Saturday, April 12, 2008

Disco Delivery #54:
Willie Hutch - Midnight Dancer (1979, Whitfield/Warner Bros.)

Willie Hutch - Disco Thang
Willie Hutch - Midnight Dancer
Willie Hutch - Kelly Green
Willie Hutch - Never Let You Be Without Love
Willie Hutch - Everyday Love
Willie Hutch - Deep In Your Love
Willie Hutch - Everybody Needs Money
Willie Hutch - Down Here On Disco Street

A gifted songwriter, guitar player and a great singer as well, the late Willie Hutch was, in my opinion, one of the greatest talents at post-Detroit Motown. Not counting all the albums he has released, songs he had written and produced; his classic scores for blaxploitation flicks like "The Mack" and "Foxy Brown" have, alone, ensured his legacy with old and new generations alike. Much like Norman Whitfield, albeit without the same sort of grandiose style, Willie Hutch's work had a gritty elegance that seemed to stand out in the Motown pack.. Combining blistering funk, with a wonderful melodic sensibility and a warm, passionate, soulful touch, his style was unmistakable.

I had first discovered Willie Hutch some seven years back, while skipping class one Friday afternoon. Heading straight for the HMV, I'd picked up a cheap VHS copy of "Foxy Brown," just for the hell of it.. Between Pam Grier, Willie's soundtrack, the pimps, prostitutes, drug pushers, gratuitous titillation and clumsy fight scenes, I don't think I could have asked for a better introduction to the wierd, wonderful world of Blaxploitation. Having loved not only the movie but Willie Hutch's awesome score, I had gone from there and picked up a copy of "The Very Best of Willie Hutch" (1998, Motown) shortly after. Between the Foxy Brown Theme and his brilliant covers of "Stormy Weather" and "The Way We Were," along with hard hitters like "In & Out," I'd become a fan from then on..

Although certainly not among the first names that comes to mind when one thinks of disco, one would be hard-pressed to argue with the influence of danceable funk like "Slick," "Brothers Gonna Work It Out," and "Get Ready For The Get Down" on the genre. Although like many of his contemporaries, he'd seem to have a harder time getting noticed during the disco era, he nonetheless continued to make some strong records during this time. After his last LP for Motown, "Havin' A House Party" (1977, Motown), he'd make the jump to super-producer and former Motown colleague, Norman Whitfield's own Warner-affiliated Whitfield label for a couple of albums. His first album for Whitfield "In Tune" (1978, Whitfield), was produced largely by both Whitfield and Hutch, apparently being the first of Hutch's LPs to credit an outside producer. Although he hadn't garnered any big hits on Whitfield, I'd consider the two albums for the label to be excellent records. Contrary to what I had expected, this particular album, "Midnight Dancer," his second and final for Whitfield was written and produced entirely by Hutch himself. I'm not sure if it's the only Whitfield LP release to not have Norman involved as producer in some capacity, but it has to be one of the few.

Despite some of the disco overtures in the artwork and songs, the material on this record actually seems closer to his righteously soulful, well established style than the previous album for Whitfield. For me though, the first two tracks are probably the most sonically stunning. "Disco Thang" with it's opening combination of strutting bass riding the top along with Wah-Wah Watson's lush guitar work and swelling strings (arranged by Gene Page) makes a perfect opener. Rooted in funk, driven by a heavy, greasy bassline and a stunning horn arrangement; it's probably the anthesis of the main disco trend of the time of higher energy and higher tempos, but whatever it's disco credentials, it's a nice six minute piece of luxurious dancable funk..

The title tune and second track, "Midnight Dancer," one of my favourites on the album, definitely takes the cake for sheer sonic awesomeness.. If it weren't for the credits, I would have sworn Norman Whitfield had a major hand in this. While Norman's name is largely absent from the official credits (aside from a general thank you for 'creative input'), Willie definitely seemed to take a few cues from Whitfield's style, especially with those killer, space-trippin' sci-fi synth stabs (used to great effect when paired with those swirling, swelling strings).

Although Hutch also seemed to try a little of Whitfield's 'mama said, papa said' storytelling style in the lyrics, for all of his talents, he just didn't seem to have quite the same knack for it (at least if this song is any indication). For example, around the four minute mark, ostensibly, we're led to believe this is a song about a young man who "learns all about groove that he can" and grows up to become the "Midnight Dancer," spreading his "boogie, boogie" all over the land. Then the break comes in, which is awesome by the way - synth-stabs front and centre; lyrically speaking however, it all falls apart when our Midnight Dancer decides to go into funk preacher mode:

"In the beginning, the Creator gave song and dance, he gave the heart, the horn and the drums.."

"And the thundering of the drums motivated the spirits of all men women and children"

So far, so good.

"And now with song, we bring you the drums of the midnight dancer, to release the energy of your soul."

Which evidently translates as..

"and I mean Dance! Dance! Dance!"

And if anyone didn't get that:

"and I mean.... SHAKE YOUR DONKEY!!!"

I've never heard anyone tell me or anyone else to shake their 'donkey' before, much less make it a clarion call. Anyway, I suppose that's one donkey that has long since rode off the lexicon..

If the title track was lyrically awkward, he more than redeems himself however with three of the tracks which lie at the heart of this album. "Kelly Green," "Never Let You Be Without Love" at the end of Side One and "Deep In Your Love" on Side Two are three songs which have some of the most genuine, heartfelt lyrics and performances on the album. While those averse to love ballads might remain unmoved, the lyrics of these songs (which thankfully avoid much of the maudlin cliche's of the genre) epitomize the sort of uncompromising poetic, sentimental beauty that I've always associated with some of the finest classic R&B balladry. With wonderful melodies, genuine and unpretentious lyrics sung soulfully and passionately, all the while complimented with Gene Page's arrangements and Wah-Wah Watson's unmistakably luxurious guitar work, these songs have to be among some of Willie Hutch's most underrated work.

Towards the end of the album, things go back into more uptempo material, first with "Everybody Needs Money," a little piece of funkdified social commentary. To quote one verse: "...some say that money's the root of all evil, but I.. disagree with that..," he later goes on to lament the price of gas, rising cost of living etc... My, how times have changed..

The album closer, "Down Here On Disco Street" quite appropriately makes the most bold overture to disco on the album. Opening with a deep, delicious bass, much like the title implies, as a funky disco ode to the escapism of the disco scene, it carries on with a nice groove that goes full circle with the album opener.

One of Willie Hutch's lesser known albums, "Midnight Dancer" probably doesn't top some of his Motown work, particularly excellent albums like "Mark Of The Beast" (1974, Motown) or any of his soundtracks for example, but it nevertheless remains a solid, enjoyable album in it's own right. While it's not typical of the straight-ahead, higher energy disco that was popular in 1979, nor of much of the disco that I've covered here in the past, it nonetheless stands up well, both as a solid, enjoyable album as well as an example of the more funk oriented disco that probably didn't get as much attention in the genre's waning years.

After his stint at Whitfield, Hutch would go on to write one of Gwen McCrae's most enduring dance hits, "Keep The Fire Burning." Around the same time in 1982, he would also have his biggest club hit with "In & Out", a single which gave him a second coming of sorts at Motown, where he would end producing for acts like The Four Tops, Junior Walker and Carrie McDowell (see "Uh Uh, No No Casual Sex"). Although he wasn't quite as prolific the second time around, he would contribute a couple of songs to "Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon" as well as release one last album for the label "Making A Game Out Of Love" (1985, Motown). Sadly, Hutch passed away at the age of 60 in September 2005, he had continued making and releasing new music right up until his later years, his last album being "Sexalicious" (GGIT) in 2002, released on his own independent label.. From The Jackson 5's "I'll Be There" and "Brothers Gonna Work It Out" to later hits like Gwen McCrae's "Keep The Fire Burning," and his own "In & Out" and "The Glow" he had undoubtedly left behind a stunning, enduring musical legacy.

In 1998, evidently to promote his then recently released best-of CD, The Dallas Observer did an excellent article on him, entitled "He'll Be There," which is thankfully still available online in it's entirety. Well worth reading for a look into the man's life and music. Shortly before his death, he also recorded an interview along with some live performances which have been put on to a DVD entitled "The Willie Hutch Story," released by the Expansion label in the UK, which I'm certainly curious to see ..




jahcisco said...

Thanks for the album.

Anonymous said...

I've had this album for ages.
Thanks for the wonderful notes.
It's always a pleasure to read them.


M.E. Grant said...

Welcome back.

Tommy said...

Errol and Kristofer, thanks for the comments! :)

M.E. Grant - Thanks! Yes, I'm back.. At least for now.

Damika said...

I could not get the audio to play. I hear Kelly Green only like twice, and I have not been able to find it anywhere. Is there another way to listen?

Tommy said...

Hello Damika, if the zshare links aren't working for you, click the little box underneath the track links. That should link to a zip file of all the posted tracks. Hope that helps!

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