Composer, pianist/ singer Ivory Joe Hunter was born on October 10, 1914, in Kirbyville, Texas to Dave Hunter, a blues guitarist, and Anna Smith Hunter, a pianist/ gospel singer. Ivory began piano lessons at age 5 with his mother. After his mother died when he was 13, Hunter’s godmother, Savanah White Riley, washed clothing for people to get money for piano lessons for Hunter. Hunter attended Lincoln High School in Port Arthur, Texas, where he was a member of the orchestra and choir. In addition, he formed a small band and played piano at school dances. He graduated in 1930 at 16.
In 1933, Hunter recorded” Stack O Lee” on a cylinder in Wiergate, Texas for John Lomax and Alan Lomax, father and son folklorists for the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song. He also hosted a radio show and was a program manager with KFDM in Beaumont, Texas.
In 1942, Hunter was billed as “The Baron of the Boogie” and “The Happiest Man Alive.” His repertoire included R&B, blues, boogie-woogie, and even Country & Western. He relocated to Los Angeles, California in 1942 and the following year started Ivory Records. In 1948, he formed Pacific Records in Oakland and released “Pretty Mama Blues” that topped the R&B chart and remained charted for 3 weeks.
In the 1950s, Hunter composed and arranged 21 songs, of which 18 appeared on Billboard’s R&B charts 21 times and 4 times on Billboard’s Hot 100. It included “I Need You” that peaked at no. 1 R&B and “I Quit My Pretty Mama” that reached no. 4 R&B in 1950; the blues ballad “Since I Met You Baby” in 1956, which peaked at no. 1 R&B, no. 12 Billboard Hot 100 and no. 16 on Billboard’s Roc and Roll chart. His “A Tear Fell” released in 1956, reached no. 15 R&B. In 1957 “Empty Arms” peaked at no. 2 R&B and no. 43 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Yes, I Want You” in 1958, reached no. 13 R&B and no. 94 on the Billboard Hot 100. The decade ended with his release in 1959 of “City Lights” that reached no. 92 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. In 1974, Hunter received a BMI Songwriter Award.
Ivory Joe Hunter, who wrote more than 7,000 songs, died on November 8, 1974, of Lung Cancer in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 60. And in 2009, the Jasper County Historical Commission, the Jefferson County Historical Commission, and the Port Arthur Historical Society unveiled a Texas state historical marker honoring Ivory Joe Hunter at his gravesite.