When most casual listeners think of Motown, they usually think of the big names that came from that label: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, etc. However, the hardcore fans know that there were several lesser-known performers who didn’t achieve the same share of the limelight but still made important contributions to Motown’s heritage. Some of them would serve multiple functions, rotating back and forth between the roles of artist, writer and producer to stay in the game.
During the 1970’s, Willie Hutch filled the kind of utility player role described above at Motown. He got his start at the label as a songwriter, contributing important songs like “I’ll Be There” and “I Wanna Be Where You Are” to the Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson’s concurrent solo career. He also composed the soundtracks for The Mack and Foxy Brown, a pair of orchestrated funk gems that allowed him showcase his vocal talents alongside his compositional skill.
However, he also recorded a long string of solo albums for Motown after establishing himself with the label. The first of his Motown solo albums was Fully Exposed, a set of songs recorded in the lavish yet funky style of his soundtracks. This smartly designed set allows Hutch to show off his multiple skills as a musician. He was a singer/songwriter who could play guitar and keyboards as well arrange and produce so he approaches his album in a way that allows him to showcase all these skills at once.
The first thing that strikes you about the sound of Fully Exposed is its density: there are multiple layers of keyboards and guitar throughout plus strings on several songs. Just as important are the supporting vocals, which are often mixed close to Hutch’s lead vocals to give the songs a “choral” effect. The end result is thick as gumbo, boasting a richness that envelops the listener and allows the album to hold up to repeat listens. It often sounds like a grittier variant on the kind of sound Barry White and Isaac Hayes were pursuing around the same time.
Hutch brings a similar craftsman’s touch to the songs. The album’s originals have straightforward verse-chorus melodies that act as a solid springboard for Hutch’s expansive style of arranging, bringing a strong hook to the fore at their outset and weaving plenty of sing-along hooks that are often voiced by the backing singers. Ballads are an obvious strong suit for Hutch, with “I Just Wanted To Make Her Happy” having an ethereal flow to it and “Sunshine Lady” getting plenty of mileage from its blend of gossamer strings and guitar textures over a tight, insistent groove. Hutch’s vocals manage to be plaintive and expressive all at once, bringing a complex level of emotion that fleshes out the lyrics nicely.
However, Hutch is just as comfortable with uptempo fare: “Can’t Get Ready For Using You” and “Tell Me Why Our Love Has Turned Cold” are reminiscent of the action cues from his soundtrack albums. He also drops in a bit of downhome grit with “If You Don’t Have No Money (You Can’t Get No Honey),” a life-lesson tune with a Southern Soul feel that is built on a tart clavinet hook. His covers of his hits for other artists also score thanks to inventive re-arrangements: “I Wanna Be Where You Are” and “I’ll Be There” are reworked so they have a soaring feel that takes them away from their pop-R&B roots and into a moodier, orchestral soul context.
On the remake tip, the album’s true centerpiece is “California My Way,” an epic redux of a Hutch tune that had previously been recorded by the Fifth Dimension. It becomes a 7-minute epic on Fully Exposed, an expanse of orchestrated funk highlighted by a gorgeous chorus that threatens to drift off into the ether. Hutch really gets down as a vocalist here, showing he can do everything from a sweet tenor croon to James Brown-style scats.
In short, Fully Exposed is a 1970’s soul gem that allows fans to luxuriate in how rich this era of R&B music could be. Anyone who enjoyed Hutch’s soundtracks would do well to check out this album out, because it is cut from the same cloth.
(CD Notes: this was recently reissued on Soul Brother Records, a UK outfit that specializes in vintage R&B. It’s a handsome sounding remaster with full credits and a brief essay. Anyone who’s been waiting for this one to appear in a digital form should snap it up.)