Although Willie Hutch’s career spanned five decades, during which time he released a number of successful, influential and innovative albums, there are two albums that many people remember him best for. These two albums are The Mack, released in 1974, and Foxy Brown released in 1975, which were both soundtracks for Blaxploitation films. Both were successful albums with The Mack reaching number seventeen in the US R&B Charts and 114 in the US Billboard 200. A year later, in 1975, Foxy Brown reached number thirty-six in the US R&B Charts and 179 in the US Billboard 200. However, what people forget is that Willie Hutch released another fifteen albums, including Ode To My Lady, which is widely regarded as Willie’s best album. It was his seventh album, and his fifth for Motown, for whom he wrote, recorded arranged and produced music. However, before I tell you about Ode To My Lady, I’ll tell you about Willie Hutch’s career.

Willie Hutch was born Willie McKinley Hutchison in 1944 in Los Angeles, and was brought up in Dallas, Texas. His music career started when he joined The Ambassadors, a doo-wop group, whilst still a teenager. Once he’d graduated from Booker T Washington High School, Willie adopted the name Willie Hutch and signed  for the Soul City label, where he released his debut single Love Has Put Me Down. After this, Willie decided to return to the city where he was born, Los Angeles, to continue his career in the music industry.

Once he’d returned to Los Angeles, he was soon writing, arranging and producing songs for The 5th Dimension, who were a soul and R&B group. After that, Willie signed for RCA Records, releasing two albums for the label Soul Portrait in 1969, and Seasons For Love in 1970. Having released these two albums, Hal Davis a producer at Motown, discovered Willie just at the time when he was needing lyrics for a track he was recording for The Jackson 5. This was I’ll Be There, which was recorded the day after Willie received the phone call from Hal Davis and became a number one single. Not long after this, Berry Gordy signed Willie to Motown where be was a staff-writer, musician, arranger and producer. 

As well as collaborating with The Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and The Miracles, Willie released a number of albums on Motown. The first of these was Fully Exposed in 1973, which reached number fifteen in the US R&B Charts and 183 in the US Billboard 200. This was followed by the two Blaxploitation soundtracks, The Mack and Foxy Brown. Mark of the Beast was Willie’s next release in 1974, reaching number forty-one in the US R&B Charts. The next album Willie released was Ode To My Lady, probably the best album he ever released.

When Ode To My Lady was released in 1975, it reached number twenty-four in the US R&B Charts and 150 in the US Billboard 200. On its release, the album was well received, with critics realizing that this was a great album from Willie Hutch. Although the album was well received, sales were slightly disappointing. However, when two singles were released from the album, the sold well. Love Power reached number eight in the US R&B Charts and number forty-one in the US Billboard 200. It was followed by Party Down, which reached number nineteen in the US R&B Charts. Since the release of Ode To My Lady, it’s regarded as Willie Hutch’s best album, although he released eleven further albums after Ode To My Lady. 

Five further albums were released on Motown, with Color Her Sunshine, released in 1976 reaching number fifty-four in the US R&B Charts. Later in 1976 Willie released a live album Concert In Blues, which reached number twenty-two in the US R&B Charts and 163 in the US Billboard 200. After the release of Havin’ A House Party in 1977, which reached number twenty-six in the US R&B Charts, Willie left Motown, releasing two albums for former Motown songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield’s Whitfield Records.

The two albums Willie Hutch released for Whitfield Records were In Tune in 1978 and Midnight Dancer in 1979. Of these two albums, only In Tune charted, reaching number sixty-three in the US R&B Charts. Following these two albums, there was a four year gap until Willie released another album, returning to his old label Motown.

Sadly, neither In and Out released in 1983, nor Making A Game Out of Love charted. After this, Willie released just four further albums, none of which charted. These were The Last Dragon in 1985, From the Heart in 1994 and the Mack Is Back in 1996. Six years later, Willie released the final album of his career Sexalicious in 2002. Three years later, in September 2005, Willie Hutch died aged just sixty-one. He left some wonderful music which he’d recorded during his long career, including Ode To My Lady which I’ll now tell you about.

Ode To My Lady opens Party Down, which was a successful single released from the album, reaching number nineteen in the US R&B Charts. It’s a funk laden combination of keyboards, percussion, rhythm section and chiming, soaring guitars that accompany a  Willie’s griity, raw vocal. Quickly blazing horns and grand sweeping, swirling strings enter, as Willie hollers and roars his way joyously through the lyrics. This he does to a fast, full, sweeping and sometimes punch arrangement. Together, the arrangement and vocal combine to create a good time sound and catchy slice of soul and funk.

The Way We Were is a cover of a track by Gladys Knight and The Pips, which gave  Gladys a number a number eleven hit in the US and number four hit in the UK. Much as I’ve always loved Gladys’ version, Willie Hutch transforms the track. The tempo is slow, with Willie delivering a heartfelt and emotive vocal, against a backdrop which is both hugely soulful and dramatic, almost grandiose. As the song opens, it’s an understated combination of just keyboards and a gentle rhythm section that combine to produce an understated sound. Before long, chiming guitars, bursts of horns and lush strings combine with Willie’s powerful and emotive vocal. However, his vocal becomes tender, as he gives a beautiful, thoughtful and heartfelt delivery of the lyrics. Against a backdrop of a punchy rhythm section, wah-wah guitars, sweeping strings and rasping horns, using a mixture of drama and emotion, Willie relives a relationship, remembering the good times, when things were different, remembering the way they were back then. Behind him, arrangement matches the drama and emotion of Willie’s vocal. By the end of the track, you realize that of the many versions of this song, Willie’s version is right up there with the best. Why is this? Quite simply because of his heartfelt, emotional and dramatic delivery of the song against an outstanding arrangement.

After the excellent The Way We Were, comes another of the album’s best tracks Since I Found You. It’s a lovely slow track, featuring a Willie’s gritty, yet soulful voice and an arrangement steeped in emotion and drama. This is apparent from the opening bars, when a burst of rasping horns, a slow rhythm section, keyboards and guitars combine with Willie’s joyful vocal. He’s happy now that he’s found someone to love, and someone who loves him back. You can tell this from the joy and happiness in his vocal, which sits atop a slow, meandering arrangement where keyboards, chiming guitars, the lushest strings and occasional rasping horns provide the perfect backdrop for the emotion and passion of his vocal. They combine beautifully with one of Willie’s best vocals on Ode To My Lady.

There’s a change in style on I’m Gonna Hold On which has a Marvin Gaye influence in the vocal and arrangement as the track opens. However, that’s where the similarities ends. What follows is an infectious track that fuses soul and funk. A quick, punchy, funky rhythm section, wah-wah guitars and lush sweeping strings combine with blazing horns on this beautifully, joyful sounding track. Willie’s gritty, gravelly voice sits on top of the arrangement as it flows beneath him, wave upon wave of funk drenched music cascading along, while the strings provide a soulful sound. Together with Willie’s vocal the result is a catchy, hook laden track that can’t fail to sweep you along in its wake.

A fuller, grand arrangement can be heard on the title track, Ode To My Lady. A combination of chiming guitars, gorgeous lush strings, bursts of braying horns and the rhythm section are responsible for this. The arrangement has a fuller, grand sound, with parts of it reminding me of Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra, especially the layers of strings. They provide a lovely contrast to other parts of the arrangement, with their sound sitting proudly at the front of parts of the mix. Unlike the previous tracks, this is an instrumental, and although quite different to other tracks, works well, acting as the perfect end to side one of the album. After the variety of music on side one, with slow ballads, two-steppers, funky tracks and now a sumptuous instrumental sitting side-by-side, one wonders what greets the listener on side two?

Love Power opens side two of Ode To My Lady, and was the track that gave Willie Hutch the biggest chart hit of his career, reaching number eight in the US R&B Charts, number forty-one in the US Billboard 200 and number five in the Disco Charts. It’s an uptempo, joyous sounding faster track, with a proliferation of horns and some lovely melodies. As the track opens, a combination of interplay between chiming guitars and rhythm section gives way to Willie’s vocal, before swirling, sweeping strings and rasping, blazing horns complete the lineup. A totally joyous Willie spreads the word about the power of love, while horns serenade him, guitars chime and shimmer and a punchy rhythm section punctuate the track. Adding the finishing touch are a piano and the strings which sweep in completing what is a fantastic arrangement, perfect for the joy and happiness in Willie’s throaty vocal.

Although the style changes on Just Another Day, with the tempo falling, the track features another lovely string lead arrangement and a thoughtful vocal from a sad and lonely Willie Hutch. Against a backdrop of chiming guitars, braying horns, swirling, sweeping lush strings and rhythm section, Willie’s voice is tender, drenched in sadness, having lost his girlfriend. She’s left him, leaving Willie unable to find happiness, with everyday seeming the same, and empty without her love. As his vocal grows in emotion, the arrangement grows and quickens, with bursts of drama provided by the rasping horns, chiming guitars and sweeping strings. Together, they reflect the sadness and emptiness of the lyrics, which Willie delivers perfectly. With such an emotive sounding track, the result is one of the album’s highlights.

Bursts of rasping horns, the lushest of sad, sweeping strings, chiming, shimmering guitars, rhythm section and keyboards open Talk To Me, before Willie’s desperate pleas enters. He’s at a loss, his relationship is in trouble, so he pleads for his partner to talk to him. His vocal is heartfelt, desperate and full of sadness, as it soars, emotively above the arrangement. Meanwhile, strings are at the heart of the arrangement, with repeated bursts of braying horns and rhythm section punctuating the sweeping, flowing arrangement. By the end of the track, you can’t help but empathise and sympathize with Willie’s pleas, on what’s a hugely emotive, yet beautiful sounding track.

When Love Me Back opens, it’s a dramatic and stirring introduction that greets the listener, before giving way to a funk drenched sound. A combination of screaming, soaring wah-wah guitars, funk laden rhythm section, blazing horns and swirling strings that accompany Willie’s powerful, gritty vocal. The fulsome arrangement sweeps along quickly for four minutes, with the funky rhythm section, soaring guitars, braying horns and those lovely swirling strings combining elements of rock, funk and soul magnificently. Although it’s quite different from most of the tracks on the album, it demonstrates not just Willie Hutch’s versatility as a singer, musician, arranger and producer, but also his ambition and bravery at producing such a variety of music on the one album including this two-step classic.

Ode To My Lady closes with You Gotta Give Love Up, another quicker track which features another great arrangement. Like many tracks on the album, swirling strings and rasping horns are at the heart of the arrangement, augmented by the rhythm section, guitars and keyboards, who all combine to produce a sound that combines a lovely soulfulness with a smattering of funk. It’s a catchy, infectious sound, made all the better by a looser sounding vocal from Willie which drops in and out of the track. Although his vocal is really good, it’s surpassed by an excellent sounding arrangement which sweeps proudly along, all eddies and swirls. When the arrangement and vocal are combined the result is a really great track, that finishes the album on a satisfactory high.

I’ve been meaning to write an article on Willie Hutch’s music for some time, but couldn’t decide which album to choose. In the end, I opted to choose his best album Ode To My Lady. It’s an album that from beginning to end is packed full of great music. Not once does Willie Hutch let you down, continually following one great song with another. Although the album is mainly soul music, other influences sometimes shine through. The predominant one is funk music, which is sprinkled throughout several tracks on the album. On Love Me Back, rock influenced guitars make a brief appearance, and sit well with the rest of the arrangement. During the album, while Willie sings each song with a mixture of emotions, he always injects passion into the lyrics. Then when he dons the mantle of arranger and producer, he favors a much fuller sounding arrangement, deploying a proliferation of rasping horns and the lushest of strings. This is guaranteed to tug at your heartstrings, and works beautifully. Overall, Ode To My Lady is a fantastic album, one that I can recommend to anyone and would suggest that you add it your record collection. Recently, it was remastered and rereleased by Soul Brother Records, who are releasing a trio of Willie Hutch’s best albums which also includes Fully Expressed and The Mark of the Beast. This allows you to hear some of the greatest music Willie Hutch’s recorded for Motown, which sadly, has been unavailable until now. Standout Tracks: The Way We Were, Since I Found You, Just Another Day and Talk To Me.


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