He'll be there
Willie Hutch's studio sits along a desolate stretch of Highway 67 in Cedar Hill. It is just off the highway, not far from an exit no one seems to use very much--unless, perhaps, they are in need of used tires, which are sold at the establishment sitting next to the brown box that houses Hutch's recording facility. The building itself isn't so much run-down as it is forgotten; above the two-story facility hangs a sign advertising space for rent, and it looks as though it has been hanging there forever, ignored. Hutch's studio isn't even marked on its exterior. There is only the address and a single, struggling light bulb over the doorway. To call it modest would be overstating the point. You only rent here when you're out of options, or on the run.
But inside the glass door, which is covered with black paper to keep out the nosy and the lost, a sudden splendor reveals itself. It's suddenly like walking into a small museum, a shrine, with myriad gold records and other awards (from the likes of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) adorning the white walls. They draw your attention, until it is like being hypnotized, if only because of the names on the records: The Jackson Five. Berry Gordy. "I'll Be There." Motown. And Willie Hutch.
"They're no big deal," Hutch says of the awards that hang on his wall, as though it were true. There are also a dozen or so framed album covers of his that line the hallway separating the front foyer and the studio in the back, among them The Mack, Foxy Brown, Fully Exposed, Ode to My Lady, and Concert in Blues. Most of the covers are frayed, as though just plucked from some used-record bin. Hutch doesn't even have some of the vinyl that used to be in these sleeves. He is not much on collecting the past.
That is why the man who co-wrote one of the most popular songs of all time--"I'll Be There," which became the Jackson Five's fourth consecutive No. 1 single--is hidden away out here in Cedar Hill. In the 1970s, he lived not far from the shores of the Pacific Ocean, a man who made enough money writing, recording, and producing for Berry Gordy's Motown that he once considered buying his own airplane. But now, he lives with his wife on a large piece of property in Duncanville and comes to his office each day to record himself or a young local act he thinks has some potential, some heart. It is here that he has recorded two albums released within the past few years, neither of which received much distribution outside of the cardboard boxes in which they were packaged. (Though one, 1996's The Mack is Back, is available from several on-line record sellers.)
But right now, Hutch is not so concerned with his own records, even though Motown has finally, after years of cajoling on Hutch's part, released The Very Best of Willie Hutch. It's a dynamite collection, offering proof that Hutch was the last of the great funk soul brothers on Motown even as the label went into decline in the early 1970s, when Gordy left Detroit for the fool's-gold promise of Hollywood. It contains its share of minor hits ("Love Power," "In and Out"), revelatory interpretations (he turns "I'll Be There" from a bubblegum ballad into the stuff of deep funk), and lost-forever gems ("Sunshine Lady"). More importantly, it proves Willie Hutch existed at all: Until the best-of's release in August, only his soundtrack album to 1973's blaxploitation film The Mack remained in print.
"I started working on that [best-of] two and a half years ago," Hutch says. "And finally it's out, and it seems like it's doing fairly well. I got a call from my old guitar player in Japan, and he left a message saying, 'I just bought a copy of The Very Best of Willie Hutch.' So it's in Japan! And a guy in Oklahoma City said they can't keep it up there. So I said, 'Well, maybe that's what I needed--to go back to who I really was.'"
But Hutch is even more "elated" because his song "Brother's Gonna Work It Out" from The Mack appears as the title track to the brand-new Chemical Brothers DJ mix album of the very same name. Indeed, it is the leadoff track--the song that sets the scene, creates the mood, defines the entirety of the record (which also includes contributions from Spiritualized, the Jimmy Castor Bunch, Manic Street Preachers, and the Chems themselves).
To be included on a record by the Brothers--Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, the men who briefly convinced the music biz that techno was the pop of the future--is a thrill for Hutch, who has been relegated to the fine-print footnotes of the history books. This proves he is no longer in the "twilight of his career," he says, but moving from the past into the future; he describes this moment almost as though he were a man caught between vortices, one that threatens to drown him in what was and another that promises to launch him into tomorrow. He is proud of what he has done--writing hits for the Fifth Dimension and the Jacksons, producing Smokey Robinson and the Temptations--but would rather look toward the rave new future. He is no longer a victim of his long-ago accomplishments, but a man moving forward, toward something bigger, better.
"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."
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.
"I always felt that if I had the talent, then the talent would come through for me," Hutch says. "If I didn't, no matter who I was with, it would be short-lived." He insists he never regretted not going to Motown when he had the chance.
But Davis never forgot Hutch, who kept offering demos of his songs to Motown. But in the summer of 1970, Hutch's life was forever altered. He remembers the story so clearly, he can even tell you what time it was when Davis came to his apartment and got him out of bed: It was 3:48 a.m., or so the story goes, and it's clearly a tale Hutch has told a million times. You would too.
"I'm in bed when I hear, 'Willie! Willie!' I was like, 'Who the hell is that?' I get up, and it's Hal. He says, 'I got this title. Berry [Gordy] likes the title, but he don't like the song.' I said, 'What is it?' He said it was called 'I'll Be There.' He said, 'Can you write something for it?' I said, 'Sure, leave it here.' So about 4:30 a.m., I was through with it. I had written the lyrics and the melody. At eight that morning, I was at Berry's playing him the first version of it, and it was more like a humanitarian song, with a line like, 'My brother we must join one another.' Berry said, 'You know, I like that, but I think it would be better as a love song.' I had written two versions, so I sang him the second one: 'I'll be your strength/I'll be holdin' on.' He was like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's it!'"
That very day, the Jacksons went into the studio to cut the song, with Hutch and Davis and Gordy presiding over the affair. In retrospect, the song became a complex piece of bubblegum, Michael's sweet voice brushing against Davis' harpsichord until it becomes almost too sickly sweet to stand. Yet somehow it works--the fragile vocals, the compassionate lyrics, the whole blessed package. Michael would later refer to "I'll Be There" as "our real breakthrough song--it was the one that said, 'We're here to stay.'"
"I knew what we had from the onset," Hutch says. "They were the hottest group in the country, first of all, and they didn't have no ballads. All of the sudden they come out with a ballad, and there it was. And I did all the vocal arrangements on the song, and it broke all the barriers down. God blessed me to be able to say the right things in the right context. One thing I did a lot of people don't catch is the first line: 'You and I must make a pact / We can bring salvation back / Where there is love, I'll be there.' Salvation. It is the food of the soul. A lot of people don't understand, but some people know. I was like"--he looks up and points to the ceiling--"this one's for you. Thanks." He chuckles.
"But you know how the first time you hear a song you're hypercritical. I was listening like this the whole time," and he puts his hands over his ears and begins humming. "I didn't even get a chance to enjoy it. Then I got a call from Hal, who said he had just talked to Berry. Hal said, 'I don't know what happened, but the song did three million [copies] the first week. And then it became the biggest record Motown ever had."
Then he says, simply, "That was great."
Hutch then signed on to work for Motown full-time as a producer, writer, and recording artist. But the label wasn't the star factory it had been in the 1960s; by 1973, the year The Mack was released, Motown was home not only to the Jackson 5 (whose Dancing Machine signaled the beginning of the end) but to Jackson Browne and Scatman Crothers. Hutch ended up co-producing Temptations records, working with Robinson, and trying to make himself heard above the sound of a collapsing roof.
His first album was the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film The Mack, about a pimp trying to make his way up (and down) in this world. It ranks among the finest things released on Motown in the early 1970s, and it's bested only by Curtis Mayfield's Superfly in the blaxploitation funk-and-soul sweepstakes. Though the album never even went gold, it spawned a handful of singles, among them "I Choose You" and "Slick"; "Brother's Gonna Work It Out" closes out the album almost as a hymn. Not released as a single, but every bit the record's highlight, was the beautiful harps-and-strings "Now That It's All Over."
"I think of Hutch as being a sort of spiritual accompanist to Holland-Dozier-Holland," says Elvis Mitchell. "In some of his ballady songs, there was this combination of urbanity and grit, which I think is very cool. And it all comes out in his crowning work, The Mack, which is really an amazing soundtrack. It was always unfortunate that when Motown packaged it, the record looked like the Superfly soundtrack, which made people think it was just a rip-off. But it was cinematic even without the movie. And the last two songs, 'Now That It's All Over' and 'Brother's Gonna Work It Out,' are two of the best Motown songs ever."
His later records--among them Fully Exposed in '73, the soundtrack to Pam Grier's Foxy Brown, Ode to My Lady, Color Her Sunshine, and Havin' a House Party--produced their share of good songs. But none could sit in the same car with The Mack; it's a classic, while the other albums are just proud memories.
Hutch would remain with Motown till 1983. When he left, it barely looked like the same place. The Mary Jane Girls had moved in. It was time to go.
Hutch remained in Los Angeles as a producer and writer until four years ago, when he and his wife decided it was perhaps time to move back to Texas. Enough time had passed, and all the wounds had healed. If nothing else, Hutch was convinced he needed to leave L.A. when the Northridge earthquake leveled much of Southern California in January 1994. "That made my decision for me," Hutch says.
Even now, he is still writing and recording, hoping for the comeback that may or may not happen with the release of The Very Best of Willie Hutch and the Chemical Brothers' album. He expects nothing, though he hopes for everything. "This is not the twilight of my career," he says emphatically. "Not at all. A good song will only come along every now and then. Not a good song--a great song, a song that you know is going to span time. Like 'I'll Be There' spans time. Or 'California My Way' spans time. Or 'Brother's Gonna Work It Out' spans time. My plan was if I could only write one or two great songs a year over a period of time, like 15 or 20 years, you got 35, 40 great songs. That's all you can ask for.
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