Revered by blues fans but largely unknown to the general public, guitarist and vocalist J. B. Hutto was a master of live performance. Known for his colorful outfits, high-energy theatrics, and dazzling skills on the slide guitar, he led his own band, the Hawks, for decades. The winner of a posthumous Grammy Award in 1984 for his contributions to an anthology called Blues Explosion, he also completed a number of full-length albums for Chicago's Delmark Records and other labels. He is best remembered, however, for his live shows, which often found him dancing atop bars and tables, dragging his guitar cord behind him. In 1985, two years after his death, the Blues Foundation inducted him into its Hall of Fame.
The son of a church deacon, Joseph Benjamin Hutto was born on August 29, 1926, on a farm in Elko, a rural hamlet in Barnwell County, South Carolina. His birthplace has often been listed as Blackville, South Carolina, a larger community just down the road, or, less accurately, as Augusta, Georgia, where he moved with his family at age three. As Jim O'Neal of the Blues Foundation noted, however, it was Elko that Hutto later listed on his application for a passport.
Like many of his peers in the blues world, he received much of his early musical training in church, where he learned to sing. His skills in that area were soon apparent, and by the time he was a teenager, he had already gained some significant stage experience as a member of his family's gospel group, the Golden Crowns. A pivotal moment in his musical development occurred around age 15, when his family moved once more, this time from Augusta to Chicago. The latter city was home to a vibrant and rapidly growing blues community, and in the wake of his relocation, Hutto embraced that genre, in part by studying the techniques of local musicians such as guitarist Johnny Ferguson, who soon hired him as a drummer and backup vocalist. Determined by this point to take up the guitar himself, he began practicing with Ferguson's instrument during breaks. Among his other influences during this early period was the guitarist Elmore James, a Chicago star known for his dexterity with the slide, a simple tool for adjusting pitch. Unlike many of his colleagues who began with the acoustic guitar and then moved on to the electric version, Hutto was associated throughout his career with the rough-hewn sound of electrified slide blues.
Critical to his early development as a guitarist was his willingness to play on Maxwell Street, the site of one of the largest open-air markets in Chicago. Every week dozens of performers, both novices and major stars, appeared there before crowds that were both well versed in the blues and notoriously difficult to please. In that demanding and hypercompetitive environment Hutto's skills developed rapidly, and by the early 1950s he had formed the first iteration of the Hawks and obtained a recording contract with Chicago's Chance Records. The singles they produced drew little attention outside the city, however, and in the wake of that disappointment Hutto disbanded his group and left the scene. For roughly a decade he worked primarily as a janitor, and it was not clear that he would ever return to the stage.
In the meantime, the blues world was changing rapidly. The late 1950s and early 1960s saw a surge of interest in the genre, and by about 1964 that wave of enthusiasm had facilitated Hutto's return to performance. With a new lineup of Hawks behind him and a regular gig at Turner's Blue Lounge, a landmark on Chicago's South Side, he soon acquired a devoted fan base. It was also during his tenure at Turner's that he began to draw notice for his stage theatrics and sharp, if idiosyncratic, sense of style.
That success sparked the resumption of his recording career. A pivotal moment came in 1966, when he contributed several tracks to the first volume of an acclaimed anthology series, Vanguard Records' Chicago/The Blues/Today! His first full-length album as a leader, Masters of Modern Blues, Volume 2, appeared on Testament Records the following year. Completed with the help of a stellar Hawks lineup that included harmonica legend Big Walter Horton and guitarist Johnny Young, it was followed by the recording that is widely regarded as his masterpiece, 1969's Hawk Squat. A Delmark release, Hawk Squat featured a number of songs that remained in his repertoire for decades, including "If You Change Your Mind," "Too Much Pride," and "What Can You Get Outside That You Can't Get at Home." A landmark of its era, it has been described by Bill Dahl of AllMusic.com as "an outrageously raucous album."
With the release of Hawk Squat, Hutto solidified his reputation, especially in Chicago. The competition for blues gigs in that city was fierce, however, and by the middle of the 1970s he had embraced the more relaxed environment of Boston, where he lived for several years. With some new personnel in his backing band, now dubbed the New Hawks, he toured regularly across New England and down the East Coast. He also enjoyed an enthusiastic reception in Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom, where he recorded a live album, Hipshakin, in 1972. Other notable recordings during this period were Slidewinder, issued by Delmark in 1973, and Keeper of the Flame, which appeared on Wolf Records seven years later.
Hutto's health declined sharply in his mid-50s, in part because he suffered chronic diabetes. Although he continued to perform whenever possible, he was unable to make a full recovery, and on June 12, 1983, he died in Chicago at age 57. In the years since his reputation has continued to grow, thanks to the remastering and rerelease of his recordings, his Grammy and Blues Foundation honors, and the reminiscences of fans such as Karen Nugent, who recalled in a 1997 piece for the Boston Blues Society Hutto's "wild live performances ... incredible guitar solos ... [and] outrageous outfits."
Born Joseph Benjamin Hutto on August 29, 1926, in Elko, SC; died on June 12, 1983, in Chicago, IL; son of a church deacon.
Independent musician, 1940s-83.
Grammy Award, Best Traditional Blues Recording (co-winner), 1984, for Blues Explosion; inducted into Blues Hall of Fame, 1985.
- Chicago/The Blues/Today!, Vol. 1, Vanguard, 1966.
- Masters of Modern Blues, Volume 2, Testament, 1967.
- Hawk Squat (includes "If You Change Your Mind," "Too Much Pride," and "What Can You Get Outside That You Can't Get at Home"), Delmark, 1969.
- Hipshakin, Flyright, 1972.
- Slidewinder, Delmark, 1973.
- Keeper of the Flame, Wolf, 1980.
- (Various artists) Blues Explosion, Atlantic, 1984.
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Nugent, Karen, "Remember J. B. Hutto?," Boston Blues Society, August 2007, http://www.bostonblues.com/features.php?key=storyHutto (accessed August 5, 2015).
O'Neal, Jim, "1985 Blues Hall of Fame Inductees: J. B. Hutto," Blues Foundation, http://www.blues.org/awards-search/?cat=hof (accessed August 5, 2015).
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