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He'll Be There 

Willie Hutch wrote one of the greatest songs ever, but he ain't done yet

Wednesday, Nov 11 1998
Willie Hutch's studio sits along a desolate stretch of Highway 67 in Cedar Hill, Texas. 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 studio 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 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 5. 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 5'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, Texas, 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 online 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 bubble-gum 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] 2 1/2 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. 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."

About The Author

Robert Wilonsky


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