Ivory Joe Hunter – Working On Me

YouTube playlist below…

In our last episode, that in-depth investigation of Ivory Joe Hunter’s later work, we had focused mainly on the singles he released during the last two decades of his storied career. Within that same period, he had cut a number of obligatory LPs for a variety of labels, but I figured we’d leave those alone. Before going into ‘airplane mode’ on a recent foray to New Orleans, I downloaded the eight Ivory Joe albums on Apple Music to my phone, plugged in my AirPods and hit shuffle (not that bad for an old guy, huh?). Most of it was pretty standard LP track filler, sprinkled with a few greatest hits, but then this song came up that just kind of blew me away, Working On Me. Whoah! I had to listen to it twice. Sounding more Frogman Henry than Ivory Joe, it’s just a rollicking production in full stereo – awesome background vocals, great guitar… where the hell did this come from, and why hadn’t I ever heard it before? Apple Music had it included on a Fuel Records compilation called An Introduction To Ivory Joe Hunter, but there were (of course) no liner notes (a situation which remains one of my pet peeves in this digital age). Once I got back on the ground, I was able to track down the song’s initial release. It had first appeared on a 1989 LP on Home Cooking Records, I’m Coming Down With The Blues. I found us a copy on Ebay, and picked it up for next to nothing.

As it turns out, the Home Cooking label was owned by a ‘colorful’ character named Roy C. Ames. Described as a notorious producer and ‘thief’ on the Texas Blues scene in the 1960s, he recorded untold hours of sessions at Bill Holford’s Audio Company of America (ACA) Studio in Houston on artists like Johnny Winter, Johnny Copeland and Juke Boy Bonner. Roy Ames was sent to prison in 1975, after police seized literally tons (!) of child pornography from a warehouse that he owned, apparently leaving behind the mountain of ACA master tapes that he had squirreled away. Upon his release eleven years later, he had started up Home Cooking as an outlet for those tapes, with complete disregard for little things like songwriter’s credits or artist royalties. According to John Lomax in The Houston Press, when people objected he would tell them “If you don’t like what I’m doing, sue me!” and when you Google his name, lawsuits are the first thing that pop up.

Ivory Joe Hunter, however, had conveniently been dead for fifteen years when HCS-112 was released. On the label, Hunter is credited as the sole songwriter of all fourteen tracks on the album, with Ames’ own firm, Clarity Music, listed as their publisher. Although Ivory Joe was reputed to have written something like 7000 songs, a quick check of the BMI Repertoire Database reveals that “Working On Me” was not one of them. There are forty nine songs listed with that title, by a variety of composers, but none of them seem to have been published by Clarity Music. At this point, I’ve been unable to determine which (if any) of these titles refers to the track in question. I’m open to suggestions… detectives?

Amazingly, the back cover of the Home Cooking LP actually listed session dates and personnel, claiming that most of the tracks (including our cut here) had been produced by Roy Ames and Bill Holford and recorded at ACA on April 15, 1968. Credited for both lead guitar and background vocals was a gentleman named Ted Hawley. Hawley and his band have remained active on the local club scene, and I was able to track him down through the Houston Blues Society, and a page on Facebook. After he heard the songs I sent him, Hawley told me:“I played on a couple of Ivory Joe Hunter’s tracks years ago but not on these songs… I was doing work for Roy during that whole time so he might have confused who did what.” Ugh. None of the other names listed seem to ring any bells… was the whole thing just a fabrication?

The other equally great tune from the album that I had asked Ted about was called The Cold Gray Light Of Dawn. Just pure Country, it pre-dates Hunter’s Nashville period by about five years. With lyrics like, “Every morning in my room, I feel like a body in a tomb,” it’s a song so good that Nick Lowe chose to cover it on his 1998 album Dig My Mood where, sure enough, Ivory Joe is listed as the songwriter, with Clarity Music as the publisher – credits which have been replicated as recently as last year, when a remastered version of the album was issued by Yep Roc Records in North Carolina. As you might have guessed by now, astute reader, according to BMI, the song was neither written by Hunter, nor published by Clarity… hmmm.

As you may recall, we had mentioned a Billboard review of Ivory Joe’s first Sound Stage 7 single that had him ‘returning to the disk scene’ in December of 1968. It had been cut at ACA, with (the mis-spelled) Steve Poncio as the producer. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that all of the previously unreleased Hunter tracks that Ames had put together on the 1989 Home Cooking album were actually from the 1968 sessions held by Poncio, and had been paid for by Monument (Sound Stage 7’s parent company) in Nashville.

So I started poking around…

There it was – picked as a ‘best bet’ by Cash Box in March of 1969 (just a few months after the release of the Ivory Joe Ivory Tower single), Ray Pennington’s version of Cold, Gray Light Of Dawn. Produced in Nashville by Fred Foster, I love that ethereal pedal steel, and that incisive late sixties Nashville string section. Pennington had started out in Rockabilly as Ray Starr in the late fifties, before hitting the Country charts for Capitol in ’66 and ’67, including his biggest hit, Ramblin’ Man, which climbed to #29. Foster had signed him in late ’68, and this was his second single for the label. Although that best bet didn’t pay off this time out, Pennington would go on to cut a few moderate hits for Monument before moving to RCA where Waylon Jennings would take I’m A Ramblin’ Man all the way to #1 in 1974. He would found his own One-Step label in Nashville later on – but hold on a minute…

Mitchell Torok

The song hadn’t been written by Ivory Joe after all, but by the songwriting team of Mitchell Torok and his ‘beauty queen’ wife, Gale Jones. Torok had started out in Houston himself, before hooking up with The Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, where he would break things wide open with his runaway #1 Country hit Carribean in 1953. In 1956, Torok took a song Gale had written, When Mexico Gave Up The Rhumba (To Do The Rock And Roll), into the top ten in the UK (go figure) and became a much celebrated figure over there when he toured England the following year. Using the pen-name Ramona Redd, Gale continued to write, usually with Torok in tow, for Country artists like Jim Reeves, Hank Snow, Glen Campbell, Skeeter Davis and Willie Nelson. Cold, Gray Light Of Dawn is indeed listed on BMI, published by Fred Foster’s Combine Music, as is stated on the label. With Combine now owned by Sony, I wonder what they might have to say about all this…

Roy C. Ames died in 2003, and in the Houston Press article mentioned above John Lomax said: “No one man caused more harm to Houston’s music community than Roy Ames… consider all that is decent in the world. Roy Ames was as far from that as you could get.”

Ivory Joe Hunter, on the other hand was as decent as they come. After all the digging I had done about him for the site, a listing popped up on eBay for a promo photo with an accompanying letter, written by his manager and biggest champion, Bettye Berger. It seemed like somehow this was meant for me… I had to get it.

Written in response to a postcard from a fan in 1979 who was unaware that Hunter had passed, I think it’s a priceless little piece of history…

“I think his greatest time of all was when the barriers were broken and a black man could sing and not be labeled. The times he shared with his friends and playing his music just prior to his death, just living was a good time. He laughed a lot, and he made the people around him laugh… Ivory Joe would say ‘God Bless Your Soul’, and I say God Rest His.”


YouTube Playlist For ‘Working On Me’

Special Thanks to Ted Hawley, Billy Sanders, Jay Halsey, Billy Lawson, John Nova Lomax, John Broven and Mark Nicholson.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s