The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

June 17, 2012

Jo Ellis: Carthage musician keeps playing big-band sound

CARTHAGE, Mo. — Jim Hunter’s Mellotones have been a staple in the Four-State Area since 1980. From the time he blew his first note on a saxophone, as a fifth-grader, he was hooked on jazz and the big-band sounds of the ’40s and ’50s.

“We were playing jazz and big-band music while everyone else was listening to the Beatles,” he said. He was inspired by his dad, “Big Jim” Hunter, and his music teachers, Robert Stanfield and Jack Newton, both legends in the Carthage School District’s music department. As a junior high student, he got bumped up to play in the high school jazz band.

“They exposed us to so much culture,” Hunter said. “They took us to Starlight Theatre musical productions and jazz festivals in Kansas City. They paved the way for the quality of music we have here today.”

He had decided to follow his mentors into music education, but a couple of days out of high school he received a call from Bob Massey, a Joplin music store owner and leader of the jazz group The Professionals.

“When I got there, I asked him where the music was. He said: ‘What music? We play by ear,’” Hunter said. The group played three nights a week.

In the 1960s, Hunter got the opportunity to go with a traveling band that played in a variety of venues from the upper East Coast to Florida and even to Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

He took several years off from his musical career, helping his dad run the family business, Hunter Tire and Alignment, and assuming full responsibility for the Carthage business after his dad died. But his love of jazz and the big-band sound never went away, and he continued to play with several different bands.

In the late ’70s, he was performing with Missouri Southern State College’s summer jazz band under Charles Thelen and came to the decision that he wanted to try to keep that style of music alive. He believed a six-piece jazz combo could duplicate the sound of a big band.

The Mellotones formed in 1980 with area musicians Chet and Cecie Fritz, Jerry Holcomb, David Pelsue and Ted Sears. Hunter later received a gift in the form of a portfolio of arrangements from Bill Pierson, whose orchestra had had a tremendous following since the 1940s.

“He was a fabulous trumpet player and arranger,” Hunter said. “He contacted me and asked if I would like to have his library because he was going to retire. Pierson’s arranging is so good, people can’t believe they can get the same sound as a big band.”

Hunter also hooked up with some great musicians who would join his orchestra — people like Billy Hunt, of Grove, Okla., a trumpeter who had received two Grammy awards while playing with the Woody Herman orchestra, and singer Robin Montz. Hunter feels fortunate to have snagged some Branson musicians — people like trumpeter Paul Von Adam, who played with Stan Kenton and the Andy Williams show, and Tony Orlando’s pianist and arranger.

In addition to booking and handling all the setups for the Mellotones, Hunter has performed in other groups around the Four-State Area. Examples are Sober As a Judge (which at one time actually included three judges) and, currently, the Crowder College Jazz Band. He believes the Mellotones are the last working band in this area playing the jazz tunes and big-band style.

“There’s still an audience,” Hunter said. “We do a lot of ballroom dance clubs that want vintage music, wedding receptions, concerts, casinos and reunions. We were one of the bands to play for Joplin High School graduations until the last couple of years.

“I like keeping something alive that’s very unique.”

Address correspondence to Jo Ellis, c/o The Joplin Globe, Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802 or email news@joplinglobe.com.

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