URBANJAZZ RADIO Interview with Leroy Hutson (LH)

By Liz Wheatley

Over 20 years since he last came to these shores, Leroy Hutson was the headline artist at the Giants Of Rare Groove gig at Indigo2. From the opening track, All Because Of You, to the last note we were on our feet! That same week, I was lucky enough to interview the man himself for Urban Jazz Review where he showed that not only is he a singing, writing and producing legend, but an all round Mr nice guy full of interesting tales from his musical career....

LW: Hello Leroy, how are you doing?

LH: I am fine thank you.

LW: What was it like to follow Curtis Mayfield as lead singer of The Impressions and to be part of such a politically and socially conscious group at the time of the civil rights and black power movements?

LH: It was absolutely an honour of course, and the best word I can use is frightening! The way it happened was Donny Hathaway was my room-mate at university and he left in his senior year to become Curtis's musical director, and when the idea came up that Curtis would leave the group, Donny suggested me to replace him. I was living in Chicago at the time and we had three days rehearsal before our first show which was in Central Park before 30-40,000 people. I had to learn the entire repertoire and it was frightening! But it went off very well. I actually wore all of Curtis's uniforms because we were the same size, so people commented that they didn't know he wasn't there, I thought that was a compliment.

LW: What was your life like growing up?

LH: I grew up in Newark, NJ. I had a wonderful childhood. My dad was very hard-working, he was seldom there - he was a longshoreman so he was gone when we got up and back when we were asleep. My mom was the person to raise us all - I had three brothers and two sisters - and we were very happy. We weren't a musical family, but I've always been able to hear harmonies. I formed the Nu0Tones, which was the first group, with some friends of mine and we would rehearse in the basement at high school. .I was pretty much self-taught in terms of the instruments, until I went to an arts high school iin Newark, and from there to Howard University where I studied theory and composition as a major.

LW: Tell us about your days at Howard University and your relationship with Donny Hathaway.

LH: I went to Howard with the aspiration of becoming a dentist, mainly because my mom wanted me to do that. But I was walking across campus one day and I walked past the Fine Arts building and I could hear all this music coming from downstairs. So I walk in and there's Donny Hathaway in one room, Herbie Hancock in another, Roberta Flack in another - all these great musicians. But Donny was the focal point. We became friends through his affiliation with Curtis Mayfield. Curtis came to the campus, and there was a group that became the Mayfield Singers as a result of Curtis expressing an interest in them. I became part of that act, and that's how Donny and I developed our relationship.

LW: How did you and Donny compose The Ghetto?

LH: I'll never forget how The Ghetto came into being. We lived in an upstairs flat in Washington on T Street. It was a Tuesday evening and I was sitting at the keyboard playing a blues riff. Donny came upstairs and heard me playing. He said, @no Hoss, it should go like this@. So he sits and plays what is now the famous bass line from The Ghetto, just the bass line. I had a Fender Rhodes and the two of us sat there and it became what it is. I had a quarter inch reel to reel tape recorder in the apartment and we worked on it. After about an hour and a half it was a composition and we ended up sitting back listening to it, and it was such a magical experience, it really was. It was a very unique kind of experience writing that song. It ended up being our most famous composition together, here we are talking about it several decades later.

LW: In the 1970s, tracks like Linda Clifford's March Across The Land and Roberta Flack's Trying Times were clearly a reflection of the social upheaval of the time.

LH: The 70s without a doubt was the decade that spawned the greatest black music there is. Now, everyone's going back to get it in the States. That speaks to how strong the times were.

LW: It's been a long time since you performed here - do you miss it?

LH: No! It's not my favourite thing to do. I do it, but what I enjoy most in music is the production, I love production. I like writing, all the other aspects, but I'm not an out front person. that's mainly because I realise that 99% of the people watching me are as talented as I am, their lives just didn't go this way. It's intimidating!

LW: Why did you leave The Impressions to go solo?

LH: I just got antsy! I joined them coming out of college, I was coming out of an environment where there was a lot of intellectual stimulation, a lot of young people, lots of great artists. I was really happy to have had the opportunity, we travelled the world, but it wasn't fulfilling me, it became a chore. So I decided to move on.

LW: Can you tell me your plans for your new label, Triumph?

LH: It's been a dream of mine. The name of the label comes from the fact that just recently I had to sue Warner Brothers for my masters - before Curtis passed, he gave them to me - so I called the label Triumph.

LW: All Because Of You is a great track. Do you have any particular memories of making it?

LH: I have memories of making that album! It was very special, it was the first album that I felt I was able to totally concentrate my time and energy into, so that it became a body of work in itself - the sequencing of the tracks, the key structure, I thought that all through deeply. It was the coming together of some young musicians I met in Chicago and we were able to practise in my home before we recorded in the studio. The drummer was about 16, the trumpet player from Earth, Wind and Fire, Michael Harris, was on the album. My wife would cook for us - I took care of my musicians because I respect them. We had a very good time doing that album.

LW: How hard is it to find the right balance between instrumental perfection and feeling?

LH: It has more to do with who is playing the music. My experience has been that the chemistry between musicians is ultimately important. All the great music, the greatest albums that have ever been produced, are the result of chemistry between individuals. And that's the producer's main task, finding that chemistry.

LW: How was it to perform in front of a UK audience after such a long time?

LH: It was just incredible! To have that reaction was humbling. The people seemed so happy - to be a catalyst for that is a wonderful thing. I love it!.

LW: Has it inspired you to come here more often?

LH: Absolutely! (Leroy has since been in touch to say that he's hoping to come back next year).

LW: Music is one of the most emotive senses - you hear a song and you can remember where you were, who you were with, who you loved, it brings back the memories, good and bad. What's your favourite musical memory and why?

LH: Here's my favourite musical moment. I'm a Freshman at Howard University and I go to the talent show on campus. I see a young lady come out on stage and she's singing Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. She's a lyric soprano, about 5'4@ and she's got this incredible voice. I'm in the balcony, she's on stage and it's like there's no-one in the place but the two of us. And she became my wife!

LW: Thanks, I can't wait for your gig this week!