By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"The Chemical Brothers are one of the biggest groups going right now," Hutch says, puffing on an extra-light cigarette. He sits on a sofa in a side room off the foyer of his office-studio. On top of an antiquated television sits an old black-and-white photo of Smokey Robinson, whose first solo album Hutch produced and wrote most of.
"I hadn't heard them. I read about them, but never heard their music. But to be on that record is an honor, because it's like, when a guy does that, he really appreciates what you did. And that helps me as an artist, as a writer, to appreciate what I've done--the fact that someone else respects it enough to use it like that. They patterned the whole album after the song. It's like, 'OK, I did something right for a change.'" He laughs. "What it does for me creatively is it gives me license to cross barriers without people looking at me like, 'Hey, weren't you in the '70s?' It's good for me. It's like a time warp, like back to the future. And it's publicity."
Perhaps not so astonishingly, Hutch's name seldom appears in any of the Motown history books; the British Motown: The History affords him brief mention, but neglects to include any reference to his having co-written "I'll Be There." It picks up with his signing to the label in 1973 and the release of The Mack, but condenses his previous accomplishments into a single sentence: "Before joining Motown Hutch wrote for the 5th Dimension [sic], Al Wilson and Johnny Rivers."
In his 1995 autobiography To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, label founder Berry Gordy writes of Hutch only when saying he didn't much care for "I'll Be There" when he first heard the song. Hutch insists he and Gordy remain close to this day. "I can call him right now, and he'll do anything for me," Hutch says. "That's the kind of man he is."
Yet Hutch also says Gordy knows how upset he was at not being included as part of the label's 25th anniversary celebration in 1983. For Hutch, it was a slap in the face not to have been invited. As he sat and watched Michael Jackson perform "I'll Be There," Hutch recalls thinking, "That's the biggest fuckin' hit they had, and who do they think was responsible for it?" He says now, with a small grin, "That was the only time I was ever almost pissed. But I got over it."
Willie Hutch never did become as famous as the songwriting teams of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Edward Holland (whose myriad hits for the Four Tops virtually defined Motown in the 1960s) or Freddie Perrin and Alphonso Mizell and Deke Richards (who co-wrote "I Want You Back" and "ABC" and several other songs for the Jacksons). As a producer, his name never did carry the clout of a Norman Whitfield, who fashioned the Temptations in his own image. And as a performer, The Mack was by far Hutch's most successful solo record, spawning two crossover hits: "Slick" and "Brother's Gonna Work It Out." Ode to My Lady, released two years later, was nearly as successful--"Love Power" made it to No. 8 on the R&B charts and No. 41 on the pops.
But for the most part, he has existed as most songwriters and producers do--in the shadows, adored by peers but ignored by all but the fetishists who study the fine print.
One of the reasons he has been left out of the history books, says National Public Radio cultural critic Elvis Mitchell, who wrote the introduction to The Motown Album: The Sound of Young America, is that "he never worked consistently with an act as much as the other guys did. Perrin and Holland-Dozier-Holland got to work with an act and shape an act. Holland-Dozier-Holland and the Four Tops were like Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro or Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, and Hutch never had that kind of opportunity. And he didn't find a powerful enough voice to interpret his work, like Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops did with Holland-Dozier-Holland. He never found that matinee performer to do his songs, which is why he didn't become as big a deal. He just came to Motown at the wrong time."
In fact, a clerk behind the counter at Borders Books and Music in Preston Royal tells this story. One day in September, a man walked into the store looking for a copy of the Chemical Brothers' Brothers Gonna Work It Out. He told the clerk he had read something about the disc in a recent issue of Billboard and was interested in purchasing it. The clerk said it had not yet arrived, but he would call the man as soon as it did. He just needed the man's name.
"Willie Hutch," the man told him.
"And I was like, 'What? Really?'" the clerk recalls, still amused by the tale. "I would have never recognized him. And I had no idea he lived here."
Willie Hutch is a deep, thoughtful man who regrets nothing. He loves his life--being able to play golf whenever he wants, living on a piece of land big enough to let him spread out. He will turn 54 on December 6 and has lived enough "for 10 men," he says with tremendous pride. He does not mind the anonymity, because he has a lifetime's (and then some) worth of memories to share. Like the times Michael Jackson used to stop by his house in Encino when Michael was learning to drive. Or the time Smokey Robinson came to Los Angeles to offer him a job at Motown in the late 1960s--only to be turned down. Or the hours he spent with old friend Jimmy Webb writing for the Fifth Dimension. Or the time Motown producer Hal Davis woke him in the middle of the night to ask for his help finishing a song for which he had only a title, "I'll Be There."