Steppin’ In: A Tribute to ZZ Hill
Thirty-seven years later, we have the iconic songs of Texas-born singer Z.Z. Hill brought to us by Grammy-winning bluesman Mississippi-based Grady Champion on the same Mississippi-based Malaco label. Champion is a producer/singer/songwriter/musician who has won a Grammy, several prestigious Blues Music Awards as well as the 26th International Blues Challenge. Amazingly, he is one of his father’s 28 children, born October 10, 1969 on a farm in Canton, Mississippi. Originally a rapper, he gravitated to the blues, first learning harmonica and releasing his first album, the self-released Goin’ Back Home (1998.) He was quickly signed by Shanachie Records, with whom he released two albums. Champion and Kevin Bowe co-wrote “Trust Yourself” which was included on Etta James’ album Let’s Roll (2003) and winner of a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. The album also won a Blues Music Award as the Soul/Blues Album of 2004. Dreamin’ (2011), was a #1 album on the Sirius XM’s Bluesville chart, as well as earning two BMAs. This is his third release for Malaco, a self-produced effort entirely in tribute to Z.Z. Hill who died 35 years ago April 27, 1984. Champion says, “I’ve been particularly inspired by Z.Z.’s efforts to restore blues music to modern black consciousness.”
So, for the generations of folks who didn’t hear Hill, or were not around when Hill has a meteoric rise to fame, this is for them. For this writer, my memory, besides the two monstrous Hill records that we’ll describe later, is the shock of Hill’s passing. At the time, I was organizing blues festivals and had Hill booked in St. Louis for May in 1984, only to learn that he had suddenly passed from a heart attack. Johnny Copeland (I think) was the opener and we replaced Hill’s spot with Albert Collins, but the show, which would have sold out with Hill, was rather poorly attended,
Here’s why. Much like Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan brought blues to FM radio and revived it, especially among white audiences, Z.Z. Hill managed to resuscitate both his then sagging career and the entire genre among black audiences when he signed to Malaco in 1980. His 1982 Down Home remained on Billboard’s soul album charts for nearly two years, unheard of for album so heavily bluesy. Although Hill made five albums for Malaco, most of the selections here come from Down Home and 1983’s I’m a Blues Man. Some of these songs such as “Down Home Blues” and Denise LaSalle’s “Somebody Else Is Steppin” In” have become iconic classics, oft covered by many blues artists. Note that Hill’s version of the latter and ostensibly title track here first appeared on Hill’s 1983 Rhythm & the Blues. From 1980 until 1984, Hill led a personal back-to-the-blues campaign that helped, along with efforts of Cray, Vaughan, and others to fuel a contemporary blues boom. But, unlike the others, as Champion points out, Hill raised the blues consciousness among black audiences, leading to success on Malaco for artists like Bobby “Blue” Bland and Bobby Rush later in the ‘80s.
When you examine Hill’s material captured here by Champion, fittingly eight of the twelve are blatantly sensual and/or rife with tales of infidelity, make it nine given the reference to “full time lover” in “When It Rains, It Pours.” Consider these tracks. Maybe you remember some of them – “Cheatin’ In The Next Room,” “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing,” Shade Tree Mechanic,” “Who You Been Giving It To,” “Three Into Two Won’t Go” and “Bump n’ Grind.” Other black artists certainly covered the same turf. “Open House at My House” is a Little Johnny Taylor tune. LaSalle made a career of doing this kind of material (“There’s a smile on my face and you didn’t put it there” from the title track). Hill wasn’t a writer but created a terrific vibe. He was able to break through like few others and sadly, wasn’t around long enough to enjoy his successes.
Champion is the one to pull this off. His voice is remarkably even gritter than Hill’s. The production values are similar with background vocalists and a combo supporting him. Unlike Hill, Champion doesn’t use strings and horns though but does keep the arrangements intact. There’s no way this will bring the kind of reaction Hill did. He was in the right place at the right time. Nonetheless, kudos to Champion for bringing us these songs again. We can surely use this infusion.
- Jim Hynes