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

1967 Episode Five – A Touch Of The Blues

YouTube Playlist of all tracks below…

(here’s a quick tip, if you scroll down and hit ‘play’ on the playlist first, you can listen to it while you read the notes. Thanks!)

With Stax cranking out hit after hit around the corner, by 1967 other major record companies began looking for ways to cash in on some of that Memphis Magic. Let’s check it out…

One of the first people to book an ‘outside’ session at Hi was Don Robey, who would cut some of the greatest Soul records ever made there on O.V. Wright in late 1966. Those Back Beat releases had yet to see any chart action (although they soon would), but Robey was apparently impressed enough to record Bobby Bland, his biggest star, there in early 1967. In Charles Farley’s Soul Of The Man, he reports that the session took place on Valentine’s Day, but both Reggie and Bobby’s books confirm that the session was actually held on February 6th. Farley goes on to list the three sides that were cut that day as Lover With A Reputation (which, in true Robey fashion, stayed ‘in the can’ until 1970), Set Me Free (an Lp only track), and the sublime A Touch Of The Blues, with Reggie’s tasty Blues licks helping to propel it to #30 R&B in early 1968. What a great record…

The songwriter credit here reads ‘D.Malone’ which, as we all know, stands for Deadric Malone, the nefarious alias that Robey employed as he routinely ripped off many an actual composer. As I said nine years ago“The source of much speculation over the years as to whether or not this was an actual person (some said it was his wife), I’ve come to believe he just made it up. It was the ever vigilant [Preston] Lauterbach who pointed out to me that there are two Memphis streets which follow each other in quick succession as you cross over Lamar Avenue on Airways Boulevard on the way out of town – Deadrick and Malone! One can only imagine the wily Robey on his way to the airport, seizing on this random sequence as his new nom de plume…” Incredible, huh?

Robey would bring O.V. Wright back to South Lauderdale in August to cut three more sides, one of which was the soulful What About You, which would enter the Billboard charts the same day as the Bland single that November, and climb as high as #48 R&B. Written by Don Bryant (although the flip was ‘composed’ by Ol’ Deadric), it was only the second of O.V.’s records to credit Willie Mitchell as producer, a role which Mitchell would continue to play until Wright’s sad demise in 1980.

I never realized, until I started working on this episode, that Don Robey’s sudden interest in recording at Hi in September of ’66 was probably precipitated by the fact that Mercury had decided to cut Junior Parker there the month before. At this point, I’m not sure of the exact details of Junior leaving Duke and signing with Mercury that Summer, but I’m sure Robey was none too pleased about losing a man who had been one of his biggest stars. The big label was certainly going for it, importing Bobby Robinson to Memphis as Parker’s producer and all that, but Robey may have had the last laugh after all. Despite being picked as a ‘best bet’ in Cashbox, Mercury’s Just Like A Fish (with an uncredited Howard Grimes on drums), eluded the Billboard charts entirely, while a 45 Robey issued on Duke shortly after that, Man Or Mouse, enjoyed a ten week run on their R&B Top 50, peaking at #27 in early 1967, scoring higher than Parker had in almost five years.

A check of John Broven’s coveted copy of The Blues Discography, reveals that Man Or Mouse was cut in Memphis on August 4, 1966 – three days after the first Mercury session on Junior listed by Reggie in his log book. I guess Robey was never one to care much about contractual details! On the flip, Wait For Another Day, ‘Malone’ shares the songwriting credit with Gilbert Caple and Larry Davis. As we discussed in our Clarence Nelson investigation, after leaving Satellite, Gilbert Caple had hooked up with Earl Forest at the former Fernwood studio on N. Main, which is no doubt where the session was held, with Larry Davis on guitar. Robey was one slippery character!

Mercury was definitely not amused, and ran this announcement of their plans to expand their R&B presence in The Bluff City on the front page of Billboard in January, while the Duke 45 was still on the charts. “Roy Dea and I went all the way back to the first grade in Shreveport,” Jerry Kennedy told me, “and I brought him to Nashville to work with me in the mid-sixties… there was a big to-do in Memphis. Irv Green and Steinberg came down, the President and Vice-President of Mercury, and threw a cocktail party, the whole deal. The office was located in the original Holiday Inn building, and I brought Roy in to help me run it.”

What the announcement doesn’t mention is that, according to Cash Box, Mercury had already hired promotion man Boo Frazier to ‘helm’ their R&B division in November of ’66, the same week that Bobby Robinson was at Hi with Junior Parker. The article goes on (and on) about Frazier’s past accomplishments, but it’s interesting to note that, just prior to inking his pact with Mercury, Boo had been the ‘eastern representative’ for Don Robey at Duke-Peacock. Hmmm… I wonder how ol’ Deadric felt about that?

The arranger credited on all the Mercury Junior Parker sessions held at Hi in 1966 was Gene Miller. As we mentioned in episode one, ‘Bowlegs’ and Willie Mitchell had a ‘falling out’ at Hi right around this time. According to Howard Grimes, Miller would kind of ‘improvise’ a little while reading Mitchell’s horn charts, with Willie scolding him to “Just play what’s on the damn paper!” As Willie’s star began to shine brighter there on South Lauderdale, Bowlegs no doubt saw the writing on the wall, and hitched his own to the Mercury operation, where he would serve as their ‘secret weapon’

Mercury sent Boo Frazier to Memphis in February to work as a ‘co-producer’ with Roy Dea. Their first assignment was a four side session on Margie Hendrix at Hi on Valentine’s Day. The label had signed Margie in 1965, after her tumultous reign as a Raelette, and issued two singles on her that went nowhere. With Bowlegs’ cookin’ arrangement, and Reggie’s trademark guitar work, I Call You Lover But You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Tramp (written by Mack Rice) is just about as good as it gets. The second 45 released from those sessions is right up there as well, with Margie giving Otis Redding a run for his money on Restless, which was written by Curtis Johnson. Johnson had started out at Satellite as a member of The Chips (re-christened The Astors after the Moman split), and was now with Bowlegs’ band. Just pure Memphis ‘in yo’ face’ Soul, it’s hard to believe neither of these records connected with the public.

According to Chuck Berry“On June 17, 1966, after much negotiation, I signed with Mercury Records, obtaining a sixty thousand dollar advance on future royalties.” After an ill-conceived album of re-recordings of most of his Chess hits fell on deaf ears, Mercury handed him over to Dea and Frazier in Memphis, who booked him into Hi and cut an album’s worth of material on March 22nd and 23rd. A major guitar hero of Reggie Young’s, “I cut an album with Chuck Berry,” was one of the first things he told me when we started talking about all this. The problem is, however, that Berry appears to have just been ‘phoning it in’, and the record just isn’t that good. On the title track, Back To Memphis, released as a single that April, it’s cool to hear Reggie and Chuck trading licks, but overall the whole project feels like a missed opportunity.

By contrast, Memphis Soul, the album Boo and Roy produced at Hi ten days later on Bowlegs’ organ player Jesse Butler, is just da bomb! Released on Mercury subsidiary (or is it the other way around?), Philips, it’s a lost testament to just how great the Bowlegs Miller outfit was. Check out Butler killing it on that big fat Hammond (the same one Charles Hodges would come to own within a few years?). The entire Lp is phenomenal (including the obligatory cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis’), but, Drown In My Own Tears, the plug side of the single they pulled from the album just knocks me out. I asked Charlie Chalmers if that was him blowing that amazing sax on here, “Yeah, that’s me, but I didn’t finish playin’ the whole verse. That’s not like me, to stop playin’ in the middle of a solo. Oh well, they must have mixed it out,” he said, “I did lots of sessions with Jesse… but, he had a punctuality problem. You never knew if he was going to show up to the session until he got there, so that didn’t help him any.” I guess not, as he continues to fly way under the radar. Thanks, Charlie!

As Reggie and Bobby began to make the move to American, Mercury wasn’t far behind. They apparently had signed Norman West away from Joe Cuoghi, and cut two sides on him at American on April 18th, possibly because Hi was booked (more on that next episode). This sweet cover of the Sonny Thompson penned Little Willie John classic Let Them Talk was released on their Smash subsidiary, and features some of Bobby’s best Gospel-flavored piano work. Although there’s no mention of Bowlegs on the label, I’m betting that’s his horn charts. Kind of like Robey had with Junior Parker, Hi would release the M.O.C. single on Norman we talked about last episode within a few weeks of this session but, hey, at least the material was already ‘in the can’!

As we discussed in the 1966 notes, Shelby Singleton had cut Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun with Reggie that July for a Smash single that hadn’t become one. Singleton had moved on since then, and Jerry Kennedy was left to run that show. As Kennedy told us for the Soul Of The Memphis Boys project: “I’m not sure whose idea it was to cut the Soul My Way album on Jerry Lee, it might have been Shelby’s, but at that point we figured we had nothing to lose. It was Roy’s idea to cut it at American with some of Chips’ folks, and he was right. He asked me to come in as producer…all in all it was a great experience.”

As Jerry Kennedy told us this past Summer, he liked to play guitar on his productions whenever possible. Having Chips behind the board at American certainly afforded him that opportunity, and we were able to confirm that thanks to the session details provided by Jay Halsey. On It’s A Hang Up Baby, the plug side of the single pulled from the album, you can hear Kennedy and Young working the groove together, kind of like Jerry and Billy Sanford had on Oh, Pretty Woman. As with Roy Dea, Jerry knew Reggie (and Sanford) from the Shreveport days and fit right in with ‘Chips’ folks’. It may not quite be ‘Soul’, but it’s still a damn good record.

Mercury had signed Gloria Lynne to their Fontana subsidiary in 1965, where she would score her biggest hit (#8 R&B) with a Hal Mooney produced version of Watermelon Man, featuring new lyrics she had written for the Herbie Hancock standard.

Nothing much seemed to be happening after that and so, just as with Jerry Lee, Mercury decided to try and cut her as more of a ‘Soul’ artist, booking her into American a week later to record The Other Side Of Gloria Lynne. Despite Charlie Fach’s call in Billboard to ‘get material’ to Roy Dea for the album, it’s mostly covers of other people’s R&B hits which, in my opinion, is rarely a good idea. A Dea and Frazier production, with Moman’s Memphis Boys playing Bowlegs’ arrangements – how bad could it be? Gloria’s take on the 1964 Soul Sisters’ R&B charter, I Can’t Stand It, would be the single released from the album that July, and is classic AGP all the way, with Tommy Cogbill and Gene Chrisman solidly in the pocket, Charlie Chalmers’ beefy saxophone, and Lynne just belting it out. It could have been a hit in its own right but, alas, it wasn’t.

This next one may have been cut at Hi during two Mercury sessions noted in Reggie’s book on April 4th and 5th, but it seems odd that he wouldn’t have listed Junior Parker as the artist, especially since he had for those late 1966 dates. The fact that I Can’t Put My Finger On It is a Donnie Fritts composition, however, has led to some speculation that it may have been cut at Fame in Muscle Shoals, so we asked David Hood; “…with Charlie Chalmers, Bowlegs Miller and Reggie on it, I would definitely say it is a Memphis cut, possibly American.” Thanks David, we concur. I absolutely love Bowlegs’ funky arrangement here, with the baritone holding down the bottom while, once again, Charlie Chalmers just wails on the sax break. Yeah, Baby! Breaking into the R&B Top 50 in August, it would be the last record to have ‘Produced by Roy Dea & Boo Frazier’ printed on the label.

Shortly after it was released, buried deep in Billboard’s back pages, it was announced that Roy had ‘departed’ Mercury Records, with no further explanation given. I’m not sure what happened there, but I imagine ‘creative differences’ may have had something to do with it.

Let’s talk for a minute here about Charlie Chalmers, and how important a figure he is in American music. In addition to his own great production work at Sam Phillips we talked about earlier, by 1967 he had become one of the most ‘in demand’ horn men in the nation. Between Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett’s records for Atlantic, Charlie’s saxophone would spend an incredible EIGHTEEN WEEKS at NUMBER ONE on Billboard’s R&B chart in ’67 alone! Small wonder he seemed to be on just about every record cut in Memphis as well. “I was working somewhere everyday it seems like,” Charlie told me, “a few short years, but countless sessions. A magic time!” Magic indeed!

The next two singles to emanate from Mercury’s Memphis operation were issued back-to-back in September. The first of these was Junior Parker’s take on the Brook Benton standard Hurtin’ Inside. According to the liner notes of I’m So Satisfied, it was cut in August while Junior’s previous release was still on the charts. The label credit now reads ‘A Boo Frazier Production’, with no mention of Roy Dea. Both Reggie and Bobby logged a session on Margie Hendrix on June 6th at American where they would cut another Mack Rice gem, Don’t Take Your Good Thing, which was the second release.

Another ‘Boo Frazier Production’, I’m sure he didn’t have to do a whole lot considering all the talent in the room. With Margie’s swaggering delivery, Bowlegs punchy horn lines, and Moman’s American Group just locked in, it’s difficult to understand why this record wasn’t a hit. I’m beginning to get the feeling here that, once Roy pulled out, Mercury may have lost interest and not put much promotion behind Boo’s productions… I don’t know.

Bobby Hebb’s Everything Is Coming Up Roses was released on Philips around the same time (yes, that’s Charlie Chalmers on the sax). With this side of the 45 written by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, and the flip by Darryl Carter (both published by Press Music), I’d say it’s pretty much a lock that it was cut at American… only neither Reggie nor Bobby mention the session in their books. There may be a reason for that. While still a ‘Boo Frazier Production’, under that on the label it reads ‘Produced by: Curtis Johnson, Cleve Shears, Jesse Butler’. Now, why would that be? Well, Cleve ‘Frog’ Shears was Bowlegs’ bass player, and we’ve already met the other two guys. I’m thinking that Frazier used Bowlegs’ band on this one, for one reason or another, hence the mention on the label. I’m not sure why, but this would be the last of the Frazier productions to credit Miller as arranger.

Frazier’s next trio of releases, although still listing Johnson, Shears and Butler as co-producers in one form or another, would be arranged by Gilbert Caple. As alluded to earlier, I believe this would indicate that they were cut at the North Main Street studio run by Earl Forest. Could there have been some ‘bad blood’ between Boo, Bowlegs and his boys? We may never know, I guess.

Gilbert Caples’ arrangement of Helen Davis’ That’s My Man (another Curtis Johnson tune) is, in my opinion, right up there with the stuff Ruby Johnson had been cutting across town at Stax. Dig as I might, there doesn’t seem to be any information out there about Ms. Davis… detectives? Released around the same time, Norman West’s Words Won’t Say (How Much You Mean To Me) was written by Wylie Sappington, composer of Don Bryant’s equally ‘deep’ Is That Asking Too Much, which we discussed last episode. According to Sir Shambling, Norman’s soulful side here is “one of the best unknown soul ballads from the city. Pure Memphis magic.” I couldn’t agree more, yet both of these great records would sink without a trace.

According to Michael Ruppli’s The Mercury Labels: A Discography, the following consecutive matrix numbers after the West single were issued as both sides of Mercury 32731, by a group called The Shadows. I didn’t think that referred to Cliff Richard’s UK chart toppers, so I started looking around. The record wasn’t listed on 45cat, not on Discogs, not on eBay, yet somehow it turned up on YouTube. 

It was next to impossible to read much information off of the low resolution scans on the video, so I decided to look up the composers on the BMI Repertoire database. The names didn’t mean anything to me, and at first I thought it must have been some kind of typo, but then I started googling and asking around. Thanks to John Ridley, Martin Goggin, Mark Nicholson, John Broven and ol’ Jukebox George, I’ve been able to get a better handle on who these Shadows might have been…

Fonnie ‘Tuna’ Harley

Like Curtis Johnson’s Astors, Memphis vocal group The Lyrics started out recording with Chips Moman at Satellite. When Jim Stewart passed on releasing the tapes, Chips took them over to Slim Wallace at Fernwood who did. The group would go on to have the inaugural release on Goldwax in 1963, before their lead singer, Percy Milem, decided to leave the group and pursue a solo career, resulting in some truly great records. As we saw in episode three, Reggie and Bobby had cut two sessions at Sun with Percy for Goldwax in June. What I hadn’t realized, is that there was another member of The Lyrics who had remained active in the music business, first tenor Fonnie ‘Tuna’ Harley. “My Mom was a school teacher, and she said she wanted to be different,” Harley told Martin Goggin in Juke Blues 66“so she called me ‘Fonnie’ and my sister ‘Donnie’… Donnie said ‘I can sing, let’s do something together’.”

Tuna went on to tell Goggin, “We organized a group called Act III with a guy named LaVorn Smith. We cut a ballad called I Can Feel The Tears… over at Sonic Studios with Roland Janes. Donnie did the lead and Lavorn did the arrangement.” Fonnie told Goggin that the single had been released on his own Harley label in 1967, but our research seems to indicate that it may have actually been cut in 1970, and that may indeed be Reggie playing that amazing guitar…

The single that was actually released in 1967 was the aforementioned Mercury 72731 [now added to 45cat by Jukebox George], with the copyrights of both sides being registered that October. I’ll tell you what, Donnie Harley was one great singer! Check out the movin’ and groovin’ Beautiful Heaven and the sweet uptown Soul of Time Is Running Out. Both tunes were co-authored by Fonnie and Donnie and arranged by Gilbert Caple, with Curtis Johnson and Cleve Shears listed as Boo Frazier’s co-producers. A solid record all the way around, how is it that it is virtually nowhere to be found? John Broven thinks that perhaps Mercury realized the conflict with the group’s name and, with the UK Shadows then signed to Epic in the US, pulled the record to avoid any legal problems with CBS. I’d say that sounds about right… ugh.*

A similar thing might have happened with Act III, as there was another group recording under that name for Larry Uttal at Mala/Bell. In 1965, Charles Stewart produced a single on Texas vocal group The Van Dykes and released it on his own Hue label. When Mala picked it up for national distribution, it climbed to #24 R&B in early ’66, and three more chart hits would follow. According to the Goggin article, Fonnie’s friend Willie Bean convinced Stewart to re-issue the Harley single on Hue but, apparently to avoid any conflict with Mala, he changed the name of the group to Gents & The Lady. It was the astute Mark Nicholson who pointed out this entry in Reggie’s 1970 log book for an overdub session on September 22nd… I’d say he’s our guitarist!

The ‘Trump’ notation refers, not to the future orange president, but to the unfortunately named Capitol subsidiary label run by Tommy Cogbill. Just about a month earlier, Cogbill had produced a great two-sider on them, under yet another moniker, Donnie, Fonnie & LaVornA Woman Who’ll Let You Be A Man is just great, and reminiscent of the material Tommy had been producing on The Masqueraders around the same time… only nobody seemed to notice.

Changing their name once again to Numbers, Fonnie and Donnie would work with Curtis Johnson (who had gone on to become a member of proto-funk outfit Brothers Unlimited), and cut the disco-era Got To Pull Away as the sole release on the Rolashed label in 1977. I’m lovin’ it!! Sadly, Fonnie Harley passed on in Memphis in 2017. Donnie moved to Texas and, as far as we can tell, is still around… talk about under-appreciated! If you ever read this, Donnie, thank you!

“…um, red, I thought we were talking about 1967.”  Oh yeah, sorry.

Just as with Junior Parker, Mercury had signed Roy Head away from Don Robey. Head had barely managed to crawl out of the 90s on the Hot 100 in 1966, so I’m sure Robey wasn’t too broken up about losing him. For his big label debut, Boo Frazier brought him to American in September to cut Mickey Newberry’s Got Down On Saturday (Sunday In The Rain). One of the coolest cats ever, Roy’s delivery here puts you in mind of The Hombres’ Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out), which would begin it’s climb to #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 within a few days of this session.

Billboard had also predicted that Roy’s effort here would put him ‘back on top in short order’, but it didn’t. ‘The American Studio Group’ shares the production credit on this one which, as far as I can tell, was the last of Mercury’s Memphis ‘Boo Frazier Productions’.

In late 1965, Mercury had decided to discontinue it’s Blue Rock subsidiary, which had been the Chicago label’s primary outlet for R&B product. A decision which led directly, I believe, to their increased presence in Memphis. After the lack of any real chart action on the records we discussed above, Mercury opted to re-activate Blue Rock in 1968, naming our man Boo Frazier as ‘director of artist relations and national promo director’ of the label – as cogent an illustration of ‘The Peter Principle’ in action if ever there was one, I’d venture to say.

Oh well…

* While doing research for this episode I came across this on a 45cat page for an ultra-rare Jimmy Hart record: “Based on info from soul 45 experts it is likely to be a ‘test press’, albeit in full store-ready stock form, run by RPC in Richmond, Indiana prior to a planned commercial run. However, no such full run occurred. According to those in the know, protocol for some contract pressings at the time was to run 6 copies with full retail-ready labels and provide four to the label, with the plant keeping two file copies (also happened for promo copies sometimes). The timing of this planned release (fall 1965) coincides with the parent company putting Blue Rock on hold until its return in 1968…” Which may well have been the case with Mercury 72731 – no full run may have ever existed!

1967 Episode Five Playlist

Special thanks go to Jerry Kennedy, Charlie Chalmers, Mark Nicholson, John Ridley, Martin Goggin, Jay Halsey, Richard Tapp, John Broven, 45cat and Jukebox George.

Billy Lawson

Billy Lawson grew up just outside of Muscle Shoals next door to Junior Lowe and, like Junior, he had a guitar in his hand by the time he was six years old. Lowe became sort of his mentor (and guitar hero), and would allow him to sit-in with his band at local State Line clubs before he was out of grade school.

His Zip City neighborhood was also home to Earl ‘Peanutt’ Montgomery, the man whose career as a songwriter included a slew of top ten Country hits he penned for his main man George Jones… Billy was paying attention. The Music was in him, and he knew he had no choice but to follow where it might lead. While still in his teens, Billy and his band began working that same State Line dance hall circuit Junior had.

In his early twenties he got himself a job at Terry Woodford and Clayton Ivey’s Wishbone Studios in Muscle Shoals, learning about songwriting from some of the best in the business. Billy and his band were still playing most nights out on the strip, which got them noticed by casting director Tonya Holly, who would hire them to appear in the Oscar winning film Blue Sky in 1994. Setting his sights on Nashville with stars in his eyes, it looked like he might have a shot at making it as a performer when he was signed by Epic Records… but Billy soon realized that wasn’t going to happen.

His unique way with words caught the attention of Tree Publishing executive Don Cook, who signed Billy on as a staff songwriter in 1995. By the Summer of ’96 Learning As You Go, a song Lawson co-wrote with Larry Boone, would top the Country charts for Rick Trevino. Within a few months, Trace Adkins would take another Lawson composition (this time written with John Schweers), I Left Something Turned On At Home, straight to number one. In just a few short years, Billy Ray Lawson had become an in-demand Music City songwriter, placing dozens of other songs on the charts. As the nature of the music business began to change in Nashville after the turn of the century, however, it would become ever more difficult to make a living as a songwriter in the digital age.

Billy Ray decided to stay closer to home…

The Shoals was his stomping grounds, and Lawson began hanging out with the man who had put the town on the map, Rick Hall. Over lunches at their favorite Italian restaurant, Billy just soaked it all in. He knew what he was called upon to do.

Opening his own Big Star Studio, Billy began producing a few records. After that, it seemed like things all began to fall into place. Wishbone Studio, which had been empty for years, became available and Lawson figured out a way to buy it. When Larry Rogers’ Studio 19 was marked for demolition on Nashville’s Music Row in 2015, Billy worked out a deal with Larry to install the studio’s Trident 90 console at Wishbone. One of the first records cut there was Willie Hightower’s great come-back album, Out Of The Blue. With the legendary Quinton Claunch on board as his executive producer, the album features some of the best songs Billy has ever written, like this one:

(check out Lawson’s shirt… )

The first time we met Billy was when Reggie and Jenny Young brought us to Claunch Cafe in Tuscumbia so we could check out Johnny Belew’s amazing cornbread salad. Billy invited us to visit Wishbone the next day, where he was in the process of cutting another come-back album of sorts, Darryl Worley’s Second Wind: Latest & Greatest, with he and Darryl producing. The first single pulled from the album, co-written with the great Ed Hill, has become a breakthrough digital hit:

Billy Lawson and his band (now called ‘Wishbone’) are back out there performing locally in The Shoals area, to rave reviews. Performer, songwriter, producer, studio owner – it might seem like he had this whole music thing sewn up – but there was one thing missing… his own record label.

Not anymore. Along with partners Mike O’Rear and James Wright, Billy launched Muscle Shoals Recordings this past week with the release of their first single, Avalon:

A loving tribute to Rick Hall and all things Muscle Shoals, that’s Junior Lowe and Travis Wammack on guitar there, folks and Clayton Ivey and Jim Whitehead on the keys, same as it ever was…

Billy Lawson’s got it going on!