Hunter, who was a full-time musician in the Detroit area at the time of his death, was survived by his son Joe Jr., a daughter Michelle, and three grand children Joe III, Nathan and Isaac. He is not to be confused with the Texan pianist Ivory Joe Hunter, who died in 1974 or with the Motown producer and songwriter Ivy Jo Hunter.
At age 11, Hunter headed north to Detroit where his mother gave piano lessons, and he quickly picked up the rudiments of the instrument, influenced equally by Sergei Rachmaninov, Nat King Cole and Art Tatum. He entered Detroit University to study law in 1949 before being drafted into the armed forces. There he played piano and clarinet in a jazz group with drummer Elvin Jones (obituary May 20, 2004) and met his future Motown colleague Earl Van Dyke. Returning to Detroit, he worked in jazz clubs weekdays and as a church organist on Sundays. He also toured with the Midnighters, the backing group of Hank Ballard, the author of The Twist.
In 1958, Gordy heard the pianist Joe Hunter playing on Detroit’s east side. Gordy, who was planning to launch his own record company, hired him as a rehearsal pianist, preparing singers prior to cutting records. Soon afterwards, Hunter was promoted to session pianist, playing on early Gordy hits such as Marv Johnson’s “Come to Me” (1959).
His piano work was an integral part of such songs as Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave” and” Come and Get These Memories”, and Marvin Gaye’s “Pride and Joy”. He was promoted to band director until 1964, when he left Motown and was replaced by Earl Van Dyke. Hunter performed with such legendary Motown acts as Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Martha and the Vandellas.
Though his time with the Funk Brothers was short, his unique style of piano playing was integral to the “Motown Sound”, and he left a lasting impression on future Motown session musicians, and artists such as Stevie Wonder. He also produced and arranged various soul tracks during the 1960s, and worked for the smaller Detroit labels Golden World and Fortune, as well as arranging songs for, and accompanying, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Edwin Starr, Jimmy Ruffin and other leading vocalists. He was involved with Pied Piper Productions. Some artists that Hunter can be affiliated with are The Metros, Dennis Edwards, The Hesitations, and Freddy Butler.
Hunter’s influences included Art Tatum, Sergei Rachmaninov, and Nat King Cole. Among the many records he performed the piano for are “Shop Around” by The Miracles (though the Gerald Posner book, Motown, credited Berry Gordy, Jr), “Do You Love Me” by The Contours, and “Heat Wave” by Martha & the Vandellas.
After Motown left Detroit in 1972, like many musicians, Hunter took what gigs he could find. His career took a downward turn in the 1970s and he returned to the anonymity of small clubs and hotel lounges until the resurrection of the Funk Brothers in 2002, though he published an autobiography, “Musicians, Motown and Myself” in 1996.
When Philadelphia musician and historian Allan Slutsky set out to find all the Funk Brothers in the 1980s, he found Hunter playing for tips at the Troy, Mich., Marriott. After the documentary film “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” was released in 2002, the Funk Brothers’ soundtrack album won two Grammy awards in 2003. In 2004, Hunter and the Funks were awarded with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys, and the group toured for several years before legal disputes fractured the reunion.