Michael Hill: The Blues Right Now

One of the most satisfying experiences I had in my brief career as an A&R director for Candid Records was a session with bluesman Otis Spann, who had come from Mississippi to Chicago and worked with Muddy Waters, among other blues bards. This was his first solo recording as pianist and singer.

All that afternoon in 1960, I had nothing to do but listen. I could no more direct that life force than if I’d tried to direct the weather that day. Afterward, he spoke about the people who came to the Chicago blues clubs where he worked.

“Most of the people who come to hear us,” he told me, “work hard during the day. What they want from us are stories. They want to hear stories out of their own experiences, and that’s the kind we tell.”

So it is these nights with Michael Hill’s Blues Mob. He’s 48, started in the Bronx and has been playing in rock and soul bands since 1972. Three years before, listening to Jimi Hendrix propelled Hill to get an electric guitar. Then, as he put it in Blues Revue magazine, “It was a circuitous trip backwards for me.” He connected hard with Albert King, B.B. King and Buddy Guy, among other blues progenitors.

On his recordings on Alligator Records-New York State of Blues, Bloodlines, Have Mercy-Hill tells stories of the streets and the projects: “All the aspects of life that are important to me.”

Due soon is his Suite: Larger Than Life on E Musico. As a composer, Hill’s songs are as real as the lives he writes about. But, he told Blues Revue, “I’m not the Eldridge Cleaver of the blues.” The music also “needs to be fun and bring joy to people. Our shows have always been a celebration” and “a healing.”

Jimmy Rushing once told me that you can’t play the blues for long without getting into what he called “he-she songs.” And Michael Hill also includes “songs that celebrate women of color.”

What makes his singing and playing stay in the mind is the enormous energy that also characterizes his sidemen.

The stories he tells can be unsparing, like “Grandmother’s Blues”-based on a true story of a woman shot dead by police trying to evict her from her apartment in the projects:

“Eviction’s what they called it but they came all dressed up for war/She’s still in her apartment but she’s bleeding on the floor.”

Notably absent from Michael Hill’s lyrics is the brutal language ecstatically favored by gangsta rappers and other latter-day crosses between the Marquis de Sade, Jack the Ripper and scrawlers on bathroom walls. That includes, of course, Eminem, the internationally celebrated fake homeboy.

“No,” says Hill, “I grew up reading James Baldwin and later Toni Morrison. And Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Bob Marley-who was a big influence on me-didn’t have to use language like that to tell their stories. Also, I’m from another generation. My mother was very particular about the words her children used.”

Using “whores” as synonyms for women and advocating-without irony-rape, murder and grotesque forms of humiliation results in blurring the focus of what those kinds of rappers say is their greatest intent: to tell what many lives are really like. But it does win Grammy awards.

In The New York Times, columnist Bob Herbert, who is black and a persistent exposer of police brutality and other forms of racism, says, and I agree: “My problem with rap, especially in its most grotesque forms, is that it has so thoroughly broken faith with the surpassingly great centuries-long tradition of black music in America. With rap, both the music and the poetry have vanished.”

Michael Hill has not broken faith with that tradition. From his “Evil in the Air”:

“Subway train leaving Manhattan, in the last car two men are taking the ride/When it crosses the bridge to Brooklyn only one man will see the other side.”

From “Hurt Nobody”:

“Can’t send my kid to go out and play/With folks selling drugs just two blocks away/The time is near gonna have to hurt somebody up in here.”

Because Bob Marley, says Hill, “was so articulate and clear, he definitely inspired me in terms of trying to speak to issues which don’t get addressed all the time in black popular music.” Or in the mainstream press.

From “This Is My Job”:

“Walk around after midnight there’s a whole population on the street/Cardboard box for a pillow and the steam from the grating for heat/Sometimes it’s so overwhelming it can wear down your sympathy/But then you see someone holding on to a small piece of his dignity.”