EW&F’s Maurice White elevated the vocal trio to chart-topping success
by Ericka Blount Danois
By the time sisters Wanda, Jeanette, and Sheila Hutchinson were preteens, they were already seasoned performers. They won talent shows at the Regal Theater on the South Side of Chicago. They had sung for Mahalia Jackson. They had performed with the Jackson Five before they were ever signed to Motown. Their father, Joe Hutchinson, and the Jacksons’ father, Joe Jackson, were good friends. On 59th and Halsted on the South Side, amidst Queen Anne style buildings, they rehearsed, practicing their songs and perfecting their stage show, for the older audience at the club Guys and Gals on 69th and Green.
On Sundays, they’d sing gospel and appear on the television show, Jubilee Showcase. The show was taped live in the building in a car showroom where Pontiacs were being sold. When they finished, they would go see Donny Hathaway perform at the Rubus Room, near Maxwell Street Market.
They became well known around town as gospel group the Hutchinson Sunbeams and recorded—under the name the Emotions—a single in 1967 on Brainstorm Records, “I Can’t Stand No More Heartaches,” which didn’t reach listeners farther than the Midwest.
Still, everyone around town knew them. Jerry Butler started a music seminar over at Olive-Harvey College where he taught kids to write music. Every time their father brought them by to see him, he would introduce them to the class with a proud grin, telling the students, “These are the Emotions! You guys are going to be hearing from them one day.” But their grandmother didn’t want to hear any of it. She insisted that any day she would have a heart attack, because they had flip-flopped from the Lord’s music to the devil’s music.
Eventually, Pervis Staples became their manager, signing the group to their first record deal with Al Bell at Stax Records after they won a talent show at the Regal Theater.
The first time the Emotions met Maurice White, leader of Earth, Wind & Fire, was in Charles Stepney’s basement. Wanda Hutchinson (now Vaughn) played the torch song “I Don’t Want to Lose Your Love” on the piano, and White and Stepney were instantly impressed with her singing and songwriting capabilities.
Produced by Maurice White and much of it written by White, Wanda, Al McKay, and Skip Scarborough, the Emotions’ platinum-selling Rejoice featured the number one pop, R&B, and disco hit “Best of My Love.” But it was the longing love song “Don’t Ask My Neighbor” that resonated in basement parties and lost-virginity sessions around the country. The sentimental lyrics—“Don’t ask my neighbor / Come to me / Don’t be afraid of what you see / You’ll find I love you”—written by Skip Scarborough actually came from a less romantic place.
“Skip was breaking up with his wife. He had two kids, and she left him for another man,” remembers Wanda. “She moved to some island and left the kids and the house, and the neighbor had to tell him what happened.”
The sisters recorded it at three AM, when their voices were ripe, in the Paul Serrano studio, on East 23rd Street on the South Side, as Scarborough played the Fender Rhodes. “We were just crying,” says Wanda about how emotional the song made them. “The very first one he recorded, that’s the one they used.”
But it was the sisters’ disco cut “Boogie Wonderland” that catapulted them to the top of the disco world.
“I know when I first heard it, I said, ‘That ain’t us,’” remembers Wanda, who was dead-set against disco. “We were so against it. It worked because of Rees. He would hear the drum beat, the rhythm thing, and we were like his vocal horns.”
The track wasn’t on the Emotions’ album, a source of contention between their father Joe Hutchinson and management, Cavallo and Ruffalo, because it was recorded on the Emotions’ budget.
“I was like, let’s not fall out over this, but I was wrong,” says Wanda who gets paid now for the song after new laws enacted under the Clinton Administration provide royalties to artists and writers. “Because had it been on our album, it would have went double platinum.”
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