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It has often been associated with Robert Nighthawk's combining the electrification of the guitar with the Delta tradition of using a slide that developed one of the most haunting and popular forms of Blues music. Elmore James expanded this form to new heights, in turn creating a following of players attempting to emulate his skills. But, when James passed away in 1963, a pair of slide magicians were there to take command: Theodore Roosevelt "Hound Dog" Taylor and J.B. Hutto. Though the influence of James and Nighthawk were apparent, they also had their own unmistakable sound, taking command as Chicago's elite slide musicians. But, following the death of Taylor, Hutto found himself the last of the great students of Elmore James.
He was born in Blackwell, South Carolina, as Joseph Benjamin Hutto on April 26, 1926. Some sources claim that he was born in Augusta, Georgia, but his family moved there when young Joseph was three years old. It was in Augusta that he first came into contact with music, teamed with his three brothers and three sisters in a family group known as The Golden Crown Gospel Singers. But, Hutto claimed that he never had any true desire to perform musically until after his family relocated to Chicago, following the death of his father.
Once in Chicago, J.B. 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 guitarist with the one-man band Porkchop (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.
Hutto formed a band in the early 1950s that featured himself as guitarist/vocalist, with Porkchop on washboard, Joe Custom on second guitar and George Mayweather on harmonica. He named the band The Hawks; a name that he would use with all of his subsequent bands throughout his life. The Hawks were given the opportunity to record for Chess' subsidiary label, Chance, in 1954, holding two sessions that resulted in a total of nine numbers. Six of these selections were released, including the single, "Now She's Gone." 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 the success he had hoped for. Finally, his displeasure took its toll 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. But, it wasn't until the following year he actually returned. 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 and Hutto released an album in 1966 for Testament Records titled, "Master Of Modern Blues", which featured Young, Horton, bassist Lee Jackson and drummer Fred Below.
In 1967, Delmark Records 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. They clearly displayed Hutto's fierce and pounding slide guitar. Delmark responded to the popularity of this album by releasing J.B.'s first full-length solo disc the next year, the brilliant masterpiece "Hawk Squad". Over the next 16 years, Hutto 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, with Brewer Phillips and Ted Harvey. 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 and never entered a studio to record. Several live performances were recorded during 1976 and 1977, including a show at Boston's famed Tea Party which was later released posthumously as "J.B. Hutto And The Houserockers Live 1977." Hutto eventually moved to Boston in the late-1970s, where he pieced together a new version of The Hawks.
Other than his stellar work as a slide player, J.B. Hutto was also regarded as a master showman. Following in the footsteps of people such as Guitar Slim, he took to wearing brightly-colored outfits and a wide array of hats. He was also known for walking a room with a lengthy extension to his guitar cord, casually jumping atop tables from time-to-time while performing.
Hutto returned to Illinois in the early 1980s, where he was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 1983 in Harvey, Illinois, and at the time of his passing, was considered one of the top-drawing Bluesmen working. His popularity can easily be pointed out by the fact that The Blues Foundation welcomed J.B.. Hutto into its Hall of Fame only two years Following his death. His legacy lives on, though, through the playing of his nephew, Lil' Ed Williams, who learned first-hand at the knee of Hutto, and also through all slide guitarists playing Blues today.
by Greg Johnson