Willie Hutch, singer, songwriter, producer, arranger and guitarist, contributed to some of the best records the Motown label released in the 1970s. He co-wrote the perennial ballad "I'll Be There", which topped the US charts for the Jackson 5 in 1970, and helped arrange the group's vocals on "Never Can Say Goodbye" and Michael Jackson's first solo hit, "Got To Be There" in 1971.
He also collaborated with Smokey Robinson on Smokey (1973) and Pure Smokey (1974), the first two solo albums the lead vocalist released after leaving the Miracles. He recorded the soundtrack to the Blaxploitation films The Mack (directed by Michael Campus in 1973) and Foxy Brown (directed by Jack Hill in 1974 and starring the iconic Pam Grier). And he cut several excellent solo albums of sophisticated soul and gritty funk and scored R&B hits in the US with "Love Power" in 1975 as well as the infectious grooves of "In and Out" and "Keep On Jammin' ", which also made the UK charts in the 1980s. He kept on working and running a recording studio into his late fifties.
His work was much sampled by the hip-hop acts Notorious B.I.G., Lil' Kim and Jaheim, as well as by the electronica artist Moby. His composition "Brother's Gonna Work It Out", from The Mack, inspired the Chemical Brothers and was included on their DJ mix album Brothers Gonna Work It Out in 1998. Hutch recently had another track from The Mack - "I Choose You" - featured in the rap-to-riches film Hustle and Flow (2005).
Born in Los Angeles in 1944, Willie McKinley Hutchinson moved to Dallas as a child. His mostly absent father travelled through the South playing piano blues and his mother took the children to live with their grandmother and then their aunt. Willie grew up loving the music of Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, Johnny Mathis, Jackie Wilson and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and began making up songs with his two brothers and sisters when he was 13. "Writing lyrics and setting them to music was a freedom no one could take away from me. Writing gave me a freedom to go everywhere I wanted to go," he explained.
After two years in the marines between 1962 and 1964, he stayed in Los Angeles with his older sister and did odd jobs while looking for a way into the music industry. Hutch performed and recorded with the Phonetics and produced "Something's Burnin' " by the Marvellos in the aftermath of the Watts riots.
He met the photographer Lamonte McLemore, who was putting together a vocal group featuring Marilyn McCoo and Florence LaRue, former winners of the Miss Bronze America contest, as well as Billy Davis Jnr and Ron Townson. They became the 5th Dimension, signed to Soul City, the label owned by Johnny Rivers, and cut as their début single in 1966 "I'll Be Loving You Forever", a Willie Hutch composition which could have come straight off the Motown production line.
Hutch became a staff writer with Soul City, penning songs like "California My Way" and "Together Let's Find Love". He worked alongside Jimmy Webb who wrote "Up-Up and Away", which got the 5th Dimension into the US Top Ten. The two songwriters became firm friends and Hutch even included his own version of "Wichita Lineman", the Webb song that had become a standard for Glen Campbell, on Seasons for Love (1970), the second of two solo albums he recorded for RCA.
In order to help the 5th Dimension, Willie Hutch had turned down a chance to join Motown. But he continued to send demos of his songs to the Los Angeles-based staff producer Hal Davis and they became friends. In the summer of 1970, the Motown employee decided to call on Hutch at an ungodly hour. Hutch relished telling the story:
It's 3.48am and I get a knock on my door. I'm in bed and I can hear, "Willie! Willie!" I was like, "Who the hell is that?" I get up and it's Hal. He says, "I've got something for the Jackson 5. Mr Gordy loves the title but he doesn't like the song. Can you come up with something?" I said, "Sure, leave it here."
By about 4.30am, I had written the lyrics and the melody. At eight o'clock, I was in Berry Gordy's office with two versions of "I'll Be There". He preferred the guy-girl, the love-song, version to my brotherhood one, the one with the humanitarian lyric about joining one another. I was about to go home but Mr Gordy said, "Oh no, you need to come in and dub the boys in." I did the vocal arrangements for the song. It became the biggest record Motown ever had. I was in! Then I wrote the music for Smokey Robinson's first two solo albums. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven!
When the Detroit label moved its whole operation to Los Angeles in 1972, Hutch worked with Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Junior Walker, the Temptations and Undisputed Truth. However, even though he was in great demand, he never quite managed to become the dedicated producer or songwriter for one of Motown's major acts, as Norman Whitfield had done with the Temptations, though his work with the vocal female quintet Sisters Love, on songs like "Mr Fix-it Man" in particular, and his soundtrack albums for The Mack and Foxy Brown, are much sought after.
With his slightly gritty voice and soulful delivery, Willie Hutch took "Love Power" into the US Top Forty in 1975 and released five solo albums on Motown before joining his friend Norman Whitfield, who had launched his own Whitfield label. In 1982, Hutch co-wrote the floorfiller "Keep the Fires Burning" for Gwen McRae. By the following year, he was back for a spell at Motown, working with the Four Tops and Aretha Franklin on "What Have We Got To Lose" and producing the soundtrack to The Last Dragon (1985). The same year he also issued his own albums In & Out and Making a Game of Love.
After the 1994 earthquake, Hutch left Los Angeles and relocated to Dallas, where he set up a recording studio. He recorded the albums From the Heart (1994), The Mack is Back (1996) and Sexalicious (2002), appeared in the Blaxploitation documentary Mackin' Ain't Easy (2002) and kept an ear out for new talent between playing rounds of golf. "Songs live long after you've gone," he told the Dallas Observer in 1998:
Great songs like "I'll Be There" or "Brother's Gonna Work It Out" span time. That's all you can ask for.