow-up, It’s A Sin, to #10 R&B for the label in early 1951, however, the hits had dried up, and MGM apparently chose to not to re-sign him. Wexler and Ertegun, who were fast becoming THE force to be reckoned with in R&B music, were only too happy to offer Hunter a contract.

Hunter’s first release for Atlantic, It May Sound Silly, was picked as the Cash Box ‘Rhythm ‘N’ Blues Sleeper of the Week’ in January of 1955, the same week that I’ve Got A Woman, the Ray Charles tune that changed everything, broke into the charts for the label, eventually cruising to #1. Ray would go on to just own the R&B top ten for the next few years, but Ivory Joe’s ‘sleeper’ didn’t do too bad either, climbing to #14. As Cash Box had predicted, Hunter’s composition had ‘every quality that will lead to Pop covers’ and it did. When The McGuire Sisters took it to #11 on Billboard’s Honor Roll of Hits for rival Coral Records that Spring, Atlantic’s in-house Progressive Music Publishing reaped the rewards.

After another 1955 release that went nowhere, Cash Box would again pick an Ivory Joe and His Ivorytones release as ‘Sleeper of the Week’ in February of 1956, A Tear Fell. Picked up pretty much immediately by Coral this time, Theresa Brewer’s cover version would chart the same time as Hunter’s, going top five Pop, while Joe had to settle for #15 R&B. Although Hunter was not the songwriter this time out, the Burton-Randolph composition had been published by Progressive Music… cha-ching!

The Industry was paying attention, and Randy Wood at Dot Records decided to cut the ultimate R&B cross-over crooner, Pat Boone, on a remake of Ivory Joe’s 1950 classic I Almost Lost My Mind. Just a huge record, it would go nation-wide in the Summer of 1956, spending a full month at #1 on the Billboard charts. Nat ‘King’ Cole had also taken the song to #26 Pop (#7 R&B) for Capitol in 1950, but this was a whole new ballgame. Somewhere around in here, 1650 Broadway publishing giant Hill and Range went from ‘Sole Seller’ of the sheet music, to owning the song outright. In any event I’m sure Hunter, as the sole songwriter, was still getting paid.

Atlantic was not amused. As Jerry Wexler told Rob Finnis: “…we were very hipped on what Pat Boone was doing. He lifted a technique and a style from Ivory Joe, and we went back and lifted from Boone.” They released what was essentially a re-write of the same song, with new lyrics and an updated arrangement by Ray Ellis, for the label that December. Since I Met You Baby turned out to be an unprecedented success, becoming Atlantic’s first million-seller, spending three weeks at the top of the R&B charts, while crossing over on its own (without the benefit of a white person covering it) to just miss the top ten, climbing to #12 on Billboards’s Pop Honor Roll of Hits as 1956 gave way to 1957. The publishing on this one? Why, Progressive of course…

Ivory Joe on Top of The World

Joe made the cover of Cash Box on March 30th, 1957, receiving his Gold Record in front of millions on The Ed Sullivan Show. This was the big time! Right there on the front page, it was also reported (as it had been in Billboard) that Hunter had ‘just signed a three year contract with Atlantic’…

On February 23rd, Elvis Presley, with Too Much then at #1 on the Pop Charts (#3 R&B), had been at Radio Recorders in Hollywood cutting tracks for an upcoming LP to be be issued in conjunction with the Paramount Pictures film Loving You, which would premier that Summer. By all accounts a big fan of our man Ivory Joe (whose gigundo smash for Atlantic was then still riding the charts) Elvis chose to cover Hunter’s 1950 #1 R&B hit I Need You So for the album. On March 26th, four days before Joe graced the cover of Cash Box above, Elvis officially purchased Graceland on the outskirts of Memphis.

Hunter’s follow-up for Atlantic, his own composition, Empty Arms, had been chosen as ‘Disk of the Week’ in Cash Box on March 23rd, but had to share that honor with the Teresa Brewer version, which was released on Coral the same day. Joe was hot, and the boys on Broadway knew it. The Atlantic single would spend sixteen weeks on Billboard’s Pop chart, but only make it to #43. Coral’s ‘whitebread’ version, however, would hit #13 during its own seventeen week run. Hunter was all smiles though as, if you notice, the publishing credit on both labels now reads ‘Ivory Music’. As a veteran performer, I’m sure Joe knew where the real money was in the business, and had apparently demanded his own publishing as part of his new deal with Atlantic.

Aside from Ivory’s newfound Pop crossover success, it was the R&B charts that had always been his stronghold. Sure enough, Empty Arms made it to #2 in Billboard on May 15th, kept from the top slot by Chuck Berry’s fourth top five hit in a row, School Day. As you can see, Hunter had taken the number two spot that Elvis’ All Shook Up (which had been selected as the Cash Box ‘Disk of the Week’ in the same issue that featured Joe on the cover), occupied a week earlier. By May 22nd, however, that monster of a record came roaring back, hit #1 R&B and stayed there for the next month (not to mention the nine weeks it spent leading off Billboard’s Pop Honor Roll of Hits). The flip of Joe’s record, Love’s A Hurting Game, would also chart, but only make it to #7 R&B. Rock & Roll was definitely here to stay, and Ivory Joe Hunter would never see the R&B top five again.

Ivory Joe Hunter visits Graceland, July 30, 1957

Elvis, much to his eternal credit, invited Ivory Joe to visit him at Graceland in July, while (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear was in the midst of it’s seven week stay at the top of Billboard’s Pop charts. George Klein told Peter Guralnick about that visit in Last Train To Memphis: “Elvis said, ‘Ivory Joe, I sure do like your songs. You ain’t got any more of them for me, do you?’ Now, Ivory Joe was a real friendly guy. Great big kind of guy. You just immediately liked him, and he said, ‘Well, baby, I just have – I got one just for you.’ So we went in the piano room, and he sang My Wish Came True and Elvis said, ‘Shit, I’m cutting that at my next session!’ Which he did, even though it didn’t come out for a couple of years… and they sat there for hours, mostly singing Ivory Joe’s songs, a few of Elvis’ – man I just wish I had a tape machine!” We wish you did too, George.

Despite Atlantic’s boastful full-page ad in Cash Box that August, Hunter’s next release for the label (now published by something called ‘Desiard Music’) missed the charts entirely, as did his next three subsequent Atlantic singles. For whatever reason, the R&B record-buying public had appeared to move on, and Ivory Joe couldn’t buy a hit for over a year. In September of 1958, perhaps due to its great baritone-heavy arrangement, Yes I Want You (with Progressive back as the Publisher) did crawl to #94 on Billboard’s newly instituted ‘Hot 100’ and climbed as high as #13 R&B that October. It would be Hunter’s last R&B chart appearance, ever. There would be one more Atlantic single, released in March of 1959, but by then (amazingly) both parties seemed to have agreed to dissolve that three year contract a year early.

True to his (and George Klein’s) word, Elvis had cut My Wish Came True at the September 1957 ‘Christmas’ sessions with Leiber & Stoller at Radio Recorders in Hollywood. Released as the flip of yet another #1 record, A Big Hunk Of Love, it would also chart on its own, going to #12 on that Hot 100. The King had also recorded another Ivory Joe tune, this time in June of 1958, Ain’t That Loving You Baby (penned with Joe’s pal Clyde Otis), but it wasn’t released until 1964, when it hit #16 in Billboard.

No doubt encouraged by Hunter’s recent Pop crossover success, and the fact that Pat Boone had had such a huge hit for the label with Joe’s material, Dot Records signed Joe in late 1958. There doesn’t seem to have been any mention of it in the trade papers at the time, which seems odd, really. I mean, it must have been one sweet deal, and would certainly have been newsworthy, I’d think. Oh well. In any event, Dot managed to effectively end any shot Joe had at staying relevant as an R&B artist with their first release on him. At the time that City Lights was recorded, Ray Price’s version of the song was in the midst of its thirteen week stay at #1 on Billboard’s new Hot C&W Sides chart. It’s hard to imagine what Randy Wood was hoping to accomplish here. Although Ivory’s waxing of it did make it to #92 on the Hot 100 in early 1959, that would prove to be his final appearance on any chart whatsoever. Hunter had now essentially become too white for the black people, and had remained (of course) too black for the whites. How the mighty had fallen, and in less than two years!

Ivory Joe would soldier on for Dot out in Hollywood, releasing three more singles that went un-noticed in 1959. By 1960, he was back in New York recording for George Goldner. Of the four sides released that year on Goldisc, Let Them Say is probably the best, but even Goldner’s golden touch as producer didn’t help. Apparently signing a one year contract with Capitol in 1961, his three underwhelming singles cut for the big label that year once again failed to connect with the public. A great one-off for Ewart Abner’s Vee-Jay imprint in 1962, You Only Want Me When You Need Me (written by veteran songwriter Charles Singleton), died on the vine as well, even though the previous release on the label had gone top twenty both R&B and Pop for Jerry Butler… Ivory Joe couldn’t catch a break.

In June of 1963, Cash Box reported that Joe had become “…a part of the talent line-up of Smash Records. Inking, made by A&R man Shelby Singleton, is a continuation of the label’s ‘name’ artist build-up.” I’m not sure what ‘names’ they were referring to, as at this point Roger Miller and Jerry Lee had yet to sign with the label. Be that as it may, after Ray Charles had taken Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music to the top of Billboard’s LP charts the Summer before, I imagine Singleton had high hopes of replicating that kind of cross-over success with Ray’s former Atlantic label-mate. Shelby put Hunter together with Bill Justis to cut an album’s worth of material in April of ’63. The first of two singles for the Mercury subsidiary would be released in May. Joe’s own composition, My Arms Are Waiting (once more published by Desiard), is just Nashville all the way, and no doubt features our friend Jerry Kennedy on guitar. Perhaps it was too Country for the Pop Charts, but it would be another three years before Charley Pride would break through the color barrier there in Music City. Singleton then tried sending Joe back to New York to work with Sigma Seven Productions, but the resulting single just wasn’t that good. There didn’t seem to be any room at the Inn for Ivory Joe, no matter where he turned.

Where he turned next was Memphis.

Here was Hunter, on the ‘comeback trail’ right there on McLemore Avenue at the dawn of the ‘Soul Explosion’ as Stax was coming into its own. On Can’t Explain How It Happened, in addition to ‘big Joe’s’ laid-back ‘vocal chords’, he lets loose on the piano more than he had done in recent years, I think. Along with those Memphis horns, Cropper’s stinging guitar and Duck Dunn’s strolling bass line, it’s the drums on this one that make it a truly great record, in my opinion. Although again published by Desiard, the ‘Shaw’ credited as Joe’s co-writer here, refers to the Memphis based itinerant record man and all-around operator Jimmy Shaw, who we talked a little more about here.

I hadn’t noticed it the first time I read it, I don’t know, maybe I wasn’t paying attention. I had started writing this piece in February, just before I got the news that our friend Howard Grimes had passed. On the plane on the way down to Memphis for the funeral, I decided I’d read Timekeeper: My Life In Rhythm one more time. When I saw this, I got chills, man. It was almost as if Howard had reached out and grabbed me…

I have to admit, I wasn’t familiar with the record but, for Bulldog to say it was ‘the most complicated rhythm I ever cut’ (in an entire lifetime of complicated rhythms), I knew I had to check it out… Whoah! Kind of like Smokey Johnson meets Ray Barretto or something, here’s yet another example of Howard’s innovative percussion work and sheer genius behind the drum kit. This Kind Of Woman just cooks along, with Joe apparently playing the organ on this side and slyly spelling out just what kind of woman he wants (along with the kind he doesn’t), punctuated by some punchy latin-tinged horns. No wonder I thought the drums on the A side were great… it was Howard! Like he said, they ‘gave it everything every time’, and it shows.

One has to wonder how such a solid single failed to get noticed (aside from those 17 Louisiana and Texas dee-jays). Did Atlantic, as the Stax distributor, possibly still harbor some ill will over Hunter’s prematurely jumping ship five years before? Hmmm…

There is one other 1964 Ivory Joe single that is usually dated as being cut after his lone Stax outing, Joie 720. Apparently a subsidiary of something called L & S Records out in Los Angeles, not much else seems to be known about Joie other than that there were two other releases on the label around the same time. Hunter, who had cut his teeth cutting hits on his own West Coast labels in the late forties, was credited here as the producer, with the mis-spelled ‘De Saird’ now sharing the publishing with ‘Portulaca Music’. I suppose it doesn’t much matter, but I think the Joie single may have been recorded first, as the copyright for the A side, I Need A Woman, was registered in June, while Howard’s complicated Stax B side above was copyrighted that August, around the same time that it was released. Pretty much a straight ahead West Coast Blues number, I wonder who the guitar player might be… Arthur Adams? It is also interesting to note that, even though it says Desiard on the label, the song was registered by Morris Levy’s Frost Music Corp. which ‘In August of that year [1964] had… recently expanded via the purchase of other publishers.’ What a tangled web Joe (and Joie) wove…

Not one to sit still, it was another year, another record label for our man Ivory as he teamed up with Huey Meaux sometime in 1965. Meaux’s ‘Crazy Cajun Enterprises’ was based in Conroe, Texas, just about 100 miles west of Kirbyville, where Joe grew up. Not sure why Huey decided to place Hunter on his Tear Drop imprint, on which about half of his recent releases had been Chicano, instead of on Tribe (the label he had just scored big on with The Sir Douglas Quintet), but there it is. Hunter would cut four sides that year for Huey in Houston at Gold Star Recording. With the great Joey Long‘s guitar mixed front and center, Meaux succeeded in putting a little bit of the ebony back in ol’ Ivory’s records. For my money, the pure Blues of I’ve Asked You For The Last Time still holds up as one of Joe’s best records from this period. You have to wonder if Shelby Singleton, who had gotten his start plugging Huey’s productions, was instrumental in hooking Hunter up with him, and if the subsequent signing of the SDQ to Smash while Meaux was otherwise engaged a few years later was part of the deal…

Bettye Jo Elliot got her start in the industry working for Sam Phillip’s ‘all-girl’ Memphis radio station WHER in the mid-fifties before becoming one of their much-loved on-air disk jockeys. In 1957, she met and married Louis Jack Berger, owner of the West Memphis nightclub The Plantation Inn. Under her guidance, it soon became one of the few places where white kids could go and hear black music, influencing an entire generation in the process. Impressed with the sheer talent of the acts they were booking, she would start her own record label, Bet-T, in 1960 and release a single on William Bell’s Del-Rios, a full year before Chips Moman cut him at Stax. In 1965, Bettye began working for Ray Brown’s National Artist Attractions which, according to Travis Wammack, ‘booked everyone in town’. Convinced she could do better for her artists, she left a year later and formed her own agency, Continental Artists Inc., naming Don Dortch as her vice-president. Ivory Joe would become one of Continental’s first clients, which may have been what lured him back to Memphis in 1966.

It certainly seemed like the right move as, when Hunter signed with Goldwax that Spring, James Carr was climbing the charts for the label, eventually breaking into the R&B top ten. According to the liner notes for The Complete Goldwax Singles, Volume Two, Quinton Claunch had cut Every Little Bit Helped Me on Joe in 1964 (apparently before his stint at Stax), and released it ‘out of the can’ in June of ’66. After nobody seemed to notice, Claunch changed gears a bit and recorded Hunter in a more pop-oriented, Bert Berns style production, leasing his next 45 to United Artists subsidiary Veep in early 1967. Despite being picked as a ‘best bet’ in Cashbox in March, no ‘secure chart berth’ ever did materialize for Don’t You Believe Him, or it’s B+ B side, What’s The Matter Baby.

As discussed earlier, Goldwax brought both Reggie Young and Bobby Emmons across town for an Ivory Joe session at Sam Phillips Recording on June 26th, 1967. Issued that September as Veep 1270, the flip, From The First Time We Met (essentially a re-make of his biggest hit for Atlantic) was predicted by Billboard to reach the Hot 100, but didn’t. It’s the ‘Plug Side’, Did She Ask About Me, however, that just knocks me out. Quinton’s immaculate production, Reggie’s shimmering guitar and Hunter’s heartfelt vocal delivery combine to make this one a winner. It was written by Goldwax ‘Country Series’ artist Carmol Taylor, in a genre which fit Ivory Joe like a glove. Claunch was just a couple of years ahead of his time…

At this point, there is no mention of Ivory Joe Hunter in any of the trade magazines for well over a year, until he is mentioned in Billboard in December of 1968 as ‘returning to the disk scene’ for Sound Stage 7.

Signing with the Monument subsidiary during the exact period when John Richbourg’s ‘exclusive production arm’ had been cutting all of its artists at American in Memphis, it is inconceivable to me that Fred Foster would not opt to send Ivory Joe there as well, especially in light of the great record we just talked about that Hunter had cut in 1967 with most of Moman’s ‘Memphis Boys’ at Sam Phillips.

Although only the Joe Simon and Ella Washington singles mentioned as ‘chart bound!’ in the Cash Box ad at right actually charted, all of them (except for Ivory Joe’s) had been cut with Moman at 827 Thomas, and still hold up today as the stone classics they are.

A Billboard article about Monument from the week before states simply that John R “currently produces all Sound Stage 7 artists with the exception of Arthur Alexander and Ivory Joe Hunter,” but gives absolutely no reason why that might be.

Production duties for Ivory Joe would be handled by Monument’s Vice President and National Sales Director Steve Poncio, who had joined the company in August of 1967. Prior to that, Poncio had come up through the ranks in Houston, and had been running his own company, United Record Distributing, there since 1949. Instead of Memphis, Poncio chose to cut Hunter at the ACA Studio in Houston with local session musicians. His choice of material seems questionable as well as, rather that let Joe cut his own compositions, the label had him cover a tune that Otis Williams and his Charms had taken to #11 Pop (right behind Cathy Carr at #2 and Gale Storm at #6) in 1956, Ivory Tower. Although ol’ Joe is singing his heart out, the tune sounds, if you will, dated – because it was.! Poncio would produce two more singles for the label on Hunter at ACA in 1969 which are, in my opinion, virtually unlistenable. It all just seems a shame, and such a missed opportunity. I’d love to have heard what magic Chips might have created with Ivory Joe in the house…

In January of 1969, Sonny James, cut Ivory Joe’s Since I Met You Baby. When it was released that August, it went straight to the top of Billboard’s Country chart – Sonny’s tenth number one hit in a row. On April 10th, 1971, his version of Hunter’s Empty Arms became the fourteenth [James’ unparalleled streak of #1’s would grow to 16 by the end of the year]. In his book Willful Shadows, Sonny said, “I was doing a personal appearance in Monroe Louisiana, where he [Joe] lived… he said ‘Son back there when you did those songs for me my catalog of songs was… just laying there and wasn’t anybody touching them, any of the recorded ones or the one that had never been recorded… all of the sudden my whole catalog – they started doing songs I’d forgotten I’d written!’

On May 4th, 1971, Elvis was featured on the cover of LOOK magazine, with a feature about his ‘hidden life’ promised inside. Since Suspicious Minds had gone to number one in November of ’69, The King’s chart position had been steadily slipping, and I’m sure RCA (and The Colonel) were glad for the exposure. On May 15th, Presley returned to RCA Studio B, the site of his ‘marathon sessions’ the year before, to work on a proposed new Christmas Album. Somewhere around 2am on May 20th, Elvis sat down at the piano and performed an Ivory Joe B side from 1950, I Will Be True, a favorite of his which he had also recorded while in the Army in Germany. With engineer Al Pachuki rolling the tapes, Elvis then launched into five takes of another Ivory Joe song that nobody in the studio had ever heard before, It’s Still Here. When RCA decided to include it on the ‘Fool‘ album in 1973, it was Gladys Music (the publishing arm named after Presley’s mother) that registered the copyright. In the Elvis Collectors Forum, it says the song is “intriguing, as there’s no known recording of it prior to Elvis.”

Long time contributor, Tom Erik Ogland (Norway’s own Soul Detective) begs to differ…

After some world-class digging, Tom unearthed a previously unknown single by Ivory Joe on Delta, a small Louisiana label. He first found the B side, I’m Looking For A Girl (Who’s Looking For A Boy), on YouTube, where there was a comment about the A side of that single actually being It’s Still Here, but he could find no confirmation of that. Then the real detective work began. Through the comment on YouTube, eBay and a Popsike listing, Tom was able to track down the owner of one of the two known copies. Although it had recently been sold again, luckily he had kept scans and mp3 rips of both sides, which are presented here for the first time. With the help of Praguefrank and another knowledgeable record collector friend from Finland, Tom was then able to use the matrix numbers to definitively date the record as being released in early 1968, before Hunter’s first sessions for Sound Stage 7 in Houston.

Now, how about that?

Desiard Street, Monroe 1960s

Although now sharing the BMI publishing with what must have been Delta’s own Ark-La-Miss Music, Desiard is still listed first, which would certainly suggest (although there appears to be no record of it) that the song was indeed copyrighted at least five years before the Gladys Music entry mentioned above. As it turns out, Desiard is the name of the bayou and main drag that wind their way through Ivory Joe’s adopted hometown of Monroe, Louisiana. Who knew? In a 1970 Commercial Appeal article, Hunter is quoted as saying, “Now, Elvis, he’s something else. He recorded some of my songs and they all sold over a million for him. He’s money in the bank when they put a record out on him…” I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to imagine Joe sending Presley a copy of the Delta 45 when it was released. The fact that Elvis was able to sit down at the piano and perform it through from memory in 1971 seems to indicate that he had played it many times before, and knew it by heart. Thanks, Tom!

Tired of going nowhere fast at Sound Stage 7, in early 1970 Joe decided to return to Memphis on his own. In the same article in The Commercial Appeal mentioned earlier, Bettye Berger outlines Hunter’s own appeal to ‘put his career in her hands’. Bettye circled the wagons at that point, and asked Charlie Chalmers to put together a session in late March at Sam Phillips that would include heavy hitters Bowlegs Miller, Jack Hale, James Mitchell and Isaac Hayes, who would also write this poignant note about Hunter being ‘copped and then dropped’ for the back of the album cover.

Epic apparently won the bidding for Berger’s tapes and, on May 19th, 1971 (the day before Elvis sat down at that piano), they released a single from the album (now aptly titled The Return Of Ivory Joe Hunter), Heartbreak And Misery. “That’s Jackie Harvell on guitar,” Charlie Chalmers told me, “I hired him to do that record.” Arranged by Chalmers and Sandra Rhodes, who also plays bass on the album, that’s her sister Donna on drums. “That was before I started singing backup with them,” Charlie said, “I wrote those strings, but I didn’t do horns… must have been in a hurry!” Seeing as the whole album was cut in two days, I’d say so. It’s interesting to hear the Rhodes – Rhodes backup without the Chalmers in the middle. It was Willie Mitchell who would figure out that equation just a few months later.

In October of 1972, Ivory Joe was a special guest at The Grand Ole Opry’s 47th birthday celebration, and the crowd went wild as he launched into some of those recent Sonny James hits. Perhaps the best of the surviving live audio from The Ryman is Hunter’s version of the Charlie Rich tune that Jerry Lee Lewis took into the Country Top 20 in 1958, I’ll Make It All Up To You. Just a consummate performer, Joe and his under-stated piano make the song his own as he holds the audience in the palm of his hand. Wow! He would make three more appearances on that stage over the next couple of years…

In November of 1972, with the migration of Moman’s Memphis Boys to Nashville almost complete, Bettye Berger would book Ivory Joe into Jack Clement’s Studio B to work on a new album. One of his first real jobs in Music City, Reggie Young’s log book shows him cutting with Hunter on his days off between the Quadrophonic Dobie Gray sessions that yielded Drift Away. Berger brought in other Memphis stalwarts like Tommy Cogbill and Stan Kesler to work with Cowboy Jack, and began shopping the album around to various labels.

Although, as we’ve seen, certainly not his first, Cash Box reported that Ivory Joe was forming his own publishing firm there in Nashville in March of 1973 – that would be four months before the Elvis’ Gladys copyright outlined above. Always the optimist, Hunter is quoted as saying “I have always been Country, but I happened to hit with a Blues song and then after that I was categorized Blues” [a situation, by the way, that continues at The Grammys to this day] By November, Record World announced his signing with Paramount Records, a division of Gulf + Western that had purchased Randy Wood’s Dot label (and Stax!) a few years before. According to the article, the label was going all out on promotion, with ‘appearances on nationally syndicated radio and television shows’ including WSM’s Music City U.S.A.

Issued on October 3rd, 1973, He’ll Never Love You, with Lloyd Green on pedal steel and Charlie McCoy on harmonica, is a top-shelf Country record. Just a great song, it had been written by Bettye Berger for Donnie (Dortch) Dexter for a previous release on her Bet-T label. Be that as it may, Ivory’s pleading vocals, Hank Levine’s arrangement (and Reggie’s guitar) make this one a winner. Joe’s LP, I’ve Always Been Country, made up mostly of covers of Country standards, was released in early 1974.

Then, tragically, just when it seemed that Hunter might have had a shot at making it in Nashville, he was diagnosed with Stage Four lung cancer, which had him in and out of Methodist Hospital in Memphis for most of the year. In Guralnick and Jorgensen’s Elvis Day by Day, they report that, on August 5th, the King sent Bettye Berger a check for $1000 to help defray the cost of Joe’s medical bills, accompanied by this note: “I am very sorry to hear of Joe’s illness. I have been a long-time admirer of Ivory Joe and his talent. Please tell Joe for me that I wish him a speedy recovery. Joe is a great talent and has been an inspiration to many artists that have come along. It hurts me deeply to hear of his condition. I sincerely hope that this check will be of some help. Thank you for letting me know about Joe. – Sincerely, Elvis Presley.”

On October 1st, Bettye Berger organized a benefit concert at the new Opry House location. A testament to Ivory’s wide appeal, it featured such diverse talents as Isaac Hayes, William Bell, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. They airlifted Joe from his hospital bed in Memphis, and brought him on stage in a wheelchair. He would perform three songs, his current single, “He’ll Never Love You,” “Empty Arms” and a song he had recently co-written with Berger, God Just Lent Them To You, There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. When you think of this as the last song Hunter ever performed, well… I can certainly see why.

On November 8th, 1974, Ivory Joe Hunter was called home.

As Bettye Berger said: “It was his realness, that uniqueness of expression that enabled his message to relate to everyone. His Blues were a very soft variety, his gentle but determined nature always obvious even throughout his long period of illness, when he insisted: ‘I plan on being around for a long time… forever!'” Record World 11/23/74

You know what? Joe was right… he’s still here!

Ivory Joe Hunter – Still Here YouTube Playlist

Ivory Joe had recorded a second Country album in 1973 at Pete Drake’s studio in Nashville. Tentatively titled Just Tell My Friends, it was shelved after his death, and had remained in the can until it was released digitally on Tim Whitsett’s LocoBop label as This Is My Country, which, for some reason has been erroneously dated on YouTube as having been originally recorded in 1964… the version of It’s Still Here on the album was indeed recorded after Elvis…

In Loving Memory: Bettye Berger passed away at 89 years old in January of 2020

Special Thanks to: Tom Erik Ogland, Charlie Chalmers, Mark Nicholson, PragueFrank, Rob Finnis, Rob Bowman, Peter Guralnick, John Broven and Richard Tapp

God’s Own Drummer

“The rhythm of this city runs through my heart.”
Howard Grimes – Timekeeper

…and now that heart, that kind and generous heart, beats no more. I know the Memphis Beat that Howard helped to create will live on, but I, and the city he so loved, will miss this gentle and steadfast man who gave his entire Heart and Soul to his music… Memphis will be a smaller place without him in it.

I first met Howard in 2008 as we made preparations for the O.V. Wright Night benefit concert that Preston Lauterbach and I were organizing to help O.V.’s family defray the costs of placing a headstone on his then unmarked grave. Soft spoken, humble, yet somehow ‘Bulldog’ connected all the dots, and was holding down the fat bottom of what was left of The Soul of Memphis. He was just so thrilled that we were doing this, and would tell us again and again how much it meant to Memphis to be re-claiming the all but forgotten legacy of O.V. and the magic they had forged there on South Lauderdale. It was an incredible night.

Just living History, every time I spoke with Howard I learned something new, and began to understand the unique place he held in all of this. He knew everyone in town, and went out of his way to make sure I did too, opening so many doors for me that I never knew existed. God-based, spiritual, Howard made his way in this world with a quiet light that shone through his being and filled the room. His laugh was infectious. Of all the people he introduced me to, there were two men that he held close to his heart – two men who shared his spirituality, and understood his deep relationship with God, Darryl Carter and Otis Clay.

As we’ve talked about in the past, Sir Lattimore Brown had that same kind of profound connection with something greater than ourselves and, when I brought him to hang out with Howard and Darryl on McLemore Avenue in 2009, I began to understand the meaning of the phrase ‘Joy is the infallible sign of the Presence of God.’ We had us a time up in there, rocking at full volume to the Gospel tunes the inseparable friends had been working on, with lines like “I’d be nowhere, I’d be lost, if He hadn’t died upon The Cross…” I was in Heaven that night, man!

When Willie Mitchell passed in January of 2010, I drove to Memphis and gave Howard a ride to the Funeral Home for the wake. I walked beside him to the casket, and will never forget the moment when he placed his hand gently on Poppa Willie’s chest and said goodbye…

The next day at the Memorial Concert, Howard was back on the drum kit where he belonged, backing up everyone from J. Blackfoot, Preston Shannon and Willie Clayton to Don Bryant, Solomon Burke and, yes, Otis Clay. Once again, thanks to the Bulldog, I found myself hanging out with all these amazing people whom I had been listening to for years – God was definitely in ‘da house! It was Carla Thomas who said to me later that evening, “Why do you think they call it SOUL music?” I was beginning to understand.

“Kelly,” Howard said (that’s what he called me, ‘Kelly’), “God told me to go and see Scott at Electraphonic Recording. When I got down there, I knew. He had the same feel for the music that Willie had. I knew I was in the right place.” As the drummer for The Bo-Keys, Bulldog was once again on the cutting edge of what was happening in Memphis. Along with legendary band-mates like Floyd Newman, Skip Pitts, Ben Cauley and Archie Turner, The Bo-Keys’ great 2011 album Got To Get Back! would feature Memphis giants William Bell, Don Bryant, Percy Wiggins, Charlie Musselwhite and Howard’s main man, Otis Clay. As they toured that year in support of the record, Howard made sure I got backstage, and felt like ‘one of the boys’.

In 2012, Scott Bomar was kind enough to allow us to bring the Soul Detective Road Trip & Fact Finding Mission to Electraphonic to film interviews with Howard, The Masqueraders and Darryl Carter. It was our graphic design guy Paul Pollman (a ‘stick man’ himself) who hatched the idea of surprising Bulldog with an ‘International Award’ for what was then almost sixty years as a Memphis Soul drummer. Presented here for the first time ever is some of the footage that Chase Thompson shot that sweltering August afternoon…


Focusing chiefly on his early recording career with Chips Moman at Satellite, and his continued involvement as part of ‘The Stax Family,’ we learned a lot that day that we knew nothing about. I don’t think we were prepared for how much the award would mean to Howard, and you couldn’t help but be touched by the genuine tears that welled up in his eyes. “Praise God,” he said, and everyone in the room agreed. It had all turned out even better than we expected and, as The Bulldog climbed into his prized mid-seventies Mercury Marquis, he drove away one happy man.

At the American Studio historic marker dedication at Chelsea and Thomas in 2014, Scott Bomar helped me accomplish something I had been trying to do for a couple of years, to re-unite Howard with Chips Moman, the man who had believed in him, and given him the ‘thumbs up’ as his go-to drummer at Stax. They hadn’t seen each other in almost fifty years. Chips had been slowed down a bit recently by a stroke and some health complications, but the minute he saw Bulldog he perked right up, “Howard!” Chips recognized him right away, and they were both so genuinely glad to see each other again, after all those years. These two men right here were there at the very birth of Memphis Soul. It simply would not have existed without them… Say Amen, Somebody!

I couldn’t help but notice that day that Howard had traded in his NY Yankees cap for one that said ‘Jesus’… from that moment on, I never saw him without it. “My wife bought me that that cap,” he told me, “I didn’t even know she bought it… but God told me, wear that cap for people to see. God’s people ask me questions when they see it… that’s when I get a chance to give someone a testimony and share God Jesus with them.”

Howard had had what he called an ‘out of body experience’ in which he knew that he had died and passed from this world. He had a profound vision in which he had seen the face of God, yet returned to this life on Earth. As you may imagine, this left him with little doubt about the reality of some kind of life after death, and that unwavering Faith had become his guiding principle. Both Otis and Darryl had told him that God must have sent him back here for a reason, and that he had yet to fulfill his purpose here on Earth… I soon came to believe that as well.

At Ponderosa Stomp #12 in 2015, I was asked to moderate an interview and presentation at The Music History Conference with Willie Hightower, who had all but vanished from the public eye. The next day, it was Preston Lauterbach’s turn to interview Howard Grimes. Both events were packed to the rafters, and resulted in standing ovations for both men. Scott Bomar’s Bo-Keys (now featuring real-deal guitarist Joe Restivo and the Memphis Horns of my pals Kirk Smothers and Marc Franklin) were called upon to be the backing band for the first night of the Rock ‘n’ Bowl shows, playing behind Mabel John, Betty Harris, Brenda Holloway, and the man who absolutely stole the show that night, Willie Hightower. Check out the 74 year old Bulldog just killing it on the drums… wow!

It just doesn’t get much better than this, folks!

When Darryl Carter called and told me that Otis Clay had died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack in January of 2016, I couldn’t believe it. Here was a man who was just so full of the Spirit, who didn’t just talk the talk, but worked hard to make the world a better place. We had seen him sing When The Gates Swing Open at Poppa Willie’s funeral, and now they had opened for him. I called Howard, and I think I was more upset than he was. He had Faith. He knew Otis was with God. Shortly after that I heard that Darryl had pulled up stakes, left Memphis, and headed to Clarksdale, Tennessee (of all places). That Summer my wife and I made it a point to go visit, and see how he was doing. Although he played the part of the same old gruff ‘Tell Me About It!’ Darryl, it felt like something had shifted… there was a sadness there that I hadn’t noticed before.

Howard meanwhile, besides continuing his great work at Electraphonic, had become Soul Detective’s secret weapon. Any question I had about the development of Memphis music, I knew I could call him and he’d talk for hours (if I let him) about everybody from Bowlegs and Ben Branch to Earl The Pearl, Flick and Frog. He had been there and back, with a rare and remarkable memory for names and dates. He had become our Ace in the Hole. On the way to the next Ponderosa Stomp in October of 2017, John Broven and I stopped off in Memphis to chew the fat with Howard (the Jesus cap) and his old boss Floyd Newman on Beale Street. We were planning to meet up with Bulldog again at The Stomp, as The Bo-Keys were scheduled to back up Don Bryant, with whom they had just cut Don’s phenomenal come-back album Don’t Give Up On Love. A mandatory curfew and evacuation order by a nervous New Orleans mayor as non-hurricane Nate approached during the blood red moon put the kabosh on that, and unlucky Stomp #13 would, sadly, turn out to be the last.

Percy Wiggins, Scott Bomar, Tex Wrightsill, Harold Thomas, Boo Mitchell, Rev. Charles Hodges, Howard Grimes and Don Bryant

Darryl Carter always sent us a Christmas card, that’s the way he rolled. I had just gotten ours that December when I heard the news. He had died there in Clarksdale, alone. I couldn’t quite take it in. The special bond that I had witnessed between Otis, Howard and Darryl went so deep, and now Howard was the only one left. I called him, essentially in tears. Once again, somehow his unshakeable Faith in the reality of the God they knew carried him through. He was so strong.

They brought Darryl home to Memphis and laid him to rest in January, surrounded by the people who loved him. If there was any possible way, I would have been there too. I began speaking with Howard a lot more.“Kelly,” he would say, “God told me to call you…” Uh-Oh… I was always a little nervous about what God might have wanted, but it was always good. Howard spoke the truth.

On yet another road trip, this time to Arkansas to honor Reggie Young at The Osceola Heritage Music Fest in May of 2018, it dawned on me that Memphis was kinda on the way. I took a quick detour down Highway 51, past the Family Dollar that used to be American Sound, and made a few phone calls. Howard (and the Jesus cap) came through for me again, and that morning we had breakfast at The Cupboard with the fabled brothers that put the SOUL in soul brother, Percy and Spencer Wiggins, who were looking forward to their upcoming appearance at The Porretta Soul Festival that July… amazing!

In 2019, Praise the Jesus cap, I got to hang out with Howard twice. The first time was at the end of July as we stopped in Memphis on our way back from The Handy Fest in Muscle Shoals. Once again Scott Bomar invited me down to Electraphonic where he was punching in the horns on the new album he had just cut on Don Bryant. The next time was in November when I finally did get to see Bulldog and the Bo-Keys back up Don at his induction into The Memphis Music Hall of Fame. The next day, Broven and I took him to lunch at Soulfish. He had a picture with him that he wanted to show us. It was an artist’s depiction, he said, of the vision he had during that out-of-body experience… I hugged him there in the driveway of his house on McLemore. “Don’t you die on me, Howard,” I said, “What would I do without you?” “I ain’t dying, Kelly,” he answered, and that was the last time I saw him.

I talked to him around Christmas, but after that his phone just rang and rang. As Covid began to take hold in the Spring of 2020, I started to worry. He finally picked up the phone in May.

“I been in the hospital, Kelly… they had me on the fourth floor, where the Corona patients were. All the thoughts I had were what Otis and Darryl had said to me on that porch before they passed away. They had already given me the signs of what I was gonna see and what was gonna be happening, what God was going to use me for. So really, I heard it, but I didn’t truly understand it but, after they passed away, it happened to me. It started in that hospital, because Jesus was with me day and night in that hospital. God touched me, man. ‘I give it to you the first time you was 12,’ He said, ‘now you 78. He said, I’m gonna give it to you again… you said you didn’t get paid, but you’re going to get paid. You’re gonna work with the right people.”‘

After that, it all started to fall into place.

In November, You Make Me Feel, the great Don Bryant album Scott had produced at Electraphonic, with Howard on the drums, was nominated for a Grammy.

Bulldog had been working on the idea of a book with Preston Lauterbach for years, and that dream had finally come true in the Spring of 2021 when Timekeeper: My Life In Rhythm was released to rave reviews on both sides of The Atlantic. On July 21st, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music hosted a book release event, which included an interview by Preston followed by a Bulldog and The Bo-Keys show featuring some of those early Stax/Volt instrumentals, and both Percy Wiggins and Don Bryant joining them on vocals. Howard was then presented with a Mayoral proclamation declaring July 21, 2021 Howard Lee Grimes Day in Memphis and Shelby County. Imagine?

Bulldog’s Final Performance – July 21, 2021 – Still Deep In The Pocket!

Our man Howard, who would be turning EIGHTY within a month still delivered the goods that day. He was as great as ever, man.

I talked to Howard just before Christmas, the way I always did. He told me he had been contacted by The Rolling Stones. I was like, ‘hey, they’re short a drummer right now…’ – but, as it turned out, it was for an in-depth interview for Rolling Stone, the magazine: “‘Nobody ever thought about interviewing me, man,Grimes says, speaking over the phone with a soft drawl… ‘I stopped worrying about it. I stayed in my place. I did what I was told. I played my heart out.Grimes appears to have the inverse of an ego; he is self-effacing to the point that he almost becomes invisible in his own story,” Elias Leight wrote, and I think that’s exactly right. Howard was never about Howard, about being the ‘big man’ in the story… maybe that’s why God loved him so much

He was finally getting paid.

On January 6th, I was working on episode six of the Reggie Young Discography Project, and I came across something in some CD liner notes that didn’t seem to add up. As usual, I picked up the phone and called my Ace in the Hole. “You know, Kelly, like Darryl Carter told me, and Otis told me back in the day, they used to tell me all the time, ‘Howard, they can’t find and trace all the records you recorded ’cause you started out so young recording in the studio,’ he said ‘they don’t even have a record of how many records you actually cut!'” I told him I was gonna send him down a CD of those tracks for him to listen to, and see if he thought that was him on the drums.

After about three weeks, I called him. His wife Juanita answered, and told me Howard was back in the hospital with kidney problems, but that he seemed to be improving. He came home shortly after that, and held Juanita tight.

The next day his son-in-law was driving him to his dialysis treatment, and Howard turned to him and said “I’m tired, man. I just want to go home and rest.” …and that’s just what he did. Preston called me February 12th. Howard had been called home

At the funeral a week later, Reverend Charles Hodges delivered a powerful, heartfelt eulogy to the man he called his brother. “You don’t have to wonder if Howard is with Jesus now that he’s passed, he was already with Jesus while he was here!” Amen.

I walked slowly up to Howard’s casket, placed my hand gently on his chest and said goodbye, just as I had seen him do with Willie a decade before…

I’m gonna miss you, Bulldog… a lot.

Special Thanks to: Juanita Grimes, Scott Bomar, Kerri Mahoney, Preston Lauterbach, Floyd Newman, Carla Thomas, Percy Wiggins, Spencer Wiggins, Don Bryant, Joe Restivo, Archie Turner, Kirk Smothers, Marc Franklin, Reverend Charles Hodges, Tex Wrightsill, Harold Thomas, Sam Hutchins, Bruce Branoweth, Boo Mitchell, Ira Padnos, Willie Hightower, John Broven, Paul Pollman, Chase Thompson, Mark Nicholson and Robin Tomlin

In Loving Memory: Otis Clay, Darryl Carter, Chips Moman, Skip Pitts, Ben Cauley, Sir Lattimore Brown, Willie Mitchell, J. Blackfoot, Preston Shannon and Solomon Burke


I just want to say a word here about how great and influential a talent Howard Grimes was. In the Rolling Stone article, they talk about how many times he was ‘sampled’ and all that, but that doesn’t even scratch the surface. The conversation usually goes something like this: “Yeah, he was Al Green’s drummer.” “Really? Wow… like on Let’s Stay Together?” “Um, no, well kinda, but… it’s a long story.” – and the take-away from that is that people think he played on some of his records. That’s crap. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like Al Jackson and everything, but Bulldog was the Hi Records drummer – period.

I wanted to put together this playlist of some of the early, lesser known material Howard mentioned in our 2012 interview, along with some of my personal favorites of his work from later on… without even mentioning Al Green.

God’s Own Drummer