LEROY HUTSON: The Man’s Still Revving

From early musical outings at Howard University in the sixties (where his roommate was Donny Hathaway while future lecture hall attendee Puff Daddy was still in diapers), through stepping into the perfect-fitting shoes of Curtis Mayfield when the dream-call came to replace him in The Impressions, singer/keyboardist LEROY HUTSON went on to write some of the most affecting soul-funk grooves this side of the ’70s. Stepping out alone to launch his solo career just two years after joining The Impressions in 1971, his cannon is packed with goodies whether writing, producing or arranging: All Because of You, Love the Feeling, the aptly titled So Nice, a completely reworked Lucky Fellow and the sublime boogie tune Classy Lady to name just a few,  not to mention evergreens like The Ghetto and Trying To Get Next To You, which are often credited more readily to Hathaway and the mysterious Arnold Blair respectively. Hutson’s genius as a songwriter and arranger is on par with his vocal abilities, so when 2SER’s PARIS POMPOR got wind that one of his favourite artists might be interested in heading to Australia for what would effectively be a debut downunder tour, he returned to his long-ago hatched plan of an overdue Jumping The Gap radio special on The Man! and also asked Leroy’s manager if he might like to talk about his career. The answer was Yes. Below you’ll find a transcript for most of the phone call that ensued, Leroy proving himself to be a gently-spoken gracious soul with a great memory. Listen to our 2-hour Hutson radio special here

PP:  I was really glad to hear when I first contacted you that you’re keen to come to Australia for some shows and that we may well see you in Sydney sometime soonish. You’ve never visited Australia before have you?

LH: I have not, but of course I’m looking forward to getting there.

PP: What is the image you have, your first impression, when you think of Australia?

LH: Do you know Gil Askey? Gil was an arranger at Motown for most of their hits. Gil lived out the end of his life in Australia. He lived there for maybe four or five years. He died a few years ago, but he was a great arranger and he did some work for me too on a couple of my albums…

PP: So how were the recent UK gigs you did at the London Jazz Cafe?

LH: Wow! How wonderful that was! It was funky and really real. The audience sang every note. I can’t even explain to you the joy and satisfaction it gives me that after all this time – the same music – a new generation are coming up with it. This was my first time working with those musicians, but those guys! They were fans of mine, all of them, they grew up on my music and you can tell, there was such joy. We had two great nights. I even got a nomination for Artist Of The Year from that show. I thought, wow [laughs].

PP: Let’s talk about your early career following your initial band outings, and in particular taking the place of Curtis Mayfield in The Impressions. They were some big shoes to fill. Was it a daunting prospect or were you just super excited?

LH: Well there’s a little story behind the whole thing. Donny Hathaway and I were roommates in college. Donny actually left college in senior year to join Curtis. Curtis talked him in to coming to Chicago to be his musical director and work at Curtom Records. When the opportunity presented itself, when they needed someone to replace Curtis [in The Impressions] Donny was the one who put my name forward. I call that “the week that was” because in one week a bunch of things happened: My wife and I got married, went on our honeymoon, came back, I graduated college and a few days later I got a call from Curtis’ partner asking me to join The Impressions. So that was quite a week! It ended up being a difficult week in the sense that I only had three days rehearsal with the group before we had this incredible show in Central Park, New York. There had to be at least 8-10,000 people. What was really good was I could step right into Curtis’ uniforms, he and I were basically the same size. From a distance people couldn’t tell if it was him or me – that helped us out. It went off really well.

PP: That’s quite a debut, Central Park.

LH: Yeah, right?

PP: Did you talk with Curtis about replacing him?

LH: No, to be honest with you, I only saw Curtis at a glance because he was always very busy. Curtis’ partner took care of business. Curtis was a very creative person but he did not involve himself in the business angle… of the label. My dealings were mostly with Marv Heiman his partner [and manager].

PP: Was there a sense of family, a feeling of home at Curtom?

LH: To be honest with you, no [laughs]. I would love to say yes, but I’d be lying… We weren’t at odds with each other, but it was run by Curtis’ partner and I term it a poison partnership. I’ve run into quite a few in the business. What I mean by that is, you have two people who, separate and apart, are perfect gentlemen and really nice guys to be around, but when they come together something happens and the vibrations go straight up… Marv was tyrannical and really didn’t care a lot about the artists. What he was about was the deals that he made with Warner Brothers and the labels and all of that, that he had control of that. I found out really late in the game that he had really substantial deals for each of us as artists, and none of us knew about it or were getting any part of it. No advances or any of that. Once I found all that out, it kind of changed the way I felt about, and looked at, the label. And that’s the truth.

PP: It’s a similar scenario we hear from many artists working at that time.

LH: Yeah, yeah. I don’t see myself as a victim. Once I found out, I did what I needed to, to secure my copyright and to make sure I left with my own music. It was very important to do. You’re listening to it now, because I did that. I took care of making sure I had control of my creations.

PP: Glad to hear. I love so many of your songs, but one of my favourites is Lucky Fellow. I love the song – the groove of it – and your vocal performance in it. The cover that Snowboy and vocalist Noel McKoy did many years later, was also terrific. Do you remember the moment you had the idea for it?

LH: Absolutely. I actually remember writing all of my songs, they’re like children [chuckles] – literally like having children. I can recall the moments, the circumstances and the people involved which I think is good after more than 45 years. The song itself was inspired by Maurice Jackson – he did the original version of the song – Maurice was part of the group The Independents.

PP: Oh, I always thought Lucky Fellow was one of yours, I didn’t realise it was a cover.

LH: Well – it’s a cover of sorts. I mean I put my flavour to it. It didn’t sound quite like it did when it ended up with me, because I love strings and I love lush orchestrations… [Mine] sounds expensive [laughs].

PP: Was it?

LH: It was, absolutely! [more laughs].

NB. Leroy Hutson’s Lucky Fellow sure does sound different, even the melody in Jackson’s original version is almost unrecognisable.

LH: I can remember writing that… and I knew something special was happening. A songwriter almost always knows when something really unique is going on or has gone on. I felt that way about Cool Out, So In Love With You, All Because of You and Can This Be Real with The Natural Four. Something happens in the room, like a haze, a mist that goes over the room. It becomes three dimensional when the magic is happening with the song.

PP: Is the songwriting process a bit mystical for you? Some songwriters say when they write their best stuff, it comes quickly and that it feels like something is coming through them, rather than from them.

LH: That’s exactly right. That’s how I describe it as well. I’m the vehicle and the divine inspiration is sent through me. On several occasions I can remember being almost in a trance-like state. If I’m able to concentrate without distraction while I’m writing, by the time it becomes what it ends up being, I find myself coming out and feeling like I was part of a movie… if that makes sense. It’s really a wonderful thing. I guess that’s what you call a songwriter’s zone. Athletes talk about being in the zone. That’s what happens with me with certain songs…

PP: Do you have generally good memories of recording some of your classic albums like Hutson and Hutson II? I’m not sure what your financial circumstances were like at the time or what pressures you might have been under.

LH: Oh yeah, you can tell from the music. The music doesn’t sound strained or like there were any strange vibrations happening during it all. I’m one that firmly believes, in order for the music to be positive, everything that’s around it, or goes into it, has to be as well. People can tell. It’s all vibrations. Notes vibrate at certain… beats per second I think. To answer your question, it was a very wonderful time. We had string players who were very happy to come. They were being paid a lot, because they were doing a lot of work. None of those things are happening now. There were 16 string players and horn players and [other] folk. That to me was the family part… the musicians and the people who helped me to produce the music.

PP: How did you recreate that live, on the road at the time? Were you able to take those players out?

LH: Only on certain gigs. Only on the gigs that were being financed by the mother label, like Warner Brothers. There were those where I could have those players, but for the most part, we used – I’m trying to remember the name of the keyboard… it was synthesized strings. It did what it need to, to make the song come off. But these days, because I have the original masters… I actually sample the original strings and take those on the road with me. So when you hear these songs while I’m traveling, you’re hearing the actual string players and that’s a wonderful thing.

PP: I was going to ask you about technology, because obviously in your lifetime, there’s been a huge shift in what’s available to musicians and especially keyboard players. Was that something that excited you in the ’70s/’80s? Were you a rush-out-and-get-the-latest-synth kind of guy, or were you more of a classic I-love-my-original-Rhodes man?

LH: You’re right, the latter. I didn’t really have time for that. I’m a Gemini and I have a lot of interests. So my energy goes into a lot of different things. I got to a point… where I realised I needed to come off the road and spend some time with my wife and children. I did that in the early ‘80s. I started managing my son in the early ‘90s – because he’s a very talented kid, Lee Jr has produced Jill Scott – her last album, he’s done quite a few things. So to answer your question, I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out those [technical] things, I would depend on the people who did do that sort of thing, to keep me abreast of the latest trends and bring those sounds into the recording situations.

PP: You just mentioned you have a lot interests, what’s one of your other main ones outside of music? What else brings you joy?

LH: I love refurbishing cars. I have an ’88 Benz, I have a 2000 Mercedes S500. I have a 2003 Jaguar S-Type. I don’t have any new cars. I bought all these cars when they were ragged and almost about to go.

NB The picture below features Leroy and his wife Jan in London in 1971, so the interest in cars goes way back alongside the music.

PP: Can you tell me about Arnold Blair who you worked with (and whose androgynous voice is quite extraordinary) but who released so few records. He is something of a mystery.

LH: I met Arnold at Howard University, same place I met Donny [Hathaway] and my wife. A lot of wonderful things and people [came] as a result of me going away to college. Arnold was there at college with us. He was a person who liked to be around music. He was always around Donny and myself. He pressed himself on me, in other words he was always trying to get me to stop and listen to him and produce some songs for him. What he would do was, he would come to my other sessions and be off somewhere in the corner and as I’m producing a track he would sing a song across it – other than the one I’m writing! [laughs]. I realised how often he did that just recently because I was listening to some multitrack tapes of mine, 24 track masters and I heard him in the corner… he was singing another song. He was very persistent… he tried to become a background singer whether I needed hime or not. Ultimately I realised he did have a talent and I wrote I Won The Big Deal This Time and Trying To Get Next To You. And Finally Made It Home –  I just released that on a UK label, that was one of the greatest of the four songs we did [together]… Arnold passed in the ’90s, he died early. I just recently… found out that there was a poster made of him, because not that many people have actually seen him.

NB Below is a a detail of the Arnold Blair poster Leroy mentioned, showing the singer, who was reportedly gay and brutally murdered in 1996, in profile. Insert: the label for for his best known single, 1975’s Trying To Get Next To You, co-written and produced by Leroy Hutson.

PP: You’ve worked with some incredible talents over the years – Roberta Flack, Linda Clifford, Voices of East Harlem – is there someone you really wanted to work with that you haven’t?

LH: Yeah, Donny! We were roommates for almost two years and we never got to record together. He was busy, I was busy, and our paths didn’t cross a lot once he left Chicago to go on the road. Besides the songs that we wrote, we never got to perform together… We became roommates in my junior year at college. We lived together in an upstairs apartment on 15th and T Street in Washington DC.  Wow, I have loads of stories about our time together, but the one that stands out is The Ghetto and how that came to be written. He came home one Tuesday night and I was sitting at the keyboard, just playing a specific riff. He called me Hoss. He said: “No Hoss, it doesn’t go like that, it goes like this!” And he played that [keyboard] bassline [At this point, Leroy is singing the famous keyboard bass riff from The Ghetto down the phone line].  We both started laughing and he said: “Now that’s The Ghettoooooh!” And off it went from there. He started playing the bassline and I started playing the chords and about 45 minutes to an hour later, we had a hit song! I recorded it on an old reel-to-reel tape in the apartment and at the end of it, we knelt in the window – we had two windows at the front of the apartment – he knelt in one, I in the other. The sun was blazing outside, but it was raining, all at the same time. As we listened to the song, the traffic was synching itself to the starts and stops we had in the music. It was such a magical [moment] I’ll never forget it. It was like everybody outside, knew what was going on in our apartment. Wonderful.

PP: Tell me something else about Donny, maybe what you liked about him the most.

LH: I liked the fact that he was very fun loving. Very few people knew that because there were all the stories about his illness, but when we first met, he was a very naive, fun loving guy. We laughed an awful lot while we lived together. It was a healing experience for both of us because we laughed a lot and enjoyed music a lot. He was always impressed that I could sing parts on certain records. [For example] one of my favourite albums is Miles DavisPorgy and Bess…  I could actually sing – mimic Miles horn and solos – for almost the entire album… Here’s another story. I played that album for Donny. He sat on the couch in the living room. We had a little turntable and I played the album for him, the whole side down. While it’s playing, I’m singing, thinking I’m impressing him. You know what he does? When that side ended, he went over to the turntable, started it over again, sat at the keyboard and played along with it and stretched the chords and made it become something totally different. I get goosebumps thinking about it even now… 40-plus years later. I don’t know many people who could do that. Donny was genius like that. He had never heard this record before!

PP: After taking that break making/releasing your own music in the ’80s, you returned with 2009’s Soothe You Groove You and now there’s renewed interest in your back catalogue and you’re playing shows. Are you recording or releasing new music again any time soon?

LH: Oh man, I have music in the vault that’s just going to knock people’s socks off. People are like: “Why did you hold on to it so long?” I’m glad I did, because now with the resurgence of vinyl there’s a whole new interest in the ’70’s music. It’ll do better now, than  had I released it [then]. And I’ve got interested people now, people who are supporting me all over again. It’s a wonderful thing, I’m really very grateful that this has happened. I have my own label too, called Triumph Records which we released the last Arnold Blair on. I’m trying to make sure I have a release on my own label before I’m not around. It’s important to me, it’s a goal of mine. It’s coming…

PP: I have to ask you about that beautiful photo of you on the back of The Man! album, decked out in that amazing green crocheted outfit, surrounded by keyboards. It’s like a ‘70s mens fashion spread.

LH: My wife made that for me. She actually sat and knitted that whole outfit. As a matter of fact I had several of them. That’s the photo Acid Jazz used on the Anthology they just released on me – I like it a lot too.

PP: Well that’s love, having your wife knit a whole outfit for you!

LH: Yeah, ain’t that wonderful? And people are [still] talking about [it] now.

PP: Have you still got it?

LH: My wife?

PP: No! The green crocheted outfit.

LH: No. I give away a lot of stuff. I’ve had some wonderful clothes. I just give them away, let someone else enjoy it for a while. I do the same thing with my cars. I’ve never traded in a car or kept an old one, I always gave it to someone… But my wife, I still have her! 48 years in.

Here’s a wonderful thought: The universe may well have orchestrated a beautiful coincidence involving someone driving around in a cool Hutson refurbished car wearing one of his wife’s knitted ensembles. Bonus: they got both for free. Many of Leroy Hutson’s albums are be re-issued, mostly on vinyl, with the next one being 1979’s Unforgettable on the reinvigorated Acid Jazz label. You can also find his singles with Arnold Blair – some previously unreleased – pressed on 45 via the dependable Super Disco Edits run by DJ Sighers and Hutson’s own Triumph Records. Stay tuned for updates on that Australian tour and visit Leroy on-line.

Sunday 11th of October, 2020

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