Ivy Jo Hunter obituary

<span>Photograph: Leni Sinclair/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Leni Sinclair/Getty Images

Martha Reeves, the lead singer of Martha and the Vandellas, liked to nail a song in a single take, and one day in May 1964 she believed she had done a decent job first time around on a new song called Dancing in the Street. But then a voice came from the control booth in the Motown label’s Detroit studio, apologetically asking her for one more try because the tape machine had not been turned on.

An exasperated Reeves began it again, this time with an extra edge in her voice: “Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand-new beat? Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the street …” When she finished, she saw the producers high-fiving each other. They had bluffed her into giving a more urgent performance on what would become not just a worldwide hit and one of the records that best defined the Motown Sound but, albeit unwittingly, a call to arms for civil rights protesters that summer and in those that followed.

Ivy Jo Hunter, a Motown songwriter, was the man who had bluffed Reeves, in collaboration with the record’s producer, William “Mickey” Stevenson. He and Stevenson, the company’s head of A&R, had completed a song begun by Marvin Gaye, who had come up with the title and the idea – borrowed from Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen – of including a list of US cities in the lyric: “They’re dancing in Chicago, down in New Orleans, in New York City …” Initially conceived as a ballad, the song was remodelled to make the tempo fit the title.

Hunter, who has died aged 82, was also partly responsible for the record’s monstrous backbeat, which sent listeners straight to the dancefloor. As well as the conventional combination of snare drum and tambourine, the beat was reinforced by the sound of Hunter hitting a set of tyre chains with a piece of wood. “His hands were bleeding when he’d finished,” Reeves remembered. Hunter also taught the backing vocals to the two Vandellas, Rosalind Ashford and Betty Kelly, and sang along with them as they overdubbed their part.

By October, the song was sitting at No 2 in the US pop chart, kept off the top spot by Manfred Mann’s Do Wah Diddy Diddy. (Reissued in the UK in 1969, it reached the top five.)

Born George Ivy Hunter in Detroit, he attended Cass Tech high school, like many others who would become professional musicians. “My mother didn’t want me to go into the music business,” he said. “She thought it was no good, so I studied commercial art at Cass but still played trumpet and baritone sax in the Detroit All City Orchestra.” While studying commercial art, Hunter also sang in amateur vocal groups.

After a spell in the US Army, he returned home and took a day job at an electrical company while attempting to launch a career as a performer at clubs such as the 20 Grand and Phelps Lounge. There, amid a Detroit music scene he described as “buzzing”, he became friendly with Hank Cosby, a saxophonist who worked for Motown. Through Cosby, Hunter met Stevenson, who signed him to contract with the company as an artist, songwriter, producer and manager.

His change of professional name to Ivy Jo Hunter would be the cause of multiple confusions. In the 1950s a Texan singer and pianist named Ivory Joe Hunter had enjoyed national hits with I Almost Lost My Mind and Since I Met You Baby. And Motown’s first staff musician was a Tennessee-born pianist named Joe Hunter, who recruited and ran the label’s studio band between 1959 and 1963. The name Ivy Jo – sometimes appearing just as Ivy – also deceived the sort of fans who studied the credits on record labels and album jackets into assuming he was a woman.

Berry Gordy Jr, the label’s founder, encouraged his young songwriters and producers to work together in an environment that mixed collaboration with competition. At first Hunter felt like an outsider, but his partnership with Stevenson eventually brought success in 1964 with Dancing in the Street and a dance-craze song called Can You Jerk Like Me with the Contours, followed by a majestic and much-loved ballad called Ask the Lonely with the Four Tops the following year. He collaborated with Stevie Wonder, then 15 years old, on the pounding Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever, recorded by the Four Tops in 1966 and later covered by the Band, Nick Kamen and others.

Motown’s A-list stars, such as the Supremes and the Temptations, were generally considered to be the “property” of the songwriter/producer teams who provided them with strings of hits, which restricted Hunter’s scope and mostly limited him to working with the label’s second-tier acts. But among the records to which he contributed were several still cherished by aficionados of the Motown Sound, among them I’ll Keep Holding On and Danger Heartbreak Ahead by the Marvelettes, Behind a Painted Smile by the Isley Brothers and Truly Yours by the Spinners.

Motown’s failure to promote him as an artist was a disappointment unassuaged by the barely noticed release in 1970 of a single, I Remember When, while an album remained unreleased.

Gordy’s decision to move his operations to Los Angeles that same year left Hunter among the many suddenly stranded in Detroit, disillusioned, resentful and contemplating legal action. He continued working as a session man with the Dells and Funkadelic, among others, while occasionally recording under his own name. A songwriting collaboration in 1990 with Ian Levine, the British disc jockey who recorded old Motown stars on his Motorcity label, led to Running Through My Fingers, which became popular on the beach music scene in South Carolina.

In 2012 the rapper Trick Daddy had a hit with The Children’s Song, a version of Hold On (to Your Dream), written by Hunter and Vernon Bullock in the late 70s for Wee Gee, the former lead singer of the Dramatics, which became a popular track for graduation ceremonies. “God sure gave me one with that song,” Hunter said. In 2009, despite previous acrimony, he took part in Motown’s 50th anniversary celebrations in Detroit.

• Ivy Jo Hunter (George Ivy Hunter), songwriter and singer, born 28 August 1940; died 6 October 2022