Thursday, May 26, 2011

Down Home Blues: Z.Z. Hill

Bluesman by R. Crumb
The human mind is a strange thing.

After I completed yesterday’s post on Bappi Lahiri my mind immediately latched on to Z.Z. Hill. That weird association has been dogging me all day and I guess it means that someone out there needs to hear this music. But what connects these two very different artists?

Here’s a few things:

1.    Bappi Lahiri single-handedly introduced disco beats to Bombay film music.
2.   Z.Z. Hill single-handedly saved the blues from becoming a museum relic in the late 70s and early 80s.
3.   Bappi Lahiri’s music is fun and non-too subtle.
4.   Z.Z. Hill’s music is fun and non too subtle.
5.   Bappi Lahiri’s  music is best enjoyed loud.
6.   Z.Z. Hill’s music is best enjoyed loud.

Z.Z. Hill
I first heard Z.Z. Hill’s music on a homemade mix-tape given to me by a friend upon my departure to take up an assignment in Iraq in the wake of the first Bush (Senior) War twenty years ago. (Wow, where has the time gone?) I became an instant fan because his variety of the blues was so different than the Chicago school that has dominated the blues-sphere for so long.  His lyrics were politically uncorrect and sexual and his music designed to make you grind your hips round and round.

Almost inevitably, Z.Z (Arzell) Hill did his musical apprenticeship in the church singing with the Spiritual Five but the blues had their hooks deep in him. He fell in love with the music of B.B. King and as every slavish student does adopted the man’s styling of his name to suit his own; Arzell became Z.Z.  After some time playing clubs in around Dallas he moved to southern Cal where his brother was in the music business. Always a strong singer (ranked 36th out of the top 100 blues vocalists ahead of John Lee Hooker) he landed recording deals with a bunch of labels both obscure and big time and even had a couple of minor hits throughout the 60s.

But it was in the 1980s when he recorded for Mississippi’s Malaco Records that Z.Z. Hill finally made his impact and got the attention of the music world. Blues, like jazz, was nearly a dead art form in the 1970s. Rock ‘n roll had taken the guts out of it and made it into something else. The folk revivalists had had their day and most of their (re) discoveries like Son House, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt were dead or no longer performing.  Radio stations were fast being corporatized with playlists made by faceless men in far away cities.  About the only real blues selling on the mainstream labels was a fantastic series of Muddy Waters albums produced and promoted by Johnny Winter.

And then along came Z.Z. Hill with his blend of blues grooves, soul brass and guitar licks straight out of the rock world. He mixed them all together and began having hits like Down Home Blues and Someone Else is Steppin’ In that became instant blues classics. His influence on the blues scene that started to blossom again the in the late 80s with the likes of Robert Cray et al was massive but in 1984 he died of a heart attack, less than 50 years old. 

On a related note, Malaco Records, where Hill came into his own, survived but in recent years turned mostly to recording gospel and religious music. A few months ago the studios burned to the ground.

Enjoy this collection of his greatest hits.  The music is simple but strong and the lyrics on some absolutely shocking but so of a certain time.

         Track Listing:
         01 Cheatin' in the Next Room
         02 Down Home Blues
         03 Please Don't Let Our Good Thing End
         04 Right Arm For Your Love
         05 Open House At My House
         06 Someone Else is Steppin' In
         07 Get a Little, Give a Little
         08 Shade Tree Mechanic
         09 Three into Two Won't Go
         10 Stop You From Givin' Me the Blues
         11 Friday is My Day

Listen here

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