Stories Behind the Songs: James “Hutch” Hutchinson
A select few bass players get to work with a superstar artist, and fewer still get to work with most of them. James “Hutch” Hutchinson is decidedly the latter of the two situations, which made this article very difficult to write. The list of amazing stories about sessions with iconic artists could fill several books.
“I’ve been blessed to work with all these great artists,” Hutch humbly states. “Mavis Staples, Etta James, Rufus Thomas, B.B. King, Albert King, Earl King, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and so many more.” He didn’t get to mention Ringo Starr, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson, Elton John, Randy Newman, Brian Wilson, The Doobie Brothers, Stevie Nicks, The Neville Brothers, Merle Haggard… You see where this is going. Many will recognize him as the bassist for Bonnie Raitt’s band, with whom he has been playing the last 35 years.
Hutch grew up just outside of Boston, Massachusetts and got his start in music playing guitar and mandolin in bluegrass bands. When he was 12 he saw a Wilson Pickett concert that made him focus on the bass. (The bassist for that band was likely Billy Cox of Hendrix fame.) Hutch played around New England for a few years before heading to the booming music scene in San Francisco, California where he connects with prominent musicians.
“The first band of note I was ever in was Copperhead in the San Francisco Bay area with John Cipollina,” he says. “He and some other guys in the scene saw something in me. I moved out there because I loved the scene and I was into what they now call world music. That place was a melting pot like New Orleans or Hawaii. There are all these cultures that meet.”
After an 18-month stint in Central America, Hutch moved to Texas, then to New Orleans where he would join The Neville Brothers Band. All along the way he was acting like a musical sponge and incorporating a plethora of styles into his vocabulary. “My tastes were really diverse, so I got to work with a lot of artists,” he explains. This also allowed him to hone his recording chops and learn how to craft the perfect bass line.
“People that hire me typically want my input. I do get some notation things, but a lot of times its just specific passages. I listen to the vocal a lot to play off of it. That changes it takes to take and track to track. I try to remain open,” he says. “Even if you’re doing multiple takes of a track, I don’t think you can become attached to what you did on a previous take. Of course, the changes, vibe, and groove are all in place, but if you’re going to converse with someone musically, you need to live in the moment. It’s really important. I’ll sometimes modify a bass line, especially in a live situation, because things change. If you don’t change with them, you’ll be resisting it. Every time you pick up an instrument it’s a different painting on a new canvas. You need to be in that moment.”
In addition to being a fantastic bassist, Hutch is down-to-earth and a real pleasure to talk with. It’s no wonder his catalog reads like a history of music from the past four decades. Here are just a few of the many stories behind his songs.
1. “Funny How Time Slips Away” – by Al Green & Lyle Lovett from Rhythm, Country & Blues (1994)
That was for a record called Rhythm, Country & Blues. I don’t think it’s online but you can still find a CD on Amazon. The whole thing was filmed in conjunction, and it was pairing R&B artists with country artists to show the similarities. If you look at Muscle Shoals or Memphis, it was all about interaction – on a racial level, too. At the heart of the matter is that music affects people the same way and a lot of times it’s the same song. A lot of country artists would cover R&B songs and R&B artists would cover country songs. You would never know what they were originally meant to be because of the interpretation, but the music itself was the same.
I walked in the studio that day and [producer] Don Was had this idea for a bass line. It was simpler than what I ended up playing; it didn’t have the syncopation. This was the early ’90s when hip-hop was just coming into play. He had this line repeating for the whole song, but it wasn’t funkified. I said, “No, it needs a little something more.” [Drummer Ricky Fataar] dropped into that fatback groove. I was playing my ’63 blue L-series P-bass with flatwounds. It just started taking off, but I didn’t feel right about it. I kept it going through the whole song, but it was bugging the hell out of me because these changes kept coming up. I finally said, “I gotta play the changes at certain points in the song.” I went in and modified it to come up with the chorus and the little B section. It changed the way the song is perceived. I don’t think it would have worked with the single line over the wholes song.
I walked into the control booth where Al Green was sitting and I looked at [engineer] Ed Cherney and said, “I gotta redo these sections. Put me in here and here.” I went through the tune and said, “That’s it.” Later on, they were filming in the lounge for the documentary. Somebody said, “Al, you have a gift from God. What do you think that gift is?” He said, “My gift is my ability to communicate with people in my singing voice. [Guitarist] Teenie Hodges’ gift over here is playing guitar and writing beautiful songs.” I thought he was done, but then he looked at me and said, “Mr. Hutch over here – I saw him do an overdub earlier. He never asked to hear it once before or after he did the overdub. He was sure of what he did. That is a gift in itself.” That made it for me – just the way he was watching me so closely.
2. ”Weight Of The World” – From Ringo Starr’s Time Takes Time (1992)
That was another Don Was session, and Ringo was playing drums. He doesn’t get the credit he’s due. When I had roughs of that record, people would tell me Jim Keltner sounds good on it, since he did drums for George’s and John’s records, and I’d say it was Ringo.
It was a big thrill for me to play with him. It was a very Beatle-y thing. That’s the thing about working with Ringo and George and I’m sure Paul; you’re included in that camp. You feel it in what you do. I played a really “Paul” kind of bass line.
3. ”Dangerous Mood” (featuring Joe Cocker) – From B.B. King’s Deuces Wild (1997)
That’s a Keb’ Mo song, which I played on the original of, as well. We were in the studio cutting a record for Joe. It was Dean Parks, Kenny Aronoff, Chris Staunton, I think Michael Landau, and myself. We needed a song for this record, Deuces Wild, which I helped put the band together for. John Porter was producing it, so he said he wanted to do “Dangerous Mood.” It’s not your standard blues tune.
Joe was such a presence. It was beautiful to be in the studio with those two guys. How can you go wrong?
4. ”Right Place, Wrong Time” – by B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt on Air America Soundtrack (1990)
This was for a Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr. movie called Air America about CIA guys in Laos and Vietnam. That’s me and Kenny Aronoff again plus William D. Smith on piano, who was sort of an unsung hero. He did a record that Allan Toussaint produced in New Orleans, which is where I first heard of him. He became a staple of the L.A. recording scene for quite some time. He had a vibe.
I remember Waddy Wachtel was in the next room and he walked by the studio. He heard it and opened the door to say, “Man, I’m shocked that was you and Kenny – that was the funkiest track!” I was thrilled when he said that. It was an easy track. Having New Orleans as a big part of my life, that was a perfect day. It’s super funky and there’s a lot of interplay. It was all live, which is unlike a lot of sessions today.
5. “Pink Cadillac” (featuring Bruce Springsteen) – from Jerry Lee Lewis’ Last Man Standing (2006)
It’s funny, I’ll hear that track quite a lot. That’s Jim Keltner and me with Jerry’s guitarist Kenny Lovelace and Jimmy Rip. Bruce is another artist that is always a thrill to work with. He’s an icon. I met him in 1973 before he was “Bruce.”
This was one of those tracks that felt good from the get-go. Every time I hear it I light up. Jerry has a way of making things his own, and that’s what he did. I forgot it was a Bruce Springsteen song. At that point, it was a Jerry Lee song. We were rocking with one of the creators of the idiom.
[In this style] you can’t fall into the cliché rock n’ roll bass lines. I listened to Willie Dixon a lot growing up. He never played that standard line everyone thinks of, which is the Anglicized version of what they were doing in Memphis and Chicago and New Orleans. It was more of a groove-oriented thing than a note-oriented thing. You didn’t even know what notes they were playing: you feel it. When you’re getting into the roots of rock and roll, you never hear that bass line. Maybe on a Pat Boone record, but never a Chuck Berry record. Again, it’s important to go with the flow and not stay with the standard.
6. ”Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home” – from Etta James’ Seven Year Itch (1988)
Great band, great artist. We cut it at Compass Point in the Bahamas, which is known for reggae, but a lot of great rock and R&B records have been cut there over the years. This is an Albert King song we recorded with Art Neville, Teenie Hodges, Ricky Fatarr, and Johnny Lee. It was a big comeback record for Etta, which made me really happy because she was so deserving. Etta is like Bonnie; she had numerous comebacks throughout her career. I love the bass line, which is kind of the hook of the song.
7. ”Please Forgive Me” – from Bryan Adams’ So Far So Good (1993)
That’s my Washburn AB40 acoustic/electric fretless bass. I’ve got a couple of those. Michael Rhodes had one of those when he was on tour with Lyle Lovett and I said, “Wow, this thing sounds like an upright.” Washburn has become sort of an Epiphone type brand now, but back then they were trying to make some special instruments. That AB40 is an amazing instrument. I think they’re making them again but it’s not quite the same. Even the wood was beautiful. I heard Michael’s and I got hooked up to get one. I used that on a zillion different songs because it’s such a versatile instrument. I think Bryan called me because I also used it on the track “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”
When this track came out, people told me I had a great upright tone. I was proud of that because I would get into the headspace where I’d try to make the Washburn sound like an upright. I’d try to get that feel. It was the way I approached the instrument.
The song was produced by Mutt Lange and back then he was big on cutting the song as an ensemble. He would hear certain things and make notes for you to make changes on the next take. He wants ten perfect takes that he could then edit together. He didn’t want overdubs. He wanted the track perfect ten times so he could float sections if he wanted to. It’s old school, but it pays off. It was amazing to work in that way because he wanted what he heard. He had the caliber of musicians to do it, too.
I didn’t know they were shooting the music video in the studio because they used little pinhole cameras. If you watch it again, everyone else is dressed the same in every shot except for me because it was edited from two or three days of shooting. It wasn’t until the last day when I said, “Didn’t you guys bring any other clothes?”
8. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” – from Bonnie Raitt’s Luck of the Draw (1991)
Bruce Hornsby came in and it was originally supposed to just be him, me, and Bonnie as an intimate trio kind of thing. He was hooked up to a synth so all the pads were coming off of what he played on the piano. For some reason, the song just wasn’t coming across. Tony Braunagel, who is a great drummer, was supposed to come in and do percussion on another track. I said, “We really need a little something on this.” He came in early, sat down, and we did it in one take. That was a huge hit for Bonnie.
It’s been cut by so many people, but it’s still Bonnie’s song. It’s great when you play on a track like that and it becomes the standard version.
9. ”Comes Love” featuring Ricki Lee Jones – from Willie Nelson’s Outlaws and Angels (2004)
I played my old upright King bass on this one, which has a great sound. Willie Nelson’s Outlaws & Angels. It also came out under another record name in maybe 2005. Once again, this was Keltner and me. We were going to do a song with Ricki Lee for a big TV shoot at the Wiltern in L.A. I get there that night and they tell me that she wanted to do this Billie Holiday song, “Comes Love.” I hadn’t heard it in years, but she wanted to do it as a jazz trio with bass, piano and drums, then with Willie and Ricki Lee on guitars. They said, “We want you and the trumpet player to be in the front of the stage.” I was playing the intro and outro, so there was no hiding behind the drum set. It was all off the cuff, pretty much.
The old King upright basses are 44-inch scale, where most uprights are 41.5 inches. The King and old American Standard basses have this growl. It doesn’t thud. It really speaks. That’s why they were very popular with jazz musicians. It’s almost like the Washburn bass. They really speak on their own terms, so if you can incorporate it into what you’re doing it’s a really special thing. You can really hear the growl on the bass.
10. “Into The Mystic” – from Joe Cocker’s Organic (1996)
Once again this was with Billy Preston, but it had Jim Keltner and Kenny Aronoff. It’s always interesting playing with two drummers, but luckily they’re two guys I had worked with a lot over the years, so it was a really easy session.
It’s an iconic Van Morrison song, but with a different singer and different interpretation of the tune. It has kind of a reggae feel. It was a huge hit for Joe in Europe. It’s basically the old bass line, but as I said, you have to live in the moment. I had Jim doing his eccentric thing and Kenny doing his straight thing, so you have to be there for it. It’s one of those things where if you have a singer that’s really happening, it’s easy to fall into place. In this case, it just really worked. I had to forget everything about the Van Morrison version except the definitive line itself. This was produced by Don Was, too.
11. “Freedom” featuring Mavis Staples – from Colin James’ Bad Habits (1995)
Colin is an icon in Canada. He was sort of a student of Stevie Ray Vaughn, who I knew since the ’70s when I lived in Austin. Colin is probably “the” blues guitar player in Canada. He always sits in with Bonnie when he’s around.
Jeff Gould of Modulus Guitars had just offered to make me two Jazz basses. I brought him my ’61 Jazz, which I took the finish off of in 1974. He made a mold of the neck and made me a white fretted Jazz bass and an all black fretless Jazz. We ran that through a B-15 that was in the studio with a D.I. line. I love the sound of the bass on that record.
When you make a record, you think everyone is going to respond to it when they hear it. A lot of my favorite work people haven’t been able to hear because of a label issue or whatever. It’s sad to me. That’s why I love throwing this in. A couple of years go by, and I’m driving around and hear it on the radio. It was being used for a Honda CRV ad or something. That ad got played so much for a couple years. Nobody knew it was Mavis or Colin, but it was on all the time.
12. “Deja Vu” – from David Crosby’s It’s All Coming Back To Me Now… (1995)
I loved Stephen Stills’ bass playing back in the day. He played the original bass solo on “Deja Vu” on the CSNY album. What I didn’t know when I went into rehearsals for this was that they never perform the bass solo live. The bass solo only existed on that first CSNY album, but it’s a solo that everyone in my generation knows. When we were rehearsing it, we got to that point and I immediately came in with the bass solo. Everybody stopped, and I said, “Is there something wrong?” and they told me they never play it. David said, “Man, it sounds great! We’re gonna do it for sure.”
That gig was at the Whiskey A-GoGo. I took the solo one extra time, too, because I think David told me to go again. Graham didn’t get the memo, though, and came in with the harp. That was the first time that solo had been done live with David and Graham. Whenever we played it in CSN afterward, we would do the solo.