[25 February 2014]
The history of rock and roll is littered with great talents who never achieved fame or glory. This is even truer for rock’s offshoot, soul music. The situation of race in America during the turbulent era in which soul emerged as a recognizable genre and the idiosyncrasies of particular artists, labels, and promoters, and a myriad of other factors created a cauldron full of tragic tales, crazy legends, and some great music. Two of classic soul’s finest albums have recently been digitally re-mastered and re-released. Doris Duke’s I’m a Loser and Z.Z. Hill’s The Brand New Z.Z. Hill have been available in various formats over the years, but the high quality of art on these discs demand respect and celebration.
The evidence on I’m a Loser convincingly proves Duke is the equal or better than more popular soul singer divas. Every gritty note rings with pain and pride. The words and music betray the darker side of life. Franklin might have sang about needing respect and Tina Turner could popularize a tune about being a woman who has sex for money, but one cannot imagine performers like them getting crooning about a poor woman betrayed by her boyfriend-pimp and wanting to die the way Duke does on “I Don’t Care Anymore” with lines like “Till I found out his sweet talking / Added up to streetwalking / That was the part / That finally broke my heart / I’m lying her on this lumpy bed / I don’t know if I’m better off alive or dead.” This is reality from beneath the underdog; existence at the bottom.
Other songs may be less dramatic and involve walking in on one’s boyfriend with another woman, a pregnant girl getting married to someone she doesn’t love to give her fetus a better shot at a successful life, divorce, and betrayal. Yes, this is heavy stuff, but Duke has an attitude that can put things in perspective. For example, compared to her friends who go out with single men and do not know where they stand, Duke knows she comes in a solid second and that’s good enough for her. The other woman will always be his wife.
The liner notes by producer and songwriter Jerry Williams Jr. (Swamp Dogg) humorously recount the making of this album and Duke’s career difficulties. While this record received a small modicum of success at the times, its legend has grown over the years. As for Duke herself, Williams doesn’t know if she’s dead or alive or living in New Jersey. The spirit of Duke can still be found in the music of Sharon Jones, Valerie June, and the like.
Williams also produced and wrote the songs and liner notes to The Brand New Z.Z. Hill. During a period in which prog rock monsters Jethro Tull put out three rock operas themselves, Williams (with co-writer) Gary “U.S.” Bonds created a soul opera complete with between song dialogues. While the album doesn’t quite work as theater (the female voice belongs to a woman who just walked into the studio one day), it does contain many magnificent performances by Hill. His voice shares some of Duke’s qualities—a gravely Southern throatiness, but while Duke always sounds hurt Hill’s vocals always seem optimistic. Even when Hill sings about his woman cheating on him, his voice suggests he still sees a brighter future.
That makes tunes such as “Second Chance”, “Our Love Is Getting Better”, and I Think I’d Do It” especially infectious. Hill knows when to sing sweetly and when to just let the words drop like gentle rain. He makes the benign sentiments of “Faithful and True” into a celebratory incantation. All of the 10 tracks on the original album are timeless examples of soul music at its finest.
The re-release also contains eight bonus cuts, including other versions of “Faithful and True”, “I Think I‘d Do It”, and a funky rendition of Jackie DeShannon’s “Put a Little Love in Your Heart”. Hill’s voice fits the song’s positive message, but the jazz rhythms are a bit too earthy for the songs ethereal lightness. When Hill sings about love, you get the feeling something more earthy is involved. Sadly, Hill died in 1984 at the age of 48 from a heart attack after an automobile accident.