Iconic bassist talks to FBPO about his three decades with Bonnie Raitt, plus a whole lot more you may not have known
By David Sands
April 8, 2015
James “Hutch” Hutchinson has been cooking up music with blues-rock legend Bonnie Raitt for over three decades. It’s a relationship the bassist cherishes, but his musical hunger has led him in a lot of other directions too. All over the map, in fact.
While he’s made some amazing records with Raitt, like the triple Grammy-winning Nick of Time and 2012’s best-selling blues album Slipstream, those albums are just flavorful morsels in the stew of a life richly lived.
He’s also had the distinctions of being the Neville Brothers’ bassist from 1977 to 1982, playing in John Cipollina’s band, Copperhead, and putting together an award-winning Latin fusion jazz band called The Point, with violinist Sid Page. That’s in addition to a colorful studio career, recording with The B-52s, Taj Mahal, David Crosby, Ziggy Marley, Etta James, B.B. King, Garth Brooks, Alejandro Escovedo, The Chieftains and more.
It’s a spicy mélange of sounds, no doubt, but during a recent interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman, Hutchinson said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Whenever there’s a cross-pollination of musical forms, it interests me and becomes a big part of my life,” he says, “I’ve been able to work with artists from just about every part of the world and I consider myself very fortunate.”
His love of diverse musical traditions can be traced to his formative years spent around Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“I grew up pretty much in the Harvard Square area, a hotbed of academia, with people from different cultures from throughout the world,” Hutchinson says.
“I was coming of age in the early to mid-Sixties, and you had everybody playing in the Cambridge area,” he continues. “There were so many different influences floating around.”
During his interview, he named several of the folks who shaped his bass-playing. This eclectic bunch includes his late friend John Entwistle of The Who; jazz legends Charles, Ray Brown, Eddie Gomez and Paul Chambers; Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady; session veterans Harvey Brooks, Carl Radle, Tom Cogbill and Chuck Rainey; Rick Danko of The Band; reggae artist Aston “Family Man” Barrett, Danny Thompson of the British folk-jazz band Pentangle and Cuban greats Juan Formell and Israel “Cachao” López.
Hailing from a New England Irish family, Celtic music was a huge part of his early life. The Folk Revival of the 1960s made a big impression too, opening his ears to both traditional songs and international music from places like Cuba and Africa.
As for his own playing, he found his early bearings in bluegrass bands, playing guitar and mandolin and moonlighting on cello and the upright bass, an instrument he still uses today. In the mid-Sixties, a 13-year-old Hutchinson was already playing paying gigs. By late high school, he was auditing classes at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and dreaming of being a session musician.
The son of a firefighter and an MIT/NASA engineer, he met resistance on this career choice from several members of his family, but stuck to his guns. His dedication to the bass came after seeing Wilson Pickett perform in 1965 at a venue called the Surf in Nantasket Beach. Sitting in the front row, he began charting the course he’d follow the rest of his life.
After graduation in 1970, he moved to the Bay Area. Back east, he’d honed his electric and acoustic bass skills, gigging with various groups around New England. Now in San Francisco, he hit it off with Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead and John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service. Soon he was playing sessions at Mickey’s Ranch in Novato, California and gigs with Cipollina in Copperhead.
In the mid Seventies, he took an extended trip to Central America, ostensibly to work on a recording and ended up forming, along with Page, the fusion group, The Point, which also included Guatemalan, Salvadoran and other Latin American musicians. They finally settled in Texas and were named the “Best Jazz Group” in the 1977 Austin Music awards. From there, at the request of Art and Charles Neville, Hutchinson relocated to New Orleans to join the Neville Brothers.
Living in the Big Easy, he worked with a slew New Orleans jazz and R&B greats like Lee Dorsey, Earl King, Ernie K-Doe, Professor Longhair and James Booker—and became acquainted with Bonnie Raitt.
Playing the Rolling Stones’ 1981 tour with the Nevilles, Hutchinson struck up a friendship with their keyboard player, the late, great Ian “Mac” McLagan. The next year McLagan, who played with Raitt, introduced her to the bassist in New Orleans’ Maison Dupuy hotel.
By 1983, he’d relocated to Los Angeles and was playing in McLagan’s group, the Bump Band. Suddenly, the English keyboardist announced he was departing the red-haired singer’s group with her bassist Ray Ohara. At McLagan’s urging, Hutchinson called up a startled Raitt to offer his services. She eagerly took him on board.
“We’re family at this point. Three decades and still going strong,” he says. “Our audiences, as we’ve gotten older, they’ve gotten progressively younger. She’s iconic at this point.”
Hutchinson feels her influence with up-and-coming musicians has helped new generations connect with her music. He thinks her consistent support of environmental, human rights, social justice and music-oriented causes has also kept her in the public eye. Walking into a Bonnie Raitt show, it’s common to see booths dedicated to causes the singer and guitar player supports.
“It’s a thrill for me, growing up in a Massachusetts family that was politically oriented,“ he says proudly.
Hutch also gets a kick out of using the tools of his trade to pull up rich veins of sound. He’s got a lot of different instruments, but leans heavily on NS Design products.
“I really love these basses,” he says. “They just play and sound so well, and they’re so practical for using on the road.”
For a long time he played a CR4 Omni Bass with Bonnie, but lately he’s favoring a full-size NS Design Upright and Double Bass setup.
With him, strings are interesting. Usually he relies on D’Addario, but occasionally he strings with La Bella, including on a 1964 Fender P-Bass with thick 52-to-110 La Bella Jamerson strings.
“I think strings sometimes make the instrument,” he confides. “There are certain instruments I never change the strings on. There are basses where the strings haven’t been changed in 15 years.”
Meanwhile, Hutch is enjoying his side projects and jamming out in Hawaii with a high-powered garage band that has included Pat Simmons, Michael McDonald, Willie Nelson and Mick Fleetwood. There’s talk of a new Bonnie Raitt album in the works, too.
“We have these record cycles with Bonnie, where we make a record, and then we get to play behind it, but in the meantime I get to play with all these other artists,” he says. “What inspires me today is playing different types and genres of music with quality musicians. I’m privileged to be able to do that.”