Michael Hill, a Bronx-raised guitarist, singer, and songwriter, took his earliest inspiration from the sounds of Jimi Hendrix. His other songwriting influences include socially conscious artists like Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, and Curtis Mayfield.
Hill has recorded two albums for Alligator Records of Chicago, Have Mercy (1996) and Bloodlines (1994), which both contain extensive social commentary. Both releases have gotten good reviews from critics and sold respectably, yet he's still considered too "heavy" for some U.S. festivals and clubs. Despite this, Hill has made tours of clubs and festivals around Germany, France, Scandinavia, Austria, England, Italy, Brazil, and Australia.
Hill has argued that his political songs follow the true blues tradition, which includes sounding off on societal problems. Blues songs of the '20s and '30s by Leadbelly, Mance Lipscomb, and other classic blues artists often dealt head on with society's ills. Hill sees himself as following this tradition. Songs like "Falling Through the Cracks," "Bluestime in America," "Why We Play the Blues," "Evil in the Air," and "Presumed Innocent" reveal another side of life to fans of blues music, most of whom are middle class, suburban, and white.
Hill, based in Brooklyn, N.Y. since 1988, was born in the Bronx in 1952. The Bronx that Hill remembers was a working-class community with families who looked after one another's kids. Hill comes from a close-knit family, and his brother Kevin began playing bass with him when he formed his first band in 1973.
After seeing Jimi Hendrix play on five occasions around New York City, including at the Woodstock Festival, Hill knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He began playing guitar in 1970, and by 1972, was playing out in rock and soul bands. He took cues from guitar players including B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Albert King, and Carlos Santana, and his style is a comfortable mesh of all these, plus his own touch. Reading the books of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and other black novelists, Hill began writing songs that spoke about socially relevant subjects as well as more traditional blues topics.
By the mid-'70s, Hill was working as a sideman or session player with the likes of Little Richard, Archie Bell, Harry Belafonte, and Carla Thomas. In the mid-'80s, working with Living Colour's Vernon Reid, he helped establish the Black Rock Coalition, a New York City-based group of black rock & roll bands, craftspersons and artists. He caught the attention of Alligator Records in 1993, and in 1994, the label released Bloodlines, which was hailed by some critics as the best blues debut album of the year.
Hill's range on his Steinberger guitar is awe-inspiring, and he'll often follow up a slow blues ballad with a fiery blues-rock shuffle that shows off his rock influences (players like Jeff Beck, Hendrix ,and Santana). Backed by a trio known as the Blues Mob, which consists of keyboards, bass, and drums, Hill's live shows are an artful blend of originals and a few interpretive covers.
Combine great guitar playing with a strong voice and thinking-man's lyrics, and you've got all the ingredients for major blues stardom, and Michael Hill's Blues Mob are helping the idiom continue its evolution. They returned in 1998 with New York State of Blues.
Cut loose from Alligator, Hill released Audience of One with Inthemix in 2000, Larger Than Life on Singular in 2001, a concert album called Electric Storyland Live on Ruf in 2003, and Black Gold and Goddesses Bold on JSP in 2005. ~ Richard Skelly