|By SHERRI WHITE
Even after he was famous, Ivory Joe Hunter never forgot where he came from.
Born and raised in Kirbyville, it would be his hometown that Ivory Joe would return to periodically to rest and basically get away from the grind of fame.
"There was always music and candy when Ivory Joe was home," said the Rev. Rodney Norsworthy, recalling some childhood memories.
Mama Riley, the lady who helped raise Hunter after his parents passed away, would tell the local children to leave the singer alone so he could relax. But according to Norsworthy that wasn't about to happen. The singer would always have candy for the kids and he would soon be playing a piano at Riley's home for those that came by. Norsworthy remembers the singer playing "Bo Weevil," and wearing a ring the shape of a baby grand piano on his pinky finger.
"He would come back home to relax and go squirrel hunting with Walter Riley," recalled Norsworthy.
Norsworthy, still a fan and clutching an original record of Hunter's that the singer gave to Norsworthy's father was at the Texas Historical Marker dedication for Hunter last Friday at Magnolia Springs. Friends, family members of Hunters and plenty of fans were in attendance last week to view the unveiling first hand of the state marker, which is located at the site Hunter's grave in the Spring Hill Cemetery.
During the dedication ceremony, Dr. Sam Monroe, who knew Hunter personally, and is the president of the Port Arthur Historical Society, played a few recordings of Hunter's big hits to those in attendance. One of his first hits was "I Almost Lost My Mind," which was recorded in New York City on October 1, 1949, and reached No. 1 on the Blues Charts on January 7, 1950 where it remained for five weeks.
"This was during a time of segregation," said Monroe. "When there were white stations and black stations. At the time a black artist would not be heard on a white station."
For Ivory Joe this meant white artists recording his songs, which was financially a good thing. The singer Pat Boone would record Hunter's song, "I Almost Lost My Mind," in 1956 and it would become a No. 1 hit on the pop charts. Forty-eight other singers would record this same song including Connie Francis, Conway Twitty, Eddie Cochran, Nat King Cole and even instrumentalist Duane Eddy.
As a songwriter Hunter had success with other artists recording his music, especially Elvis Presley. Monroe said that Hunter wrote specifically for Presley the song, "My Wish Came True," and played it for Presley at Graceland. That song reached number 12 on the pop charts in 1958 and was also an international hit.
The song he is most famous for, "Since I Met You Baby," was recorded in New York City on September 5, 1956 and went No. 1 on the rhythm and blues charts on December 1, 1956. At the same time it crossed over into the pop charts. Hunter was presented his gold record for the song on Ed Sullivan show during that time. According to Monroe he was the first African-American to be honored like this on the show.
"He has provided a great wealth of music even after his time on earth has passed," concluded Monroe.
Following the unveiling of the historical marker in Hunter's honor, family members as well as fans took turns having their picture taken beside the tribute. The oldest member of the Hunter family, the Rev. B.J. Hunter was present, pleased with the tribute to his cousin.
"I think it's outstanding," said the pastor about the praise for Ivory Joe. "I think we've given little attention in the past to people who have done great things."
"What we're doing here today is wonderful."