By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Hutch talks about songwriting like a man who could have done nothing else with his life. He speaks often about how "songs live on long after you're gone," about how a songwriter can hope only to write a handful of "great" songs every year, and if you live long enough, they add up to a legacy. He's a man proud of what he's done, of where he's been, but more anxious to get to where he's going.
But it actually began for Willie McKinley Hutchison right here, in Carrollton, in 1953, when he moved from Los Angeles as a child to live with his grandmother. He did not like the idea of leaving Los Angeles for what was then farmland and desolation--and a place where racism still flourished. He "hated" it here, and to prove his point, he recalls the day when he and his two cousins went to a place called the Ice House to buy pop and ice cream.
"I bought an ice cream, and this little white girl was standing there," he says. "She asked me for something, and I just stuck my hand out, and my cousin grabbed me by the arm, and we just took off running. We must have run half a mile, and I asked him what in the hell we were running for. We sat by the highway, and I asked him, 'What's going on?' He said, 'You can't do that.' I said, 'Can't do what?' He said, 'They'll hang you for talking to that white girl.' It felt like a giant cage dropped down on me--boom. I said, 'That's it. I'm out of this place.' That was the second day I set foot in Texas. It was degrading and enlightening."
As far as he was concerned, the easiest way to do that would be to become a pop star like his hero Frankie Lyman, whom he had seen on television two weeks before he moved to Texas. He wanted to be like his heroes: Johnny Mathis, Nat Cole, Jackie Wilson. "Music made me feel right at home," Hutch says now. He began writing songs when he was 13 and sang with his two brothers and two sisters. Writing provided him an escape from a place that made him unhappy, lonely, angry. Hutch's tale is not the tired, romantic story of a child raised in Texas who tuned in to AM radio, heard old blues songs, and became a star. It's the exact opposite.
"Writing lyrics and setting them to music was a freedom no one could take away from me," Hutch explains. "No structure could handle me, because it's my mind, and unless you kill me, you can't stop the process. Writing gave me the freedom to go everywhere I wanted to go." Plus, if he became a pop star, he would be rich enough to move away from Texas. Yet he would not leave until 1962, when he joined the Marines, which took him back to Los Angeles. When he left the service two years later, in December 1964, he remained in L.A. with his older sister Jewel and bought his first guitar.
After being discharged, he "beat the pavement" in search of singing and songwriting gigs; he also painted Christmas signs along the streets in Watts. He formed his first band, The Phonetics, and even released a few singles, but his first break came when he met Lamonte McLemore, one of the cofounders of the Versatiles--which would become the Fifth Dimension. McLemore asked Hutch to write a few songs for his band. In short order, he joined teenage songwriting phenom Jimmy Webb (who wrote "Up, Up & Away" for the Fifth Dimension and eventually penned "MacArthur Park" and "Galveston") as a contract writer for the band, hired by the Fifth's producer and manager, Marc Gordon. Among Hutch's contributions were "California My Way," "Learn How to Fly," and "Together Let's Find Love." (The Main Ingredient would also record "California My Way," and it's a far superior version.)
By the late 1960s, Hutch was a staff writer at Johnny Rivers' famed Soul City label, home to the Fifth Dimension. Hutch also recorded two albums for RCA Records, Soul Portrait and Season for Love, the latter of which included a cover of his buddy Webb's "Wichita Lineman," which had been a giant hit for Glen Campbell.
When Hutch speaks about finally doing something right for a change, he may well be speaking of the fact that in the mid-1960s, he did have a chance to go to work for Motown. He could have been on staff during the label's heyday, instead of joining just in time to bury it. Maybe he did something wrong by not going to Detroit in the '60s. Maybe not.
In 1964 or '65--Hutch isn't exactly sure of the date--Smokey Robinson went to L.A. to ask Hutch about coming to Motown as both a writer and producer. Back then, no aspiring songwriter could have asked for more; it was heaven on a stick, the chance to work with Marvin Gaye and the Supremes and the Four Tops when they were at the top of their games. Hutch told Marc Gordon about Robinson's impending visit, to which Gordon responded that if he didn't sign with Johnny Rivers immediately, then Rivers wouldn't sign the Fifth Dimension or singer Al Wilson to Soul City. "I kinda felt rained on a little bit," Hutch says. But he stuck with the Fifth, if only out of loyalty. "I got a heart." He smiles. Hutch called producer Hal Davis at Motown and told him to extend his thanks--and his regrets--to Smokey.