Willie Hutch ‘In Tune’/’Midnight Dancer’ (Real Gone Music) Separate CDs both 4/5

willie-hutchSinger-songwriter and guitarist Willie Hutch was simply too talented a musician to ever fit neatly into any one category. His falsetto vocals beg obvious comparisons with Curtis Mayfield, but during the 1970s Hutch transformed his career from being a skilled songwriter for others (‘I’ll be there’ for the Jackson Five, ‘California my way’ Fifth Dimension and even a debut LP for the Miracles) to a solo career of some distinction. By the beginning of the 1970s he had already recorded two albums as a leader for RCA, but it was his mid-1970s stint at Motown that really brought his name to prominence, notably with two classic soundtracks to Blaxploitation movies, ‘Foxy Brown’ and ‘The Mack’. These combined elements of classy soul and gritty funk to perfection and have long been favourites of music fans, DJs and samplers in equal measure. However, in 1977 Willie Hutch left Motown for a new endeavour with ace producer Norman Whitfield. Of course Whitfield himself was behind some of the classic early 1970s grooves at Motown, especially the psychedelic masterpieces that are ‘War’ for Edwin Starr and ‘Papa was a rolling stone’ for the Temptations. It was with this background that Whitfield sought to update the Hutch sound for the late 1970s disco explosion that incorporate elements of the earlier Whitfield formula. In truth Hutch’s voice is simply too soulful to ever be considered a disco clone, but there was nonetheless a conscious attempt to gear his music to the dance floors and this was always measured by some superior quality balladry. The two albums under consideration here date from 1978 and 1979 respectively and represent the twelfth and thirteenth albums of his career as a whole. Thus Hutch was no novice, but rather an experienced artist and Whitfield sought to compliment his mellifluous voice with some of the crème de la crème of L.A. musicians including what remained of the Funk Brothers (aka the Motown rhythm section) of Jack Ashford, Eddie ‘Bongo’ Brown and Melvin ‘Wah Wah’ Watson. Factor in string arrangements by Gene Page, vocalist from groups Lakeside and Stargard and the results were always likely to be a critical success.

The first album, ”In Tune’ is noteworthy for the stunning ‘Easy does it’ which has one of the subtlest of keyboard riffs imaginable and yet effortlessly cooks up a head of steam in the process. In a funkier vein and with a definite nod to ‘Papa was a rolling stone’, ‘And all hell broke loose’ features some of the distinctive percussion and clavinet sound that Norman Whitfield productions were famous for. This is repeated on ‘All American Funkathon’ which sounds as though Hutch was listening to the updated Curtis Mayfield sound of the mid-1970s and is a heavyweight soul tune. Only ‘Come on and dance with me’ sounds in retrospect a little dated and a too contrived attempt at disco glory. Hutch and Whitfield must have discussed the extent to which they were prepared to go towards disco and on ‘Hi shakin’ sexy lady’ it is as if the disco-fied intro which then gives way to psychedelic soul is an indication that 100% disco was not on their radar. Gorgeous keyboard vamps make this a winner of a tune. Rounding out proceedings were two classy ballads in ‘Paradise’ and ‘Anything is possible if you believe in love’. The second album followed in a similar vein, though the elongated uptempo numbers veer more to disco than previously as do some of the song titles. That said, arguably the strongest album cut here is the mid-tempo ballad ‘Never let you be without love’ that surely owes a debt of gratitude to the Isley Brothers and is a truly inspirational number. For uptempo soul, ‘Everyday love’ is a strong melodic piece while there is a nod to Latin music in the intro to ‘Down here on disco street’ with lovely rhythm guitar riffs. Again there is one number that sounds a trifle dated,’ Everybody needs money’ in terms of the disco bass line, but the lyrics are just as relevant as ever. Of the other two ballads on offer, ‘both ‘Kelly green’ and ‘Deep in your love’ showcase that instantly recognisable Hutch voice.
The major question remains of why these albums were not more significant hits at the time, particularly since Whitfield was obviously scoring major successes with Rose Royce and there are definite hints of that band’s instrumentation in some of the songs contained on these two albums. Maybe Hutch was just too associated with the earlier 1970s era to be regarded as a bona fide dance artist, or maybe it was simply that with the success of Rose Royce and, to a lesser extent Undisputed Truth, Willie Hutch did not receive the promotion he fully deserved. Whatever the case, these two albums generally stand the test of time remarkably well and include some hidden gems for lovers of deeper soul ballads and uptempo grooves alike. Willie Hutch would continue to record into the 1980s when he briefly returned to Motown and scored another club hit in the UK with ‘Inside Out’. He passed away in 2005.

Tim Stenhouse