The Motown stable of songwriters was full of stars: Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Norman Whitfield and others contributed mightily to the great Motor City songbook, from the label’s early days through its heyday in the ‘60 and early ‘70s. There was one writer, though, that many consider to be Motown’s best-kept secret – the secret weapon, of sorts, for the label’s assault on the pop and R&B charts.
His name was Ivy Jo Hunter. Born Aug. 28, 1940, Hunter joined Motown after a hitch in the Army, hoping to be a performer, to have his name on record covers and in the spotlight; that wasn’t meant to be, though. Initially brought into Hitsville as a session keyboardist, Hunter soon joined the label’s staff of writers and quickly established himself as a composer of high-quality songs. You don’t hear much about Ivy Jo Hunter, but you know the songs that he wrote, ones that helped establish Motown as not just a great soul/R&B label, but a great label for American pop music. Here are a few:
Martha & The Vandellas, “Dancing in the Street”: Co-written with Mickey Stevenson, “Dancing in the Street is one of the most iconic hits of Motown’s golden era.
Four Tops, “Ask the Lonely”: To give a songwriter like Hunter (once again, co-writing with Stevenson) the gift of writing for a voice like the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs was an enviable thing indeed. This mid-tempo ballad is a killer, to be sure, with Stubbs perfectly giving voice to Hunter and Stevenson’s heartbreak poetry.
The Marvelettes, “Danger! Heartbreak Dead Ahead”: Hunter and Stevenson’s song captures a kind of drama uncommon in relationship songs – most times, you hear about the happiness of new love, or the sadness after a breakup. On this hit, you see the end coming, and you have a decision – throw it in reverse, or brace yourself for impact.
Marvin Gaye, “You”: “You” sounds a bit like the Four Tops’ “(Reach Out) I’ll Be There,” but the urgency in Gaye’s voice takes the song to an entirely different level. Hunter wrote the song with Jack Goga and Jeffrey Bowen, and produced it himself.
The Contours, “Can You Jerk Like Me”: Sometimes, you just need to put a record on and dance, and this Contours classic is just what such a moment needs. “Come on, children!” lead singer Bill Gordon beckons, before teaching those children how to get down. Thanks to Hunter and Stevenson, the kids are definitely in good hands.