Hutch Hutchinson: Groove Gatherer

August 1, 2012
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Most music fans know Petty’s Heartbreakers and Bruce’s E Street Band—but the truly knowledgeable rank Bonnie Raitt’s band among the finest rock and rhythm units working today. Listeners who love Raitt’s gritty, evocative voice or shiver at the distinctive roar of her slide guitar playing might not realize her longtime stagemates’ role in boosting all that blues and bittersweetness, even as it simmers in a stimulating sauce of down-home R&B, rock, and New Orleans funk. Backing such a varied and expressive artist doesn’t demand an ampersand and a proper band name, but it does take a refined sense of feel, an innate ability to groove, and a mastery of musical styles so comprehensive that each stylistic flavor feels both authentic to its source and natural in the moment.

ON BASS IS JAMES “HUTCH” HUTCHINSON, a modest maestro of feel and genre, who has carefully cultivated his capacity for groove authenticity throughout a decades-long, culture-spanning career. In the past 40 years, Hutch has rocked out in postpsychedelic San Francisco, learned local Latin styles in Brazil and Central America, played bona fide bons temps New Orleans funk as the longk-time bassist of the Neville Brothers Band, mastered reggae and African rhythms in Jamaica and the Bahamas, and soaked up southern rock and country in Austin, Texas, where his Latin fusion band with violinist Sid Page, the Point, won Jazz Band of the Year at the Austin Music Awards. Even in the decades when he’s been most identified with Bonnie Raitt, Hutch has continued to work with a diverse list of artists, from Chet Atkins to Ziggy Marley. He cut an album with Ringo Starr, tracked with the Doobie Brothers, toured with Joe Cocker, and worked with such distinctive and dissimilar artists as Etta James, Maria Muldaur, Willie Nelson, and Al Green. “As far as I know,” he smiles, “I’m the only musician to play with both Bryan Adams and Ryan Adams.”

In recent weeks, you might have heard Hutch morning, noon, and night on shows ranging from The Colbert Report and The Late Show with David Letterman to Good Morning America and Ellen. The occasion is Raitt’s new album, Slipstream, which has generated beaming reviews and remarkable buzz for an artist who enjoyed her first successes 40 years ago. The album’s first single is a lovingly rendered reggae reading of Gerry Rafferty’s 1978 hit “Right Down the Line,” which has Hutch and drummer Ricky Fataar sounding very much like Aston “Family Man” Barrett and his brother, drummer Carlton Barrett, the pioneering rhythm section of the Wailers and the Upsetters.

Early this year, Hutch and his bandmates shot a music video in an abandoned-looking movie theater in San Francisco’s Mission District, the diverse Latino neighborhood where Carlos Santana came of age in the mid 1960s. Coincidentally it was right nearby that Hutch had some of his first professional music experiences 40 years earlier. While still in high school in Somerville, Massachusetts, Jimmy Hutchinson took classes at Berklee College of Music and played in bands around Boston and Cambridge, but at 17 he left for the San Francisco Bay Area—which, in the early ’70s, was the place to go if you wanted to play in bands. Among his earliest gigs were several with Latin groups, but before long he was performing in Link Wray’s band and playing sessions at Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s ranch. Within a year, he joined Copperhead, the post-Quicksilver Messenger Service project of guitarist John Cipollina, which Clive Davis signed to Columbia Records the same year he signed Earth, Wind & Fire and Aerosmith. As a member of Copperhead, Hutch recorded with world-class musicians and performed in front of huge audiences— all before he turned 20. In 1974 Davis was fi red, and Columbia dropped Copperhead and many other artists. Soon after, Hutch accepted an offer for a three-week gig in Guatemala. He stayed for a year and a half.

Hutch moved to Los Angeles shortly after joining Bonnie’s band in the mid 1980s and has lived there ever since. He co-wrote a song with Ivan Neville that appeared on her 1986 album Nine Lives, but both Hutch and drummer Ricky Fataar first recorded with Raitt with 1989’s Nick of Time, her mid-career Grammy-winning breakthrough and the first of four hit albums produced by Don Was. Versatile guitarist George Marinelli joined in 1993, and the current lineup includes veteran keyboardist Mike Finnigan.


Hutchinson and Fataar enjoy one of those uncanny wordless rhythm connections. Perhaps it has to do with the wide variety of musical experiences both musicians have enjoyed. As a teenager, Fataar played with his brothers and guitarist Blondie Chaplin in the Flames, one of the hottest soul bands in 1960s South Africa, and the first non-white band to hit the charts. As for Mr. Hutchinson’s exploits, he has always tried to let his varied experiences permeate both the way he hears music and the way plays it. “Bonnie calls me her ‘musical ranger’ because I bring in all of these different influences. It’s not just that I’ve listened well and learned to play different styles, it’s that I’ve spent time living and working with the players in those communities. There are musicians in various parts of the world—blues players, country guys, even African musicians—who think of me as their style of musician. They may not even be aware of other styles I play.”

How is it that you’re able to fit so comfortably in such a variety of styles?
I think my gift is to hear things the way I hear them. James Booker, the great New Orleans piano player, whom I had the pleasure of knowing really well, once said, “We’re the culmination of all of our influences.” And that’s what it is. What you bring to the table is what you’ve retained in your head, in your ears, in your mind, and in your heart, which, hopefully, you can express at that moment.

How would you describe Bonnie Raitt’s music?
Stylistically, she’s all across the board. The main thing that connects her songs is her voice and her slide tones. What’s so refreshing is that we get to play every kind of groove under the sun. We play real rock & roll—like the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, and Little Feat. And, we get to play what people now call Americana. George will play mandolin, I’ll play upright, and Ricky might play B3.

In “Right Down the Line,” you match the guitar’s reggae-style upbeat eighthnotes on beat four, but only after a long, slippery downbeat note. That booo-ooooom chuck-a rhythmic pattern practically defines the whole song.
[Pauses in thought.] I understand that; it’s intentional. It’s a control issue [laughs]. The feel is natural for me; it’s an immersion thing. A lot of players limit their influences, or the kind of music they listen to. But I actively seek out different forms of music, and try to understand the role and function of each instrument in that style. Everything has its place. In reggae and African music, the bass is more prominent, and has more control of the groove and the melodic aspects of the groove. In those forms, the bass speaks, it talks, it sings, but everything sings—it’s a celebration. In more folk-oriented Americana or a ballad, I just want to stay out of the way. Since we play so many different styles, my role totally changes from song to song. That’s why I play so many basses.

Orchestration is a big part of playing bass, and that’s dependent on style, too. Sometimes you want to come in full force, like on “Used to Rule the World,” the first song on Slipstream. We’re right in, and you want that power. In R&B, it’s about attitude, like in hip-hop. You’ve got to be there—otherwise people will ignore you. In other forms, you creep in and build it to a crescendo. In the first verse you’re minimal, and in the second verse, you’re a little more present and manipulating the groove a bit more. You peak during the solo, and then for the third verse, either drop it back down, drop away altogether, or maybe power your way out.

So orchestration, as you see it, comes down to dynamics, note choices, and groove manipulation.
A lot of it is about dynamics and note choices, but it’s also about reacting in that moment. On “Right Down the Line,” I loved some of what we initially did on the demo, but you can’t limit yourself to what you’ve done. You need to be present in the moment, and play off what’s happening now. Sometimes I do get hung up on certain things that I did, but I’ll tell myself I can reference it later on.

How much do you come up with parts prior to tracking?
I contemplate them, but it depends on the artist. Some have a clear idea what they want, and some don’t have a clue. The Colin James and Beverly McClellen records I just did are killer, and I had no idea what was going on there. With Beverly, we did 15 tracks in three days.

I hear reggae in a lot of your playing, even with artists or styles where you wouldn’t necessarily expect it.
I hadn’t thought about that—but it’s true, and it makes sense. When I was about 12 in 1965, I went to the World’s Fair in New York, and I spent a lot of time in the Jamaica Pavilion. This was way before reggae was known; I saw Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, and Toots & the Maytals. At the same time, the Beatles were half a mile away at Shea Stadium. I could see the lights and hear the crowd. I knew what was going on, and I wanted to be a part of it. In a way, the “World” had given me the Beatles and Jamaican music at the exact same moment.

Family Man is one of my heroes. Hearing him forever changed the way I played, even before I knew his name. Before the Wailers, his early work with the Upsetters blew my mind. I still find myself thinking, How would “Fams” approach this tune?

Who else influenced your early approach to bass?
My playing was greatly influenced by the versatile, under-appreciated, and sometimes very funky Carl Radle. I always loved his playing, from his work with Delaney & Bonnie, Leon Russell, and George Harrison through Freddie King and Eric Clapton. It’s sad that he left us so young at age 37. I also loved Gordon Edwards of Stuff—what a great P-Bass tone. Klaus Voorman for his simplicity, and Chuck Rainey, big time—his tone, his double-stops, his entire approach are incredible. Of course John Entwistle of the Who and Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane were very prominent well before Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke. They had ear-attracting, experimental tones, and they were not afraid to stretch. They were truly fearless and went with the flow.

Tommy Cogbill and David Hood in Muscle Shoals played on so many major records that had an influence on me. Hood had a huge influence on my sense of time, and Cogbill, who died so young, is an unsung hero to so many players of my generation. Also, The Band’s Rick Danko was amazing in how fearlessly he approached songs. To me, he’s like a Canadian-American Paul McCartney. Paul Chambers and Percy Heath had a huge influence, too; they could walk a bass line like nobody else.

Which bassists influenced you later in your professional years?
It’s mostly been a mutual encouragement thing. For example, Carol Kaye was a mentor to me back in the ’70s. I met her when I was in Copperhead and she was playing with the great jazz pianist Hampton Hawes. She said the nicest things and gave me a lot of confidence when I was young and not that sure of myself. We’re still friends.

I didn’t meet Tony Levin until after he mentioned me in a BASS PLAYER article. He mentioned Paul McCartney, Duck Dunn, and then said, “Hutch Hutchinson has never played a wrong note for Bonnie Raitt. He’s perfect for her songs.” [Nashville session bassist] Michael Rhodes called me up and said, “You’ve got to see what Tony Levin said about you. Do you even know him?” I immediately got a hold of him and said, “Damn, I can’t believe you said this.” And he said, “No, I meant it.” Then he says, “Wait—did I write that?” [Laughs.] We’ve stayed friends; we’re both big Patriots fans.

Around 2001, I met Justin Meldal-Johnsen at a shoot for Fender with dozens of bass players. I walked in and this guy came out with a huge afro and asked, “Can I help you with your basses? I gotta tell you, I bought a Guild Starfi re because you mentioned one in an interview. I just love that bass.” Justin’s a good guy and a great player.

Let’s talk about drummers. You play sessions with a lot of different players. When you and Ricky play together, how does it compare?
Playing with Ricky is easy. There’s no thought involved. I can play anything I want, and he can play anything he wants, and we end up in the same place. We’ve been playing together since the late ’80s, and from the fi rst note, it just worked. There’s very little to talk about; we just end up at the right places at the right times. With certain people, the first time you play with them, it’s immediately evident that you’re on the same page.

Did you know each other before playing with Bonnie?
I think we first played together in London around 1986, on Etta James’ album, Seven Year Itch. We did a few other things, then played with Bonnie on Nick of Time in ’88, then started touring. But back in the early ’70s, when I was living in the Bay Area, I knew Blondie Chaplin, and he and Ricky were both in the Beach Boys. Blondie kept saying, “You’ve got to meet my friend Ricky. It would be great—we could put a band together.” When the Beach Boys came to play the Oakland Coliseum in ’74, I didn’t want to go. Back then it was a pain in the ass to drive to Oakland. Ricky and I didn’t meet for another 12 years, but we hit it off from day one.

Aside from musical things, what have you learned from Ricky?
How to chill. I’m still working on it. He’s the most laid back person I know.

Which other drummers have you played a lot with?
I’ve done a lot of sessions with Jim Keltner. Playing with Jim is like an adventure; he takes you to interesting places and makes you think. People tell me we play so well together, and I know we do, but while we’re tracking I never know if it’s coming together. It always does, and it’s inventive and creative, but I have no idea in the moment. Then I listen back and think, “My God, that’s amazing—he was over here and I was over here . . . .”

Ringo Starr has a very strong drum style.
Yes, but we locked. I played on his album Time Takes Time, and he talked about me being in the touring band—but it’s an All-Star band, and I’m a sideman; I didn’t have a hit of my own to sing. But it was such a thrill playing for him, and we’ve ended up playing together a number of times over the years.

How do you see the business changing for musicians over the years?
I think with the influx of these reality music-business shows, people don’t want to study, and work hard, and deprive themselves. They feel like things should be given to them.

Really? It seems obvious that the winners work really hard at their craft.
Yes, but look at how many clueless people come to audition. I worked with Don Was on American Idol, and I’ve talked with other producers on some of these shows. I mean, the majority of people they get, you don’t even see. They think they’re great and have a shot, but they don’t have a clue. I don’t know how much that translates to how willing musicians are to further themselves on their instrument.

People need to realize that music still comes down to a local level. Although the Internet gives artists opportunities to be recognized across borders, it’s the local level that really makes or breaks an artist. That’s what allows you to go out and perform. You can put your music online, but local venues are the true training ground for artists. Playing your instrument for people is what makes you a better musician and a better performer. That’s when you have to assert yourself, and say, “Look, this is what I do. This is who I am.” It’s the interaction with a live audience that helps you; that’s where you get that immediate feedback. You don’t get that on the Internet. Some markets have it better than others; some cities are live music towns, and some aren’t. But the stage is your proving ground. You can practice, but you need to get affirmation from an audience that you’re having an impact.

That’s why I love that we play real rock & roll—where the parts are loose, but they gel in a certain way that audiences respond to. That’s what you’re hearing when you hit that last downbeat, and there’s that split second before everybody jumps up and yells. That’s an amazing and beautiful thing.

ROAD TESTED
For Hutch Hutchinson, playing a lot of styles means having a lot of basses. By his count, his trove of modern and vintage treasures comes to around 60. “You’ve got to have the right tool for the job,” he says. On tour, his goto 4-string is a Lakland Joe Osborn with P and J pickups, but he often grabs one of many other Laklands, like his Lakland Darryl Jones or his new 44-51, a ’50s P-style instrument with a neck design based on Hutch’s mid-’50s Fender Precisions (transition models that came between the original ’51 slab-body design and the more contoured ’57 Precision). He uses D’Addario strings, especially favoring the flatwound Chromes. For acoustic sounds he plays a Washburn AB40 acoustic bass guitar, his Kala Hutch Hutchinson Signature U-Bass, an NS Design Omni Bass electric upright, or his upright.


Studio work is where Hutch really digs into his collection. He keeps two trunks of assorted vintage instruments packed and studio-ready in Los Angeles. Among his favorite Fenders are his ’53, ’55, ’57, ’63, and ’65 Precision Basses, especially the anodized-pickguard ’57 for its distinct midrange and the ’63 for its deep, Jamerson-like tone. He also has a ’61 Fender Jazz, ’59 and ’63 Gibson EB-O’s, Gibson Grabber, Danelectro Silvertone, several Guild Starfi res and Hofners, as well as vintage 4-strings by Kay and Framus. The Washburn often makes it onto recordings, too. “People think I played upright on ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me,’ but it was the AB40 with D’Addario phosphor bronze strings,” he says. Among his few active basses are a mid-’80s Tobias 5-string, which he used on Slipstream, a Modulus Quantum 5, and an early Modulus P+J 4-string that sounds “really organic. I’ve used it on a million records. People often think it’s a Fender Precision.” When he goes to sessions, he says, “I generally bring a double gig-bag. I always bring a Jazz Bass.”

Despite the deep bench of basses, Hutch actually has a No. 1 instrument: a ’62 Fender Jazz he bought in 1971 from Leo’s Music in Oakland for $118. “I’ve used it on a zillion records; it’s a must-have instrument for the studio. Bonnie loves it—it’s the bass I’ve used with her forever.” The photo at upper-left shows Hutch at age 18 onstage with Copperhead in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, back when the Jazz Bass still had its original sunburst finish. “I bought the bass and then took off the finish a year later. To this day, I look at this picture and think, If I had left the finish on it, the bass would be worth five grand more!”

When it’s time to record, Hutch mikes vintage Ampeg B-12, B-15, and B-18 combos—he has several of each—and uses Ampeg SVT-DI or the discontinued Aguilar DB 900 DI boxes. Live, he uses an SVT-3PRO head, two Ampeg 2x10 cabs, and an SVT-II PRO head slaved to power two custom SVT808 8x8 cabs. His pedals include a TC Electronic Stereo Chorus + Pitch Modulator and Flanger, Source Audio Tri-Mod Flanger, volume pedal, Dunlop Cry Baby Bass Wah, and an Ampeg Sub-Blaster octave divider. —E.E. BRADMAN & BILL LEIGH

 

HUTCH & ME BY BILL LEIGH
I’ve been out of the byline business for a few years, but I made an exception for Hutch for one simple reason: In 2001, shortly after I fi rst became Editor of this magazine, he made an incredibly strong impression on me. As the fi nal act in a special day of bass exhibits and performances in Hollywood, Hutch and his crew of New Orleans-forged funk players—Ivan Neville, Jon Cleary, and Tony Braunagel—brought the house down with a roof-raising, loose-grooving set that stood in stark relief from the rest of the day’s bill. The other acts were inspiring, exquisite, expressive, even masterful, but Hutch’s straight throwdown was less concerned with what he had to express as a bassist, and more concerned with what the audience felt below the backbone.

Hutch and I stayed in touch over the years, and he’s always been as generous and gracious personally as he is musically. The two long afternoons we spent together culminated in loud laughs at Ricky Fataar’s home studio, where the band was finishing up its own CD to offer for sale on the upcoming Bonnie Raitt tour. One problem with interviewing someone you know is that the conversation can easily go into areas too sensitive to write about explicitly without betraying someone’s reputation, something most professional musicians learn to avoid early on. There were hints of Hutch’s not quite rough-and-tumble Boston upbringing; there were anecdotes about famous, successful artists who were surprisingly quick to weasel or cheat their way out of agreed-upon pay; there was the tale of the friendship Hutch developed with a grocery store employee in his Los Angeles neighborhood, who turned out to have once been the success-enabling but credit-denied long-time music director of one of the world’s biggest music stars; and there were shared snapshots of a pick-up band Hutch plays with, made up of genuine big-name music stars who happen to share a favorite vacation spot.

Then there was Hutch’s account of the thrill of Al Green singling him out on camera for the documentary Gospel According to Al Green (the footage was ultimately left out). “‘I have a gift from God,’” Green proclaimed, according to Hutch’s reverent reproduction of the artist’s gentlemanly southern manner. “‘It’s my ability to communicate with people, and to sing other people’s songs and make them my own. Now Mr. Hutch here, I watched him do an overdub. And he never once asked to hear it before, and he never once asked to hear it after he finished. He knew what he wanted to do, and he did it. Now that in itself is a gift from God.’”

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY
Hutch has played on all of Bonnie Raitt’s recordings since 1989, including eight albums— Nick of Time (1989), Luck of the Draw (1991), Longing in Their Hearts (1994), Road Tested (1995), Fundamental (1998), Silver Lining (2002), Souls Alike (2005), and this year’s Slipstream—and a number of tracks she’s done with other artists and for films. He has also worked with a long list of artists across several genres, including:

Copperhead
Joe Cocker
Etta James
Bob Seger
Dr. John
Delbert McClinton
Roebuck “Pops”
Staples
B.B. King
Ringo Starr
The B-52’s
Roy Orbison
Willie Nelson
Jackson Browne
Elton John
Boz Scaggs
Taj Mahal
Keb’ Mo’
Crosby, Stills & Nash
Randy Newman
Brian Wilson
Delbert McClinton
Money Mark
Ziggy Marley
The Chieftains
Hank Williams Jr.
Ivan Neville
Lyle Lovett
Ryan Adams
Jerry Lee Lewis
The Doobie
Brothers
Maria Muldaur
Alejandro
Escovedo
Beverley McClellan
Garth Brooks
Colin James
Travis Tritt
Jann Arden
Stevie Nicks
The Proclaimers
Richie Sambora
Sid Page
The Neville
Brothers
Al Green
Merle Haggard
Toots Hibbert
Kathy Mattea
Tanya Tucker
Patti LaBelle
Vince Gill
Bryan Adams
Anne Murray

DOWN THE LINE
Bonnie Raitt’s new reggae read of Gerry Rafferty’s 1978 hit “Right Down the Line” is one of those rare cover versions that manages both to surpass the source material and spotlight how great the original is. The secret recipe is Bonnie’s loving reverence to the song and the songwriter, combined with a band feel that continually heightens the internal tension and release.

Each of the verses’ three four-bar phrases gradually work their way downward from the tension of a downbeat-anticipating G minor, to the easy contentment of its relative major, Bb. Example 1 shows how Hutch approaches two of these phrases in the song’s second verse. In both, he slides into the downbeat and wobbles out, but not before pinning down the same beat four eighth-note pair, matching guitarist George Marinelli’s upbeat chucks. While the two phrases otherwise look fairly different, there are points of similarity in the first half of bar 2, the second half of bar 3, and the rhythm in the second half of bar 4, all of which combine to form a skeletal structure to an otherwise loose groove.

Example 2 captures the upbeat blues-rock bounce of “Down to You.” Listen for where the chords change, and whether Hutch gets that with the band, before, or after. Ever-changing note lengths form the secret sauce that Hutch pours all over this bubbly groove. Follow the example, but use your ears, too; notating Hutch’s carefully nuanced note lengths would require a much broader palette of staccato and tenuto shades.

“Right Down The Line” Words and Music by Gerald Rafferty © 1978 Music Of Stage Three (BMI) o/b/o Stage Three Music Publishing Ltd. (PRS) Worldwide Rights Administered by BMG Rights Management (US). LLC International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by Permission of Hal Leonard Corporation.

“Down to You” By Randall Bramblett, George Marinelli, and Bonnie Raitt © 2012 Lapiotrope Music (BMI) admin. by Bluewater Music Services Corp./Open Secret Music (ASCAP)/Blue Ceiling Music (BMI). Blue Ceiling Music admin. by Calhoun Enterprises. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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