J.B. Hutto

J.B. Hutto
Remember J.B. Hutto?

By Karen Nugent
August 2007

Something made me think about J.B. Hutto a few weeks ago, and I was prompted to start replacing my old vinyl J.B. records with CDs, which you can get directly from Delmark Records, or through Amazon, and others.

I started with Keeper of the Flame, because it has one of my all-time favorites, “You Don’t Love Me,” as the leadoff track. Also, half of the disc was recorded live, which is great, because a studio recording could never capture this great guitarist’s wild live performances – he would regularly take extended walks, often on tabletops or right down the bar, using a really long guitar cord.

A particularly fond memory I have is of him at the old Jonathan Swift’s in Harvard Square, where he would actually leap from table to table, across about two feet of aisle, while playing incredible guitar solos. And then, usually at the end of a set, he would make his way back to the stage, but not before handing off his guitar to a delighted audience member.

I waited and hoped, for years, to be that lucky fan. It finally happened, in an odd setting: a bright summer day in a field off a beach somewhere near Ogunquit, Maine, (I think. It was definitely Maine or Coastal New Hampshire,) in the early 1980s.

NOTE: I just found an old photo taken that day. It was at Cape Neddick, Maine, in 1981. I wish I knew how to scan the photo, which I used in a photography course, to show you folks. Another thing Hutto was known for were his outrageous outfits, especially the hats (he’s in a bright yellow sort of puffy train conductor hat on my new CD’s cover,) In my photo, he’s wearing a relatively normal-looking fedora, but has a chain with a large owl pendant hanging from it.

Another endearing facet of Hutto was the way his vocals were pretty much incomprehensible. I still can’t sing along with most of them. (“What did he say??”)

It seemed J.B. played endlessly around Boston in the late 1970s, right up until his untimely death in 1983. At only 57 years old, he apparently died of complications of diabetes, the same affliction that took the life this year of another legendary bluesman, Carey Bell, at 70 - also too soon.

But back to Hutto. I recently found out he was around Boston so much at that time because he actually moved here in the late 1970s, after a live performance from Boston's famed Tea Party was recorded. In Boston, he pieced together a new version of his band, which were always called The Hawks, and later, the New Hawks.

So where had he come here from?

I did a little research on his earlier life, and put together the following, from a great blues biographical dictionary called “Blues Who’s Who” by Sheldon Harris. (It was published in 1979, and may be out of print.) Some of the material also comes from a 2001 article from Blues Notes by Greg Johnson.

Hutto was born on a farm in Blackwell, South Carolina, as Joseph Benjamin Hutto, on April 26, 1926. One of 12 children, some sources claim that he was born in Augusta, Georgia, but his family moved there when young Joseph was three years old. His father was a deacon at a local church

It was in Augusta that he first came into contact with music, teamed with three brothers and three sisters in a family group known as The Golden Crown Gospel Singers, which worked in area churches. But J.B claimed he never had any true desire to perform musically until after his family relocated to Chicago, in the 1940s, following the death of his father.

Once in Chicago, Hutto took up both the piano and drums. He also heard blues for the first time and, by the mid-1940s, he was working professionally with local bluesman, Johnny Ferguson and his band, The Twisters. At the time he was the band's drummer and occasional vocalist. He started to develop an interest in the guitar and would practice, using Ferguson's guitar, between sets. He also began to frequently perform at the city's famed open-air market on Maxwell Street on weekends, often working as a guitarist with the one-man band Porkchop, AKA Eddie Hines.

In 1950, J.B. met Elmore James and quickly became entranced by James' bottleneck style. He began to follow him whenever he could and studied his method of playing and singing. From the outset of teaching himself to play guitar, Hutto had always used an electric. But, after hearing James, his work would only consist of slide-playing thereafter. His style, like many other blues superstars, is considered electrified Delta slide blues.

Hutto, who was also influenced by T-Bone Walker, Robert Nighthawk, and Muddy Waters, formed a band in the early 1950s with himself as guitarist/vocalist, Porkchop on washboard, Joe Custom on second guitar and George Mayweather on harmonica. They were the first Hawks, and were given the opportunity to record for Chess' subsidiary label, Chance, in 1954, holding two sessions that resulted in a total of nine numbers.

But the public reception was only minor, perhaps mostly due to the ever-changing taste of the buying public at the time.

J.B. started to become disenchanted with performing, due to the lack of success he had hoped for. The last straw happened one night while playing in a club. A couple began to fight in the audience, and the woman involved grabbed J.B’s guitar, breaking it over her husband's head. That was enough for Hutto. He walked away from music for the next 11 years, supplementing his income by working as a janitor in a funeral home.

It was the death of his mentor, Elmore James, in 1963 that first made Hutto think about playing again, and he returned the following year. He put together a new gathering of Hawks, including drummer Frank Kirkland and bass player Herman Hassell, also frequently working with Johnny Young and Big Walter Horton. The group soon became the house band for Turner’s Blues Lounge in Chicago, and Hutto released an album, Master Of Modern Blues, in 1966 for Testament Records, which featured Young, Horton, bassist Lee Jackson and drummer Fred Below, who also played with Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf.

In 1967, Delmark released the milestone compilation, Chicago/The Blues/Today! It prominently showcased J.B. Hutto and the Hawks on five cuts, considered by many to be some of the premier pieces of his career. Delmark responded to the popularity of this album by releasing Hutto’s first full-length solo disc the next year, the brilliant masterpiece Hawk Squad. Over the next 16 years, Hutton recorded with a variety of labels that would include JSP, Varrick and Wolf, releasing classic recordings such as 1973's, Slidewinder, and 1983's, Slippin' & Slidin.

Hutto’s good friend Hound Dog Taylor, died in 1975 and it was J.B’s fortune to inherit Taylor’s band, The Houserockers. (This was the only time during Hutto’s career where he performed with a backing unit called anything other than The Hawks.) The band never truly gelled as a group, however, and did not record.

After Hutto’s death, his popularity – he was one of the largest-drawing bluesmen at the time - was obvious by his induction into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame just two years after his death.

So, I guess I’ve got to keep on replacing those old J.B. records with CDs. And you younger folks who didn’t have the opportunity to see him live should check out those old discs, too.

By the way, the liner notes on the Keeper of the Flame disc were written by Cambridge’s own “Stereo Jack” Woker, who if memory has not faded away completely, owned “Cheapo Records” in Central Square, Cambridge.

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