Our Heritage: Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson Remembered

English Heritage Blue Plaque for Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson

A publicity shot of Leslie Hutch Hutchinson
Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson

A lost daughter rediscovers her Grenadian heritage and that a father she never knew was the link to our island – at one time considered a great cabaret stars of the twentieth century, then to have died in almost total obscurity – now to be honoured at his old London home in England.

The singer and pianist Leslie Hutchinson (1900-1969) – known to all as ‘Hutch’ – was commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at 31 Steele’s Road, Chalk Farm, London in England – this was his home from 1929 to 1967. The plaque was unveiled by Hutch’s daughter Gabrielle Markes on Friday 5th October 2012 at 3pm.

Blue plaque to Hutch
Blue plaque to Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson

Daughter Gabrielle Markes said:

“I was born 1930, taken away at birth and placed in a nursing home pending adoption. As soon as I was able, I began the long struggle to discover my parentage, and finally discovered in my middle-age, that Leslie Hutchinson – fondly known as Hutch – was my father. Further research led me to propose to English Heritage that a blue plaque be placed on the house that Hutch lived in for almost four decades. This ceremony is a very special day for me, and is the culmination of over 60 years searching for the truth.”

Early Years

Hutch was one of the most popular cabaret entertainers of the 1930s and took London’s café society by storm. He created a stir by arriving at nightclubs with a white piano strapped to his chauffeur-driven car, dressed like an aristocrat, and dazzled audiences with his brilliance at the piano keyboard. Hutch’s skill in singing popular songs with sincerity and his ability to shift between West Indian, black Harlem, white American and upper-class English idioms, ensured that he had a wide appeal. His success was achieved in spite of racial prejudice – he was often asked to arrive by the servants’ entrance when invited to play at grand Mayfair houses.

Born at Gouyave, Grenada 7 March 1900 to George Hutchinson and Marianne (née Turnbull), Leslie Arthur Julien Hutchinson was introduced to music by his father and took up piano from an early age. He left school at sixteen and after a brief spell as a civil servant, moved to New York where he played piano at parties. He had some success, but at a party in Palm Beach he was alarmed by the open racism shown by members of the Ku Klux Klan and, in 1924, he left the US for Paris with his wife Ella and daughter Leslie. In Paris he met the songwriter Cole Porter, who became a close friend and mentor, and Hutch – as he now styled himself – perfected the art of singing Porter’s songs.

In 1927 Hutch was invited to London by the impresario C. B. Cochran to play in the Rodgers and Hart musical One Dam’ Thing After Another. His nightly cabaret performances after the show at the Café de Paris soon became the hottest ticket in town and led to a string of invitations to play at London’s most exclusive parties. Between 1928 and 1930 Hutch performed in four more successful Cochran revues and gained a national profile after touring the country with these shows. It was also then he signed a recording contract with Parlaphone, paving the way for a succession of hits such as such as ’High Hat’, ‘Ain’t Misbehaving’ and ‘You’re the Cream in my Coffee’.

Superstardom and Later Life

By the mid-1930s Hutch was a superstar and mobbed by crowds wherever he went. Throughout these years of stardom, Hutch kept his wife and daughter out of the limelight, rarely including them in his social life, and fathered eight, or possibly more, children through different relationships. In stark contrast, he conducted a number of high-society affairs in public; his long-standing affair with Edwina Mountbatten was an open secret in Mayfair clubs and bars. While this scandal closed some doors to him, Hutch went on to perform and record many of his most successful hits, such as ‘Night and Day’, ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, ’These Foolish Things‘ and ‘Begin the Beguine’. These records, combined with his late-night sessions at London clubs including Frisco’s and Quaglino’s – where he often performed in front of the Prince of Wales and Wallis Simpson – marked the height of his career.

During the Second World War Hutch became a popular act variety act and entertained the crowds sheltering in the Underground during air raids. As the war ended, his style of music fell out of fashion, but in 1953 he made a comeback and he returned to Quaglino’s, where he entertained a new generation of bright young things, including Princess Margaret.

He married Ella Byrd, a woman of African, English, and Chinese ancestry, in 1923/4 in New York City. Their daughter, Lesley Bagley Yvonne, was born on 9 April 1926. Hutch would go on to sire six further children with five different mothers. Gordon was born in August 1928, Gabrielle in September 1930, Gerald and Chris in 1948, and Graham (Chris’s full brother) in 1953, and Emma in April 1964.

31 Steele’s Road – a detached house built in 1874 by the architect J. M. Brydon – was Hutch’s home and base for nearly all the years he lived in London. He moved here in June 1929 with his wife, daughter and brother, just as he made his breakthrough, and only left in 1967, when he was forced to sell it to pay off bank debts. The house was furnished with a mixture of old-fashioned oak furniture and Art Deco lamps, and the piano in the drawing room was strewn with silver ornaments from his admirers.

Following his wife’s death in 1958, Hutch struggled with worsening financial problems and was reduced to playing in tawdry clubs. Suffering from ill-health in his later years Hutch died in Hampstead, London, England from pneumonia on 19 August 1969 aged 69, almost an unknown. Only 42 people attended his funeral yet notably, Lord Mountbatten paid for the cost of his funeral.

Dr Susan Skedd, Blue Plaques Historian, said:

“Hutch overcame considerable prejudice to become one of the stars of the London cabaret scene of the 1930s. His elegant persona, smooth delivery and dexterity at the keyboard brought him adulation. Though no songwriter himself, he was fortunate to live in an era of great lyricists such as Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, Rodgers and Kern and recorded more than 400 songs, many still available today. The plaque to Hutch will act as a lasting reminder of his remarkable achievements and of his prominent place in the musical history of London.”

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