Thursday, 30 May 2013

Leslie "Hutch" Hutchinson

Leslie Hutchinson (‘Hutch’) was born in Grenada on 7 March 1900; he left for the United States when he was sixteen.  He only ever went back once, briefly.  In New York he studied medicine for a while, but he also started playing piano in Harlem clubs.  Carl Van Vechten may have been his first male lover.  But in 1923 or 1924 he married Ella Byrd; she bore him a daughter, Leslie, in August 1926, and a son, Gordon, in August 1928.  On 18 October 1924 he sailed for France.  His French, which he had learned from his mother, was good.  He spent six months in Madrid, teaching piano to King Alfonso XIII and Queen Ena’s children.  He probably got this work through Edwina Mountbatten, who is likely to have first met him in Harlem.  In 1925 he went on a tour which included Constantinople, at the instigation of the bisexual Mustapha Kemal (later to be styled Ataturk), who had heard the band playing in Paris.  Back in Paris, Hutch teamed up with the singer/dancer Ada Smith, who was popularly known as 'Bricktop' because she was a redhead; he worked as her accompanist as she taught whites how to dance.  Her pupils included the Aga Khan and the Prince of Wales.  The latter patronised Bricktop’s new nightclub, the Music Box, and it took off as a result.  Cole Porter, too, was performing there.  The club was shortlived, however; but Bricktop then opened the legendary club Bricktop’s, on the rue Fontaine, in October 1926.
            In April, Hutch had met Tallulah Bankhead.  They were lovers for a while.  He and Cole Porter were lovers into the 1930s.  The three Porter songs most closely associated with Hutch would be among the best-known songs of the century: ‘Let’s Do It’, ‘Begin the Beguine’ and ‘Night and Day’.  When Porter and his wife took Hutch’s band down to Venice, Diaghilev was furious.  An all-negro ensemble did not suit his idea of what was appropriate to the city.  Hutch had an intermittent affair with the bisexual Edwina Mountbatten for almost thirty years from 1926.  (She had married Louis Mountbatten in 1922.)  She arranged for Hutch to go to London and got C.B. Cochran to sign him up for one of his celebrated revues: One Dam’ Thing After Another opened at the London Pavillion on 20 May 1927, with Hutch playing in the otherwise white orchestra.  Finally, when the onstage pianist fell ill, he was allowed to play on stage—a daring advance for London.  Hutch socialised in the kinds of circles where his was the only black face in the room.  For the record, he was the first black man the romantic novelist Barbara Cartland ever spoke to.  Hutch gradually took to singing more, accompanying himself.  He played many of London’s smartest nightclubs, only rarely mixing with other black musicians.  In 1928 he was in Cochran’s The Year of Grace, a revue with book, music and lyrics by Noël Coward and design by Oliver Messel.  It ran for more than 300 performances.  Then in 1929 he took part in Cochran’s Wake Up and Dream, with words and music by Cole Porter and design by both Oliver Messel and Rex Whistler.  The perhaps unlikely figures of Lord Berners and Lytton Strachey were in the first night audience.  The following year, Hutch appeared in the unimaginatively titled Cochran’s 1930 Revue, designed again by Messel and Whistler, with a libretto by Beverly Nichols and two ballet numbers by Lord Berners, choreographed by Balanchine and danced by Serge Lifar and others.  Cecil Beaton was in the first night audience.  Ivor Novello made a nuisance of himself backstage by taking an ‘undue interest’ in Hutch.

Source: Charlotte Breese, Hutch (London: Bloomsbury, 2001)

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