Daddy B. Nice's #5 ranked Southern Soul Forerunner
In a state known for its musically-ground-breaking iconoclasts-- Bob Wills, Buddy Holly and, more recently, Mel Waiters, Erykah Badu and Patrick Green--the Naples-born Z. Z. Hill (1935) is arguably Texas's most distinguished musical pioneer. Brought up on gospel music--he matriculated with a group called the Spiritual Five--Hill followed his producer-brother Matt into secular music and released a series of singles in the early sixties.
In tandem with Matt (the M.H. label) and a succession of recording companies (Kent, Atlantic, Mankind, Unitied Artists), Z. Z. (born Arzell) notched a number of now-obscure hit singles through the sixties and early seventies, including presently out-of-print albums on Kent (Lot Of Soul, 1969, and Dues Paid In Full, 1971), Mankind (Brand New Z. Z. Hill, 1971), and United Artists (The Best Thing That's Happened To Me, 1972, and Keep On Loving You, 1975).
In the late seventies Hill signed with the prestigious Columbia label (onetime home to Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, etc.). If you want to know the musical milieu of the period, watch the John Travolta-starred/Bee Gee's-scored "Saturday Night Fever" or (for an even more accurate musical barometer) the 1976 Richard Pryor-starred/Norman Whitfield-scored "Car Wash" and meditate on the inner-city, disco euphoria and enthusiasm of the day.
Even Johnnie Taylor and Hill had the "fever." (Hill's dalliance in disco beats and arrangements can be sampled on many of the tracks on Let's Make A Deal, 1978, and The Mark Of Z. Z. Hill, 1979, both on Columbia.)
In the face of this maelstrom of percussion-dominated dance music, the appearance of Z. Z. Hill's "Love Is So Good When You're Stealing It," (Columbia, 1977), which became an R&B hit single (and Hill's biggest ever), was as momentous a development in the history of R&B as had been Ray Charles' hit single "I Can't Stop Loving You" fifteen years earlier. Both were songs that went against the grain, that flew in the face of the prevailing musical winds. Both were songs people at the time thought they didn't want to hear. And yet, just as the Charles song had been foreshadowed by "Georgia On My Mind" and other country-like Charles material, so too was Hill's "Love Is So Good When You're Stealing It" a logical next-step from previous Hill tunes like the little-noticed, Swamp Dogg-produced classic "Second Chance," which Hill had recorded way back in 1971.
Z. Z. Hill's "Love Is So Good..." never really dented the pop charts, but Hill was prescient enough to understand the impact the record had made with his "core" Southern Black audience--an audience hungry for contemporary blues--and he had the forsight and fortitude to take a giant step forward.
As it worked out, it was also a benchmark step in the evolution of today's rhythm and blues. Z. Z. Hill's five year (80-84) collaboration with Jackson, Mississippi's Malaco Records was the true beginning of what we now call "Southern Soul." What Hill had done before--what he had only "hinted at"--now exploded in an effusion of across-the-board musical excellence. Hill's blues swung and sounded great. The albums were packed with quality songs. In order, they were:
Z. Z. Hill (81),
Down Home (82),
The Rhythm & The Blues (82),
and I'm A Blues Man (83),
all printed by Tommy Couch's Malaco Records. Of the four, the two undisputed classics were Down Home and I'm A Blues Man.
Hill was felled by a heart attack in 1984--at the height of his powers. A number of posthumous records have been released, but these days you're more likely to hear echoes of Z. Z. Hill tunes or themes in a "branching-out" process from the Z. Z. Hill/Southern Soul genealogical tree. The influence is extensive. Thus, "Love Is So Good When You're Stealing It" and its opening lines, "Here we are, darling/At the Hideaway Inn," leads directly to Ronnie Lovejoy's classic, "Sho' Wasn't Me," and its opening lines, "Girl, you say your sister saw me/Coming out of the Holiday Inn." Which comes full circle with another generation in the supercharged version of "Love Is So Good When You're Stealing It" done by Rue Davis and young Patti Sterling, who growls and snaps like a reincarnated Della Reese.
Thus, you have Hill's "Cheatin' In The Next Room" flowing into "I've got a wife and a woman too/And I don't know what to to do" from the Carl Sims' classic, "Trapped," and from there to the younger generation in the form of T. K. Soul's "It Ain't Cheatin' (Until You Get Caught)."
These days you're more likely to hear a Z. Z Hill tune in a remake. Not only will you hear old masters like Little Milton (now also passed) rendering their own classics from Z. Z. Hill vehicles (Milton's "This Time They Told The Truth"). You'll also hear Southern Soul "young guns" like Vick Allen ("Who You Been Giving It To"), Delbert McClinton ("Givin' It Up For Your Love"), Rick Lawson ("She Was Cheatin' Better Than Me") and Eddie Seawood ("Shade Tree Mechanic") delivering updated takes on Hill tunes and themes. Meanwhile, Hill's "Down Home Blues," written by George Jackson, has become the default/generic rocker of the genre. What Kool & The Gang's "Celebration" is to disco, "Down Home Blues" is to Southern Soul.
Biography by Bill Dahl (Allmusic)
Texas-born singer Z.Z. Hill managed to resuscitate both his own semi-flagging career and the entire genre at large when he signed on at Jackson, Mississippi's Malaco Records in 1980 and began growling his way through some of the most uncompromising blues to be unleashed on black radio stations in many a moon.
His impressive 1982 Malaco album Down Home Blues remained on Billboard's soul album charts for nearly two years, an extraordinary run for such a blatantly bluesy LP. His songs "Down Home Blues" and "Somebody Else Is Steppin' In" have graduated into the ranks of legitimate blues standards (and there haven't been many of those come along over the last couple of decades).
Arzell Hill started out singing gospel with a quintet called the Spiritual Five, but the output of B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and especially Sam Cooke made a more indelible mark on his approach. He began gigging around Dallas, fashioning his distinctive initials after those of B.B. King. When his older brother Matt Hill (a budding record producer with his own label, M.H.) invited Z.Z. to go west to southern California, the young singer did.
His debut single on M.H., the gutsy shuffle "You Were Wrong" (recorded in an L.A. garage studio), showed up on the pop chart for a week in 1964. With such a relatively successful showing his first time out, Hill's fine subsequent singles for the Bihari brothers' Kent logo should have been even bigger. But "I Need Someone (To Love Me)," "Happiness Is All I Need," and a raft of other deserving Kent 45s (many produced and arranged by Maxwell Davis) went nowhere commercially for the singer.
Excellent singles for Atlantic, Mankind, and Hill (another imprint operated by brother Matt, who served as Z.Z.'s producer for much of his career) preceded a 1972 hookup with United Artists that resulted in three albums and six R&B chart singles over the next couple of years. From there, Z.Z. moved on to Columbia, where his 1977 single "Love Is So Good When You're Stealing It" became his biggest-selling hit of all.
Hill's vocal grit was never more effective than on his blues-soaked Malaco output. From 1980 until 1984, when he died suddenly of a heart attack, Z.Z. bravely led a personal back-to-the-blues campaign that doubtless helped to fuel the current contemporary blues boom. It's a shame he couldn't stick around to see it blossom.