He'll Be There

Willie Hutch wrote one of the greatest songs ever, but he ain't done yet

When Hutch speaks about finally doing something right for a change, he may well be speaking of the fact that in the mid-1960s, he did have a chance to go to work for Motown. He could have been on staff during the label's heyday, instead of joining just in time to bury it. Maybe he did something wrong by not going to Detroit in the '60s. Maybe not.

In 1964 or '65 -- Hutch isn't exactly sure of the date -- Smokey Robinson went to L.A. to ask Hutch about coming to Motown as both a writer and producer. Back then, no aspiring songwriter could have asked for more; it was heaven on a stick, the chance to work with Marvin Gaye and the Supremes and the Four Tops when they were at the top of their games. Hutch told Marc Gordon about Robinson's impending visit, to which Gordon responded that if he didn't sign with Johnny Rivers immediately, then Rivers wouldn't sign the Fifth Dimension or singer Al Wilson to Soul City. "I kinda felt rained on a little bit," Hutch says. But he stuck with the Fifth, if only out of loyalty. "I got a heart." He smiles. Hutch called producer Hal Davis at Motown and told him to extend his thanks -- and his regrets -- to Smokey.

"I always felt that if I had the talent, then the talent would come through for me," Hutch says. "If I didn't, no matter who I was with, it would be short-lived." He insists he never regretted not going to Motown when he had the chance.

But Davis never forgot Hutch, who kept offering demos of his songs to Motown. But in the summer of 1970, Hutch's life was forever altered. He remembers the story so clearly, he can even tell you what time it was when Davis came to his apartment and got him out of bed: It was 3:48 a.m., or so the story goes, and it's clearly a tale Hutch has told a million times. You would too.

"I'm in bed when I hear, 'Willie! Willie!' I was like, 'Who the hell is that?' I get up, and it's Hal. He says, 'I got this title. Berry [Gordy] likes the title, but he don't like the song.' I said, 'What is it?' He said it was called 'I'll Be There.' He said, 'Can you write something for it?' I said, 'Sure, leave it here.' So about 4:30 a.m., I was through with it. I had written the lyrics and the melody. At 8 that morning, I was at Berry's playing him the first version of it, and it was more like a humanitarian song, with a line like, 'My brother we must join one another.' Berry said, 'You know, I like that, but I think it would be better as a love song.' I had written two versions, so I sang him the second one: 'I'll be your strength/ I'll be holdin' on.' He was like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's it!' "

That very day, the Jacksons went into the studio to cut the song, with Hutch and Davis and Gordy presiding over the affair. In retrospect, the song became a complex piece of bubble gum, Michael's sweet voice brushing against Davis' harpsichord until it becomes almost too sickly sweet to stand. Yet somehow it works -- the fragile vocals, the compassionate lyrics, the whole blessed package. Michael would later refer to "I'll Be There" as "our real breakthrough song -- it was the one that said, 'We're here to stay.' "

"I knew what we had from the onset," Hutch says. "They were the hottest group in the country, first of all, and they didn't have no ballads. All of the sudden they come out with a ballad, and there it was. And I did all the vocal arrangements on the song, and it broke all the barriers down. God blessed me to be able to say the right things in the right context. One thing I did a lot of people don't catch is the first line: 'You and I must make a pact/ We can bring salvation back/ Where there is love, I'll be there.' Salvation. It is the food of the soul. A lot of people don't understand, but some people know. I was like" -- he looks up and points to the ceiling -- "this one's for you. Thanks." He chuckles.

"But you know how the first time you hear a song you're hypercritical. I was listening like this the whole time," and he puts his hands over his ears and begins humming. "I didn't even get a chance to enjoy it. Then I got a call from Hal, who said he had just talked to Berry. Hal said, 'I don't know what happened, but the song did 3 million [copies] the first week.' And then it became the biggest record Motown ever had."

Then he says, simply, "That was great."
Hutch signed on to work for Motown full time as a producer, writer, and recording artist. But the label wasn't the star factory it had been in the 1960s; by 1973, the year The Mack was released, Motown was home not only to the Jackson 5 (whose Dancing Machine signaled the beginning of the end) but to Jackson Browne and Scatman Crothers. Hutch ended up co-producing Temptations records, working with Robinson, and trying to make himself heard above the sound of a collapsing roof.

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