He'll Be There

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

His first album was the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film The Mack, about a pimp trying to make his way up (and down) in this world. It ranks among the finest things released on Motown in the early 1970s, and it's bested only by Curtis Mayfield's Superfly in the blaxploitation funk-and-soul sweepstakes. Though the album never even went gold, it spawned a handful of singles, among them "I Choose You" and "Slick"; "Brother's Gonna Work It Out" closes the album almost as a hymn. Not released as a single, but every bit the record's highlight, was the beautiful harps-and-strings "Now That It's All Over."

"I think of Hutch as being a sort of spiritual accompanist to Holland-Dozier-Holland," says Elvis Mitchell. "In some of his ballady songs, there was this combination of urbanity and grit, which I think is very cool. And it all comes out in his crowning work, The Mack, which is really an amazing soundtrack. It was always unfortunate that when Motown packaged it, the record looked like the Superfly soundtrack, which made people think it was just a rip-off. But it was cinematic even without the movie. And the last two songs, 'Now That It's All Over' and 'Brother's Gonna Work It Out,' are two of the best Motown songs ever."

His later records -- among them Fully Exposed in '73, the soundtrack to Pam Grier's Foxy Brown, Ode to My Lady, Color Her Sunshine, and Havin' a House Party -- produced their share of good songs. But none could sit in the same car with The Mack; it's a classic, while the other albums are just proud memories.

Hutch would remain with Motown till 1983. When he left, it barely looked like the same place. The Mary Jane Girls had moved in. It was time to go.

Hutch remained in Los Angeles as a producer and writer until four years ago, when he and his wife decided it was perhaps time to move back to Texas. Enough time had passed, and all the wounds had healed. If nothing else, Hutch was convinced he needed to leave L.A. when the Northridge earthquake leveled much of Southern California in January 1994. "That made my decision for me," Hutch says.

Even now, he is still writing and recording, hoping for the comeback that may or may not happen with the release of The Very Best of Willie Hutch and the Chemical Brothers' album. He expects nothing, though he hopes for everything. "This is not the twilight of my career," he says emphatically. "Not at all. A good song will only come along every now and then. Not a good song -- a great song, a song that you know is going to span time. Like 'I'll Be There' spans time. Or 'California My Way' spans time. Or 'Brother's Gonna Work It Out' spans time. My plan was if I could only write one or two great songs a year over a period of time, like 15 or 20 years, you got 35, 40 great songs. That's all you can ask for.

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