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Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

IVY JO HUNTER, aged 82


Born George Ivy Hunter in Detroit, Michigan. He grew up a talented musician, playing the piano, the euphonium and the trumpet. He performed classical music, playing with the Detroit All City Orchestra.

George was also a baritone saxophone player.

Although he had ambitions for a career in music, he was forbidden to pursue this. He said, “My mother didn’t want me to go into the music business. She thought it was no good.”

Instead, he went to college to study commercial art.

Nevertheless, he wrote a song for local group The Velvelettes. They entered an amateur song contest with it – and won. It led them to be signed up by the Tamla Motown record company.

The Velvelettes (courtesy Pinterest)

Once George had completed his course, he joined the US Army.

When he was demobbed, George went to work for an electrical company. He continued to play Detroit music venues such as ‘20 Grand’ and the ‘Phelps Lounge’, in order to earn more money and in the hope he would be ‘discovered’.

It was whilst playing at the Phelps Lounge that he met saxophone player Henry Cosby, known as ‘Hank’.

Cosby introduced him to his friend, William ‘Mickey’ Stevenson who was the A&R man (Artists and Repertoire) for the newly formed record company ‘Motown’.

This had been created by Berry Gordy Junior in 1959.

Stevenson was impressed by Hunter’s musical talents and signed him on as a session musician, playing the keyboards. Stevenson and George became close friends.

Quickly, Stevenson realised they were not utilising George’s talents enough. He persuaded George to take up song writing.

However, a stage name was required. George chose the name ‘Ivy Jo Hunter’ – and from then on, it was the name  he was known by.

The choice of  name caused great confusion.

There was a 1950s Texan singer and pianist called ‘Ivory Joe Hunter’ and Ivy was often mistaken for him.

Also, Motown’s first staff musician was called Joe Hunter.

Additionally, with this stage name, everybody assumed Ivy was a woman.

It took Ivy a while to settle at Motown. He was frustrated by being limited to working with the record label’s second-string list. The main stars such as The Supremes and The Temptations were considered ‘the property’ of the top, established song writing teams.

He wrote minor hits for The Velvelettes, The Contours, The Marvelettes and for Gladys Knight.

Gladys Knight (courtesy People Magazine)

For each song, he made the demo himself. He was still working as a session musician and started producing record as well.

Berry Gordy liked his song writers to work in teams (e.g. Holland–Dozier–Holland and Whitfield & Strong), so Ivy was teamed up with Mickey Stevenson, who was the bigger name. This meant Stevenson got 50% of the profits – even though Ivy did most of the work.

Then, Ivy was given the opportunity to work with a young songwriter called Marvin Gaye.

Gaye had heard Chuck Berry’s hit ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, and it gave him the idea for another song. He ‘pinched’ the lyric, “They’re dancing in Chicago, down in New Orleans, in New York City”- and he used it for the basis of a ballad he had begun to write called ‘Dancing in the Street’.

When Ivy joined Marvin Gaye, he turned the song into a much more upbeat number.

Motown offered the song to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and Ivy produced the record.

Reeves was notorious for insisting that a song be recorded in just one take. Therefore, she was absolutely furious when, at the end of the first effort, Ivy apologised and told her he had forgotten to put the tape recorder on.

The song was recorded at the second attempt, with Martha adding extra edge to the vocal, in all her fury.

Years later  he admitted to Martha that he had lied, and the tape recorder was on all the time.

The beat on the song was created by Ivy hitting tyre chains with a piece of wood. One of the Vandellas said, “His hands were bleeding when he’d finished.”

Ivy also coached the Vandellas (Rosalind Ashford and Betty Kelly), in how he wanted them to sing the song. Indeed, for this track only, he became the third member of Martha Reeves’ backing group.

‘Dancing In the Street’ became a massive hit, but never made it to number one. It was kept off the top spot by Manfred Mann’s ‘Doo Wah Diddy Diddy’.

The Classic Single (courtesy Wikipedia)

The song is regarded as a classic and has been covered many times, including a  version by Mick Jagger and David Bowie (which ironically did make it to number 1 – in 1985.)

It elevated Ivy to work with the bigger names at Motown. He collaborated with a young Stevie Wonder on ‘Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever’ and also with The Spinners, The Temptations and The Four Tops.

Ivy penned one more big hit with The Isley Brothers song ‘Behind a Painted Smile’.

Ivy was a very private man and never told any of his colleagues about his personal life.

Mickey Stevenson left Motown in 1966 to join MGM. Ivy was not given another writing partner and increasingly found himself side-lined. He began to get the reputation as a troublemaker. For four years, he was given no work but was under contract so could not leave Motown.

Unexpectedly, in 1970 he was told that he was allowed to pursue his own singing career. He made two singles, which flopped. He had recorded his first LP, entitled ‘Ivy Jo Is In This Bag’. He was not a strong solo singer.

Due to the commercial failure of his singles, Motown decided to shelve his LP. Ivy was absolutely furious and had a major argument with the CEO Berry Gordy Jnr. He promptly left Motown, as his contract had now expired.

Ivy spent the next few years writing for, and producing the records of the band Funkadelic. He even played keyboards for them for a while.

Ivy was to have one more moment of glory. He wrote, alongside Wee Gee (a.k.a. William Howard, the former lead singer of The Dramatics), a song called ‘Hold On (To Your Dreams).

It was an unexpected hit – and has become an absolute favourite in the USA for any sentimental occasions such as weddings, graduations and proms. It also settled him financially for life. “God sure gave me one with that song.”

It has also been covered by The Chi-Lites and The Staple Singers.

Ivy unexpectedly turned up at the 50th anniversary party of Motown in 2009, despite the acrimony with which he had left. He said he felt he was part of the history of the company, so had every right to be there.

Nothing is known about what he did after this party, up until his death, and still his private life remains a mystery.

Once asked about his career, Ivy said, “I never did the same song twice. I just did what came naturally. I’d studied poetry and poetic meter and I knew how to work vocabulary and create rhymes to tell a story.”

He added, “If I got a chance to work with an artist, I was not looking for ‘the Motown sound’. I took the artist somewhere else. You weren’t going to get a ‘My Guy’ out of me.”

At his death, Ivy was described as, “another quiet Motown hero.”

RIP – Recorded Incredible Pop-song


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