The Innovators: Stax Artist Spotlights
The Emotions – Courtesy of Stax Archives
With their sweet harmonies and deliciously infectious songs, The Emotions rose from the Chicago gospel scene to become one of the biggest girl groups of the ’70s. Along the way, the GRAMMY® Award-winning trio of sisters inspired several generations of singers, while their enduring music provided some of the most iconic samples in hip-hop.
The group began in the ’50s as the Hutchinson Sunbeams—a gospel trio featuring sisters Sheila (3 years old), Wanda (4), and Jeanette Hutchinson (5), with guitar accompaniment by their father, Joe. Over the next decade, the young sisters built a following through national appearances on Jerry Van Dyke’s Children’s Gospel show and by touring alongside stars like Mahalia Jackson. But by the end of the ’60s, the teenagers were ready for a change. Under the management of Pervis Staples (of The Staple Singers), the trio re-christened themselves as The Emotions and pursued a career in secular music.
Staples brought the talented group into the Stax fold, where they worked closely with the hitmaking team of David Porter and Isaac Hayes, releasing their debut album, So I Can Love You, in 1969. The title track was an immediate success, landing in the Billboard Hot 100’s Top 40 and peaking at No.3 on the R&B chart. Over the next year, the group continued to score hits with songs like “Stealing Love,” “The Best Part of a Love Affair,” and “Heart Association.” In 1971, they followed with their sophomore album, Untouched, which produced the best-selling single “Show Me How,” as well as the frequently sampled B-side, “Blind Alley.”
During their time at Stax, the trio also made a memorable appearance in the 1973 documentary film Wattstax, in which they returned to their roots, delivering a stirring performance of “Peace Be Still.” While the trio was unable to perform at the festival itself, due to time constraints, they performed the gospel standard at a nearby church.
As the in-demand group became busier with promotional activities and touring, Jeanette chose to take time off to focus on her family. The Hutchinson’s cousin, Teresa Davis, briefly stepped in as her replacement, while younger sister Pamela took over in the mid-70s. In later years, Pamela and Jeanette would often perform together, alongside their sisters.
After Stax closed its doors in 1975, The Emotions joined forces with Earth, Wind and Fire’s Maurice White—a creative partnership that would last decades and result in some of the group’s best-selling projects, including Flowers (1976), Rejoice (1977), and Sunbeam (1978)—all produced by White. The group scored their first gold record with 1976’s “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love,” while Rejoice topped the R&B charts and landed in the Top Ten of the Billboard 200. It also featured the biggest hit of their career, “Best of My Love.” The bouncy track spent five non-consecutive weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100—earning the trio a platinum record, a GRAMMY® award, and an American Music Awar
The Emotions – Courtesy of Stax Archives.
As disco fever set in, meanwhile, the Hutchinsons helped Earth, Wind and Fire score a global dance hit with 1979’s “Boogie Wonderland.” Throughout the following decades, Sheila, Pamela, Wanda, and Jeanette all regularly contributed to other artists’ albums, collaborating with the likes of Nancy Wilson, LL Cool J, Smokey Robinson, Snoop Dogg, and Terrace Martin, among many others. Although The Emotions released their final album in 1985, they continued to make regular appearances through early 2020—both as a trio and a quartet. Sadly, Pamela passed away in September 2020 at the age of 61.
In 2001, the Hutchinson sisters were honored with the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. Their music, however, has long been celebrated by other artists—particularly through covers and samples. Over the years, dozens of singers have cited The Emotions as an influence, including Sheena Easton, Erykah Badu, Lalah Hathaway, Fantasia, and En Vogue. The group also inspired some of the biggest acts in hip-hop, who regularly sampled their songs. Tracks from Kanye West, Salt-N-Pepa, A Tribe Called Quest, 2Pac, 50 Cent, and the Wu-Tang Clan all feature iconic drops from The Emotions.
- Over the decades, The Emotions’ songs have lived on through hundreds of samples by music’s biggest stars. In one instance, a particularly harmonious “owww!” from the bridge of “Best of My Love” has been used over and over again in hip-hop—from Snoop Dogg’s “Doggy Doggy World” (1993) and De La Soul’s “Say No Go” (1989) to Killer Mike’s “Ghetto Gospel” (2012).
- During their time at Stax, the group recorded a third album called Songs of Innocence and Experience. But, in the label’s final days, the tapes were shelved. While fans long wondered about the contents of this “lost” record, an expanded LP of the same name was released in 2004, featuring rarities, demos, and previously unreleased material, giving fans a glimpse into this sought-after title—and then some!
The Emotions "So I Can Love You"
This was the very first single that The Emotions recorded for Stax. Released in 1969, “So I Can Love You” was co-written by Sheila Hutchinson and based on a personal experience with her high school boyfriend. The song, which marked their biggest hit with the Memphis label, was a Top 40 pop hit, and peaked at No.3 on the R&B chart.
The Emotions "Blind Alley"
The Emotions "Best of My Love"
Co-written and co-produced by Earth, Wind and Fire’s Maurice White, “Best of My Love” was The Emotions’ career-defining hit. The song topped the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B chart in the US, landed in the Top 5 in the UK and Canada, and was a Top 20 hit in Australia and New Zealand. In addition to being ranked among Billboard’s 100 Top Songs, “Best of My Love” earned the sisters a GRAMMY® for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.