Leslie Hutchinson: The unsung Black cabaret star who took Britain by storm

 Leslie Hutchinson: The unsung Black cabaret star who took Britain by storm

He was one of the biggest cabaret stars in the world in the 1920s and 1930s, wooed high society and recorded hundreds of songs. But today Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson is barely remembered in Britain, the place he called home for most of his life.

For those that do remember him, it’s often his personal life rather than his musical virtuosity that is invoked.

Hutchinson, a handsome, charismatic Black musician from the West Indies, had a number of relationships with both men and women during his life but some who know his story believe it was one particularly high-profile affair with a wealthy White woman that changed the trajectory of this career.

His relationship with Edwina Mountbatten, wife of Louis Mountbatten, a great-grandson of Queen Victoria — once picked up by the press — created a scandal steeped in racism which led to Hutchinson being ostracized from some circles.

Charlotte Breese, author of “Hutch,” the only biography on Hutchinson, published in 1999, spent nearly a decade researching the singer and pianist’s life and describes him as “a towering figure in British entertainment” despite his star having faded.

As Britain marks Black History Month in October, it is a fitting time to pay tribute to Hutchinson’s pioneering achievement as someone who earned fame in Britain, Europe and across the former British Empire in the face of widespread racial discrimination, thanks to his own perseverance, talent and charm.

“He was distinctly a man of courage and one of experiment and he was determined to conquer, in a way that was very unusual for the time. By his own lights, I think he succeeded,” said Breese.

“The things that last, if you choose to listen to his music, are his extraordinary timing and wit and intelligence, his interpretation of the words and his focus on the lyrics, as much as the music. And he was a very strong, effective jazz pianist as well, which is very unusual, to be able to do both.”

Grenada-born Leslie Hutchinson was the highest paid entertainer in Europe for 20 years.

Grenada-born Leslie Hutchinson was the highest paid entertainer in Europe for 20 years. Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

While Breese attributes Hutch’s disappearance from the public consciousness to the passage of time, some believe racism played a greater role in obscuring his legacy.

Fascinated by Hutchinson’s life story, writer, composer and producer Joe Evans wrote a play focused on the Mountbatten affair, staged in London in 2013.

“The crux of it was that the establishment tried to write him out of history in the 1930s and 40s. At the time he was as famous and as talented as Paul Robeson, Fats Domino, Fats Waller and even Duke Ellington,” explained Evans. “It was partly because of the scandal at the time with Buckingham Palace… but he was kind of forgotten for a long time.”

Even Hutchinson’s great-great-niece, singer-songwriter ALA.NI, knew few details about his history — from his fleeing the Ku Klux Klan in America to a love affair with composer Cole Porter — until she listened to a BBC radio play about him in her late teens.

“I had heard a bit about him but this was the first time it all came together and made sense,” she said.

ALA.NI believes her great-great-uncle’s refusal to follow society’s rules, particularly in pursuing relationships as a bisexual Black man, regardless of social class, made him a threat to some people, with enduring consequences.

“It was very, very scandalous. We know we have an order that we’re supposed to stay in, as Black people, and he did not stay in that order,” she said.

Society darling to libel suit

Born in Gouyave, northern Grenada, in 1900, Hutchinson learned to play piano as a child. He did well at school and was sponsored by wealthy island residents to leave Grenada for America in 1916 to study medicine. However, it wasn’t long before he abandoned his medical studies to perform in bars in Harlem, New York City, said Breese.

“He had always played the piano well but he really focused very hard on his music and started to learn to accompany some of the greats,” she said. “All this stuff took great courage in those days, when people didn’t travel so much.”

Then, during a trip to Miami, Florida, Hutchinson witnessed violence by the Ku Klux Klan that frightened him enough for him to leave America, around 1923 or 1924, and head to France, taking his wife and daughter with him. “He realized then that the ceiling was too low in America (for a Black man) and that he must go to Europe,” said Breese.

Once in Paris, Hutchinson flourished in the thriving jazz scene and became a close friend, protégé and lover of Cole Porter, who was 10 years his senior. He also made the acquaintance of a number of British aristocrats, including then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII), who was to become one of his biggest fans.

“He was good at making friends, he was good at understanding what White folks wanted, he played White folks’ music,” said Breese, adding that his relationship with Porter, probably his “biggest and most vital” one, put him in front of the famous composer and songwriter’s affluent crowd, allowing him to go “off to Italy with him, to Venice, to stay and to play in the Greek palazzos (owned by the wealthy).”

Edwina Mountbatten, who had known Hutch in Harlem, encouraged him to move to London around 1927 and he took the English capital by storm, quickly becoming a society darling. He performed at nightclubs and at private parties in grand London houses, even arriving with a white piano strapped to the roof of a chauffeur-driven car. He also reportedly seduced a string of well-connected women and men, helped no doubt by his good looks, virtuoso performances and debonair charm.

“By the time he arrived in England, he was quite a figure,” said Breese.

“(If) you look at almost any description of Hutch, he’s always the best dressed man in the room, he’s always the best looking, he has impeccable manners, he’s riding in Rotten Row,” said Breese, referring to a track around Hyde Park where fashionable upper-class Londoners would meet on horseback.

Hutchinson believed the affluent people with whom he was mixing finally “would recognize him as a human being, as a person, as a friend. And indeed, unlike most performers of any kind, they did, which was a very unexpected thing,” said Breese.

She believes Hutchinson was “the first Black man they ever really got to know well. And that was a hugely important thing and very much thanks to Hutch taking the time and effort to get to know White people well.”

But Hutch’s untroubled acceptance into fashionable circles was not to last.

Leslie Hutchinson is pictured at a meeting of the National Sporting Club at the Cafe Royal, London, September 8, 1955.

Leslie Hutchinson is pictured at a meeting of the National Sporting Club at the Cafe Royal, London, September 8, 1955. Credit: Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Images

When The People, a Sunday newspaper, published a story strongly hinting that a certain aristocrat had a Black lover and had been forced to leave the country to allow the scandal to subside, the royal family reportedly ordered the Mountbattens to sue for libel.

The paper had alleged “a scandal which has shaken society to the very depths. It concerns one of the leading hostesses in the country — a woman highly connected and immensely rich. Her associations with a coloured man became so marked that they were the talk of the West End. Then one day the couple were caught in compromising circumstances.”

It was well-known in high-society circles that Edwina and her naval officer husband, a cousin of the Prince of Wales, had an open marriage, said Evans, the playwright. But Mountbatten’s royal connections meant any public knowledge of her affair with a Black man would be unacceptable to Buckingham Palace.

After a closed-door hearing, the libel case was settled in the Mountbattens’ favor in July 1932. The People gave an apology in court and Lady Louis Mountbatten, as she was known, declined to seek damages for what her lawyer described as a “loathsome allegation.”

Lady Edwina Mountbatten is pictured with her young daughter Patricia at a wedding in July 1928.

Lady Edwina Mountbatten is pictured with her young daughter Patricia at a wedding in July 1928. Credit: London Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While the scandal didn’t end Hutchinson’s career — he continued to perform, and all-told recorded about 400 songs, including hits like “These Foolish Things,” “Night and Day,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and ‘Begin the Beguine” — it did close some doors to him. Press baron Lord Beaverbrook would not allow the singer’s name in his newspapers, and he was not invited to perform at the Royal Variety Show.

But this was not the first time Hutch had been treated as an outsider; he was already experienced in navigating a prejudiced society.

“Racism was rife and he had to fight against that all the time. One of the themes of his life was that he had been invited to all these high society parties to perform but still had to use the back door,” in the same way as a servant would, said Evans. “But at the same time, he adopted a fairly ‘White’ way of life, he had perfect RP (received pronunciation) in the way he spoke, he spent most of his life trying to slot in.”

Breese said Hutchinson was not even allowed on the stage to play piano when he first arrived in Britain, because he was Black, but over time broke down that barrier, and others.

She cites an interview Hutch gave in the 1950s in which he said being asked to enter through the servants’ entrance had been irritating — but that often after becoming friends with the hosts he was invited through the front door, and “counted that as something of a success.”

Hutchinson and comedian Gracie Fields during a rehearsal for the television show "Welcome Home to the Queen" at Lime Grove Studios, London, on May 14, 1954.

Hutchinson and comedian Gracie Fields during a rehearsal for the television show “Welcome Home to the Queen” at Lime Grove Studios, London, on May 14, 1954. Credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Best paid entertainer in Europe

Having been a huge hit in the 1920s and early 30s with the well-heeled cabaret crowd, who would enjoy dinner and a live show in late-night restaurants and intimate nightclubs, Hutchinson later won over the variety crowd, performing on stage to mass audiences, said Breese.

“Very often he was the first Black man that particularly the working-class variety audiences had seen and, initially, he was booed off the stage at Chatham in Kent, so he came a long way from there to being the best paid entertainer in Europe for 20 years,” she said.

This was a huge achievement and demonstrated Hutchinson’s courage in the face of obstacles, Breese said. During World War II he would also lead large crowds in patriotic singalongs, despite his own great fear of the bombing raids, she added.

Hutchinson dictates a letter to his secretary before setting off on his bicycle,  February 5, 1941.

Hutchinson dictates a letter to his secretary before setting off on his bicycle, February 5, 1941. Credit: J. R. V. Johnson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By the end of the war, when Hutchinson was drinking heavily and was concerned that his career was over, said Breese, he moved back to New York, but he found his ties to England ran too deep and quickly returned.

His return led to a big comeback, said the biographer. “Once again he had royal patronage, of all kinds really, from Prince Philip and Princess Alexandra, Princess Margaret, the Queen Mum — all of them used to turn up at (the Mayfair restaurant) Quaglino’s. And he continued to have a huge TV and radio presence.”

He also traveled widely in the 1950s, including visits to Britain’s former colonies — Australia, South Africa, Kenya and Singapore — where he was still a big name, said Breese.

But long hours combined with heavy drinking and smoking gradually led to the decline of his health. In 1969, at age 69, Hutchinson died almost penniless, having fallen into debt. In an odd twist, Lord Mountbatten paid for the cost of his funeral.

For a generation or two, Hutch’s name was known to almost anyone you asked, said Breese. But, with the passing of time, he has faded from the nation’s memory.

Inspiring a new generation

When a documentary film about Hutchinson, titled “Hutch: High Society’s Favourite Gigolo,” was broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2008, it highlighted his sexual relationships as much as his musical talent. For some, it was uncomfortable viewing.

“I remember I was with a group of older-generation Grenadians, men, it was before it was shown and they were really excited that there was this documentary about a Black, Grenadian musician — because you know, we can get generalized very much, as just being from the Caribbean or just being Black, it’s all just under one umbrella,” said singer ALA.NI.

“After they watched it, because it was disclosing his sexuality and his antics, let’s say, they were not happy, saying ‘we don’t want this man representing us.'”

Being from a different generation, and having a different perspective on Hutch’s bisexuality, ALA.NI said she had a different response to the film’s revelations. “When I saw that I thought, wow, he was up against so much, from his own culture, from the opposite side too, and we are just in such a different time.”

Singer-songwriter ALA.NI performs at La Cigale on June 7, 2016 in Paris, France.

Singer-songwriter ALA.NI performs at La Cigale on June 7, 2016 in Paris, France. Credit: David Wolff-Patrick/Redferns/Getty Images

Instead, the dashing great-great-uncle who died before she was born is now a touchstone for her, and, she hopes, may inspire other young Black musicians too.

The footage that exists him of performing at the piano is, even today, an unusual representation of a Black man, ALA.NI said. “To see him with his tailcoat, with the handkerchief, looking graceful, so well poised, playing well, singing beautifully, is very inspirational and important for us.”

Since the film aired, Hutchinson’s contribution to Britain’s music history as one of its first popular Black entertainers has won wider recognition.

In 2012, as part of a scheme to celebrate notable figures and the buildings connected to them, charity English Heritage placed a blue plaque on the house in which he lived for nearly 40 years with his wife, Ella, and their daughter, Lesley.
An English Heritage blue plaque was placed in May 2012 on Hutchinson's former home in north London. Actor Sir Derek Jacobi, TV presenter Stephen Fry, son Chris Hutchinson, daughter Gabrielle Markes and biographer Charlotte Breese are seen at the unveiling.

An English Heritage blue plaque was placed in May 2012 on Hutchinson’s former home in north London. Actor Sir Derek Jacobi, TV presenter Stephen Fry, son Chris Hutchinson, daughter Gabrielle Markes and biographer Charlotte Breese are seen at the unveiling. Credit: John Stillwell/PA Images/Getty Images

In 2013, Hutch’s affair with Edwina Mountbatten also appeared to inspire a storyline on period drama “Downton Abbey,” in which Lady Rose becomes involved with a handsome Black musician, Jack Ross.

And a plaque at Quaglino’s now pays tribute to his late-night performances there from the 1930s to the 1960s.

For ALA.NI, the blue plaque ceremony — attended by actor Stephen Fry and numerous relatives of Hutch, including his late son Chris Hutchinson and daughter Gabrielle Markes — was a powerful affirmation of his legacy and of her own potential as an artist.

“It was, like, wow, this man did something, he’s our family and he did something so brave and out there and so against the grain of everything at that time. What am I waiting for? I have to be as brave as he was,” ALA.NI said.

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