THE BOBBY HUTTON STORY
“Somebody called me up once and said ‘Hey man, I heard you wuz dead. That you been shot to death.’ And I was like ‘Uh, well, I don’t have any holes in me and I’m still here. So I’m guessing it isn’t me.” Recalls northern soul legend Bobby Hutton; not to be confused with the Black Panther Party revolutionary Lil’ Bobby Hutton, who was shot and killed by Oakland Police in ‘68.
“Yeah, he was well known too.” Says Bobby from his crib on Chicago’s South Side, a place he’s called home damn near ever since the early sixties when his deal with Motown Records fell through. And if sharing the name of a famous compatriot isn’t difficult enough in the entertainment industry, there can be no worse career move than pissing off Berry Gordy, the owner of the most successful label in the history of soul music.
“Mickey Stevenson (head of A&R, who also put together the Funk Brothers) invited me down to Motown after I won a talent show at the 20 Grand in Detroit, it was just a group of kids and I just happened to be the one who sounded better!” Bobby laughs. “When I was signed to Motown there were four Supremes’ - that’s how early it was - and Berry was such a smooth guy that nobody really got close to him. He and Smokey were close, but because he was older, I never really got a chance to get to know Berry. I did get a chance to know his first wife, Raynoma.”
Bobby was called Harold Hutton back then, and Harold & Raynoma used to write together. “I was there probably about a year, maybe longer. I didn’t get a chance to have any music out with Motown, because there was a misunderstanding between Berry and I. And that’s a long story. Though it’s a story that needs to be told and I don’t know if I should tell it right now.” Bobby pauses.
“Alright, you know I said I was writing songs with Berry’s wife? Well, she asked me to come to their apartment so Berry could hear the song that we were working on. Because she thought that he could appreciate the song better at their apartment where it was quiet, so I went. Berry came and heard me sing, and I thought he liked it. And you know Barrett Strong? Barret Strong - singer of the Motown monster Money (That’s What I Want) and co-writer, along with Norman Whitfield, of the classics I Heard It Through The Grapevine (Marvin Gaye), I Can’t Get Next To You (Temptations), War (Edwin Starr) & Smiling Faces Sometimes (Undisputed Truth) - well me and Barrett used to run around together, and Barrett took me over to this girls house. It was there I met Margaret Norton who was Berry’s girlfriend - on the quiet. I didn’t know that. Later Motown held this big DJ convention in Detroit that had people comin’ in from California, New York, all over the United States and Margaret walks in with Berry and says: ‘tell Berry what you told me … that you loved me.’ So I said ‘Margaret, I didn’t even know that you knew Berry.’ I was just a young man flirting with a girl.”
It was Robert Bateman, one of the co-writers of Please Mr. Postman, who delivered the news. “Robert told me ‘Berry is mad at you.’ First I was at his apartment with his wife. And now his girlfriend was saying I liked her. So that put me on the outs with Berry. To be perfectly honest there was nothing going on with either one. And in hindsight if I look back through the years, I think that I was probably used because I betchu that Raynoma knew that Berry was messin’ with Margaret Norton (the two would have a baby together. And I’m tellin’ you, that’s the truth.”
Starting from scratch, Bobby joined a group with Don Storball who wrote the future Northern Soul classic Cool Jerk for the Capitols. Hitching a ride all the way down to Cincinnati, they unsuccessfully auditioned for King Records (the label that launched James Brown). The rest of the group went back to the motor city, but Bobby went to see his old friend Billy Davis (co-writer of the Jackie Wilson classics Lonely Teardrops and Reet Petite) in Chi-Town.
“I knew Billy, David Ruffin use to live at his house in Detroit, so he signed me to a contract with Chess Records (as Harold Hutton) going out on the road with Fontella Bass – I worked with her for about two years, taking the place of her duet partner Bobby McClure, touring the theatres, Harlem Apollo in New York, the Howard in Washington and the Regal in Chicago. And then they gave her Rescue Me!” Says Bobby - his voice rising. “I got Lucky Boy!”
To say Lucky Boy, Hutton’s first record, didn’t quite match the success of Rescue Me, the Fontella Bass monster, is somewhat of understatement. “Yeah I know what you’re thinking … I should have demanded to be on that doggone record!” Bobby laughs.
After the unfortunate Lucky Boy, Hutton left Chess, took a 9-5 working in a wreckastow called Rose Records, before getting his chance to record for the Chicago based arm of Phillips Records, which also owned Mercury (home to Jerry Butler & Gene Chandler).“They spent a lot of money on me, and were pushing my records over in England, even then. I didn’t know that.”
Hutton singles More Today Than Yesteday and the finger-clickin’ quasi-Motown snap of Come See What’s Left Of Me (co-written by Joshie Jo Armstead, another northern soul star) - with its dulcet lead vocal and off-kilter deep soul lyrics [“it’s much too late to wonder why, because without your love I’d die”] - were perfect for the northern soul scene. Come See so good it was later covered up to retain its exclusivity.
“They used to hide my music over there and called me Casanova Bennett. I had no idea.” Bobby says, with a hint of disbelief. He must have felt cheated, bearing in mind that beyond the local Chicago area the single wasn’t a huge success.
“Actually, when I heard about it (many decades later) I thought it was kinda cool. I like Casanova Bennett better than Harold Hutton!”At Phillips in 1971 Bobby recorded arguably his finest recording, the Donny Hathaway original You’re My Whole Reason. Though not suited to northern soul - too lush, too sophisticated for the four-on-the-floor crowd - it did earn Hutton the notable achievement of being featured on the pilot for the first nationally syndicated Soul Train.
“Donny saw me out in California when I was getting ready to do that first Soul Train and he was so happy for me, so proud. You couldn’t knock the smile off his face. I saw him perform at the Roxy Theatre in LA for the first time, and it was amazing, the audience sang almost every lyric with him. That’s when I said ‘This boy is going to be, a, star.’”
Bobby had yet to reach that level of support in his home country, indeed, not everybody was as enthusiastic as Donny Hathaway about Hutton performing on Soul Train.
“If CBS didn’t like the show there would have been no Soul Train, that show came about because of Gladys Knight & The Pips, Eddie Kendricks, Honey Cone and me. But Jerry Butler wanted to be on that show. And then recently (in 2011) they held a 40th Anniversary show (in tribute to) Soul Train here in Chicago, without me - the only person on the original show from Chicago - left me off the bill because of professional jealousy! Because City Hall; Jerry Butler, Tom Tom Washington & Richard Steel got together and screwed me!" Alleges Bobby. Still somewhat vexxed.
“You know how I felt doncha? You can imagine. Don Cornelius didn’t ask me to be on that pilot because I was a nobody. The assholes that put it together, and knew the history, they fuckin’ didn’t want me on the show. I had people calling from Europe asking to put me on the show, in my defence.”
At the time, in the seventies, Hutton was completely unaware of the impact his music was having on the northern soul scene, of just how many people adored his music.
“It was told to me that northern soul had created this community, of people listening and dancing to music they love, that never got the justice it fully deserved. And If they gave me some comeuppance because I didn’t get treated fairly in the over here in the US, then that makes me love it even more. I think there’s no difference in the people of Europe, to those in the US - if they heard it they’d love it to. I think it didn’t sell over here because it wasn’t heard. And if you never tasted steak before how can you say you like it?”
The ultimate Bobby Hutton northern soul floorfiller is the Motown styled, seventies stomper Lend A Hand, a track recorded for the ’73 ABC album A Piece of the Action.
“In America, Lend A Hand got messed up because it was released when disco happened, but in the UK, when I was brought over to perform at the Cleethorpes Weekender (jn the late nineties), I ain’t never seen anything like it, that song was a powerhouse. People sang along, they jumped up and down. In fact they made me do it twice! I was signing autographs for about 3 hours and they were telling me they’ve raised their kids on this music. It’s an exhilarating feeling. When you have groups like
The Temptations but people are appreciating your music, in a country like that. That’s amazing to me. When I was at Motown, I felt I was gonna be one of his biggest acts but the road turned. I love Berry, I love Motown. But just a little misunderstanding …”