Joe Hunter -- not to be confused with the Texas-born R&B artist/label owner Ivory Joe Hunter of "I Almost Lost My Mind" and "Since I Met You Baby" fame -- was Motown Records' first pianist, preceding both Johnny Griffith and Motown mainstay Earl Van Dyke. He was born Joseph E. Hunter on November 19, 1927, to the union of Vada Idona Hunter and John G. Hunter in Jackson,TN. Just before his twelfth birthday, Hunter and his family moved to Detroit.
Hunter initially learned how to play piano by watching his mother give piano lessons. Later in the army, Hunter played in bands with then up-and-coming jazz drummer Elvin Jones and future Motown pianist Earl Van Dyke. Both he and Van Dyke learned from the band's pianist Dwight Mitchell. After his discharge, Hunter returned to Detroit and began playing in clubs during the week and playing organ in churches on Sundays. In 1956, he began playing for Hank Ballard & the Midnighters ("Work With Me Annie," "Sexy Ways," "Annie Had a Baby," "Annie's Aunt Fannie," "It's Love Baby (24 Hours a Day)"). In the fall of 1958, local producer Berry Gordy enlisted Hunter for his fledgling Hitsville (later Motown Records) label after hearing him at Little Sams, a popular club on Detroit's east side. Hunter was a rehearsal pianist at the label, working on songs with the artists before they went into the recording studio. Later, he went into the studio to record Marv Johnson's "Come to Me," Motown's first big hit (number six R&B, early 1959). Hunter can also be heard on "Money" by Barrett Strong (number two R&B for six weeks, early 1960), "Shop Around" (number one R&B for eight weeks, number two pop late 1960), and "Way Over There" by the Miracles. Because of Motown's infrequent recording schedule, Hunter took a job backing Jackie Wilson. His next Motown recording sessions were for the Contours. The song "Do You Love Me" was a million-seller that held the number one R&B spot for three weeks and went to number three pop in summer 1962. It was later included in the soundtrack of the 1987 Patrick Swayze hit movie Dirty Dancing, and was reissued as a single becoming a number 11 pop smash in the summer of 1988. Other songs that feature Hunter's piano stylings are "Come and Get These Memories" (number six R&B, spring 1963) and "Heat Wave" (number one R&B for 4 weeks, number four pop, summer 1963) by Martha and the Vandellas. Hunter was also a bandleader during Motown's first live concert tours. He helped recruit James Jamerson and others for Motown's studio band.
In 1963, Hunter left Motown to be a freelance arranger and pianist, working with Jimmy Ruffin, Jimmy McCracklin, Bobby "Blue" Bland ("Too Far Gone to Turn Around"), Al "T&T" Braggs, Junior Parker, Edwin Starr, Lonette McKee (who later acted in the movies Which Way Is Up and Malcolm X), and acts on Detroit labels Golden World Records and Fortune Records, among others. In 1996, Hunter published his autobiography Musicians, Motown and Myself (Global Sound Publications, Detroit). ~ Ed Hogan