J.B. Hutto emerged from the then pregnant obscurity of South Side Chicago bars in 1966, with a few titles on Vanguard’s Chicago/The Blues/Today! set, which marked a major achievement in being a general or “Arts” or major label’s production of a more or less contemporary product. Too often before then, non-specialist productions tended to be lacking in something, fire or force, or rather padded out like studio pop records. Hutto’s working trio of the time, which can be heard again here in recordings not previously issued, was something of a revelation to people who’d hardly—if at all—heard his name. The few who’d heard only the half-dozen titles on Vanguard were amazed to hear much the same on the few small label singles Hutto had recorded some 15 years before.
From Georgia, Hutto came as barely a teenager to Chicago with his parents, and during his adolescence there he picked up the guitar and developed an affection for the music of Elmore James. When Johnny Littlejohn appeared on disc a little later from even deeper obscurity, he was billed as the reincarnation of James, and reviewers of the posthumous reissue of his debut (on Arhoolie) wondered about the instrumentation of his band. Well, the guys with those instruments were around when music was wanted in a club or bar. In Kilkenny it might have been fiddles, but in Chicago it was something else (in two senses of that phrase).
The three men on Vanguard and on the bulk of the present set were simply the working group at a South Side bar Bob Koester reminisces about tellingly in the notes to the present set. They were absolute specialists who might not have been able to play much else but were a miracle in their own repertoire. Beside Hutto singing and playing mostly slide guitar (electric, as his performance was in another, different sense), Herman Hassell was a tight bass guitarist very memorable on Vanguard as here (if not quite the musician Floyd Jones showed himself to be, playing bass guitar in another group on Vanguard), and Frank Kirkland was a powerful drummer who held everything tight. I have in a sense been waiting for this set for years, and am delighted to discover it exists.
Like Littlejohn, and like Hound Dog Taylor (whom Bob Koester remembers jamming with Hutto long ago), Hutto was one of the “Elmore James imitators”. It was all done by ear, playing in a fashion roughly similar to James but with more musical objectives than performance duplicators have. (The deadness is in the detail, which is too liable to counteract priorities of musical expression). Anyway Hutto presumably started trying before he had the guitar technique necessary to parrot James mechanically. His Jamesian style (I certainly don’t mean Henry James!) got built up from the ground and in the absence of such instrumental support as Elmore James had the simpler instrumentation had to achieve more.
Listening to “Hawk’s Rock” (which is probably mispunctuated, since the band was billed as J.B. Hutto and His Hawks), one of the most talented and versatile and venerable neo-Jamesians comes to mind, Homesick James (whose name might be William James Henderson). Homesick is maybe 90 or 95 or even 100 years old in 2005, and in taking up Elmore’s simplified version of Robert Johnson on electric guitar he retained an amazing timing and phrasing which had something of the country fiddler about it. (His range was greater than Elmore’s and solo he has sounded more like Robert Johnson.)
There’s an engaging skirl, everything seems to bend—including time—in the way Homesick swings. Probably that has something to do with his early background and Georgia connections. Until “Hawk’s Rock” I’d never associated the same sort of thing, even to a lesser degree, with Hutto. Kirkland’s drums maintain a fierce backbeat, but there are elements of hoedown in the guitar. “Hip Shakin’” maybe brings to mind Little Richard, but Hutto could rock hard. He doesn’t go in for screaming vocals, or indeed impeccably clear diction. Miraculously, Vanguard managed to mike his voice clearly. The 1966 set recorded here, using an empty blues club for studio, achieves no such miracles, but diction’s far from everything. It’s not so hard for anybody to learn—which can’t be said of Hutto’s way of playing. It was, perhaps, as Bob Koester supposed, a little strong for many buyers at the time. He boosted Hutto more than well enough with other recordings.
“Married Woman Blues” has more of the unusual harmonies on guitar, unorthodox in the way Hutto learned it, harmonically complex when listened to from a schooled perspective, plain wrong to the drilled and narrow mind, and plain marvellous. Listen to the thrumming, rumbling, and growl of Hassell’s bass guitar. “Sorry” is notable for a slow drag people don’t try for now, and the whole of the early set represented on this disc is a reminder of enormous attainments in straitened circumstances. Why did it take English enthusiasts to break the ice round so many American hearts?
Filling out this CD is material, including alternative takes, from a subsequent session by a different band. It’s something of a louder, electrified, urbanized string band date, a musical descendant of what ole Carl Martin and company could still do in Chicago at the same time. Lee Jackson for the most part provides strummed accompaniment on guitar, Elbert Buckner’s a fleet electric bassist, and there’s a move into the more four-square rhythm which came into blues with B.B. King. Whereas in the trio session Hutto drove things along with his voice too, keeping to a strict tempo, here he has more room for timing, indeed diction, and relaxation. He doesn’t need to keep so much pressure up as in the trio. The 45 second snippet of studio chatter and tuning up is fascinating and doesn’t break the musical spell. The unissued take of “Precious Stone” (another take is on another Delmark CD of Hutto) has more of a guitar duet with Jackson. “Dandruff”, hitherto unissued, seems to be modelled on Buddy Guy band masterpieces of the time. The easier tempo draws Hutto into trying to fit as many words into a line as he possibly can, and the choked thrill of his voice is there again. “Guilty Heart”, also unissued till now, gets something of the Chess band sound, digging in and driving where Muddy Waters swung, and winding up more like a Howlin’ Wolf performance.
Bob Koester concludes his top-grade liner note by likening the current work of Hutto’s nephew Little Ed to J.B. himself. I don’t know Ed; he’d have to be good to match that uncle who, while ravaged by cancer, was still up to this high standard on a 1982 date. He was only 57 when he died the following year, a successful professional who in 1966 played for five bucks a night and went home to the far suburbs on public transport.