Z.Z, Hill-That’s It! The Complete Kent Recordings 1964-1968.

Label: Kent Soul.

Sadly, the Z.Z. Hill story is a familiar one, with Texan born soul and blues man never really enjoying the commercial success his considerable talent deserved. Z.Z. Hill moved to Los Angeles in 1963, and in 1964 had a minor hit with You Were Wrong, which reached 100 in the US Billboard 100. However, this was enough for the Bihari brothers to sign Z.Z. Hill to Kent-Modern Records where he spent the next four years. This period is documented on That’s It! The Complete Kent Recordings 1964-1968 which was recently released by Kent Soul, an imprint of Ace Records. That’s It! The Complete Kent Recordings 1964-1968 is two CD set that is a reminder of what was a golden period for Z.Z. Hill, who was regarded as one of soul’s rising stars.

Arzell J. Hill  was born in Naples, East Texas, on September the ’30th’ 1935, and began his singing career in the late fifties, when he joined the gospel group the Spiritual Five. They who toured Texas, which was akin to  a musical apprenticeship for the young Arzell J. Hill . However, like many gospel singers before him, Arzell J. Hill  would eventually crossover,

By then, Arzell J. Hill had discovered the music of Sam Cooke, BB King, and Bobby “Blue” Bland, who influenced him when he began singing in club in and around Dallas. Around this time, Arzell J Hill became the vocalist in bands led by Bo Thomas and Frank Shelton. It was around this time that Arzell J. Hill became Z.Z. Hill, a homage to his musical hero BB King.

In the late fifties, Z.Z. Hill’s elder brother Matt Hill who was a producer decided to move to California. Once he was settled, he invited Z.Z. Hill to join him in the California sunshine. 

As the fifties gave way to the sixties, Matt Hill booked some studio time for Z.Z. Hill who recorded six songs. When Matt Hill sold the six songs to Chess Records, it looked as i Z.Z. Hill was about to make a breakthrough. However, Chess Records decided not to release the songs, which frustrated the Hill brothers.

Not long after Chess Records decided not to release Z.Z. Hill’s songs, Matt Hill founded two record labels Mesa and MH Records in late 1963. The new labels’ first signing was one Z.Z. Hill who released his debut single Five Will Get You Ten on Mesa. The single sold well locally, and Matt Hill released You Were Wrong as Z.Z. Hill’s sophomore single.This was a song that Z.Z. Hill had recorded in 1960 as You Was Wrong. However, when Z.Z. Hill released You Were Wrong in 1964, the sold well enough to reach number 100 in the US Billboard 100 where it spent just one week. However, for Z.Z. Hill this was the break he had been looking for.

The Bihari brothers who owned Kent-Modern Records had been following Z.Z. Hill’s career, and after the success of You Were Wrong, offered him a recording contract. Z.Z. Hill accepted and signed for Kent Records which would be his home for the next four years. 

Having signed for Kent-Modern Records, Z.Z. Hill entered the studio to record his debut for his new label on ’15th’ September 1964. That day, Z.Z. Hill recorded two of his own compositions the bluesy, soulful  single You Don’t Love Me and the rueful ballad If I Could Do It All Over which featured on the B-Side. However, when You Don’t Love Me was released on Kent Records in 1964, it failed to trouble the charts. This was a huge disappointment for Z.Z. Hill considering the quality of You Don’t Love Me.

It wasn’t until November 1964 that Z.Z. Hill returned to the studio, and cut four new sides. This included the two Z.Z. Hill compositions, including the soul-baring ballad Someone To Love Me which was released on Kent Records in 1965. Tucked away on the B-Side was the racy twelve-bar Have Mercy where Z.Z. Hill delivers a needy, pleading vocal. History repeated itself when Someone To Love Me failed commercially on its release.

Later in 1965, Z.Z. Hill returned with his third single for Kent Records, which featured another two of his compositions. This included Hey Little Girl which featured Oh Darlin’ on the B-Side. Both songs featured horns which added to the tougher sound that Z.Z. Hill was showcasing. However, it failed to find an audience and Z.Z. Hill’s third single for Kent Records sunk without trace.

By then, Kent Records had exhausted their supply of material by Z.Z. Hill, so once again sent him into the Western studio with arranger Maxwell Davis. That day, they cut four songs penned by Z.Z. Hill, including the uptempo dancer What More which featured the blues-tinged stomper That’s It on the B-Side. It’s a hidden gem and was too good to be consigned to a flip side. Maybe it would’ve fared better than What More which didn’t even trouble the lower reaches of the charts upon its release. 

For his final release of 1965, two Z.Z. Hill songs were chosen for his fifth single for Kent Records. The beautiful string drenched ballad Happiness Is All I Need where horns and punctuate the arrangement was chosen as the single. On the B-Side was Everybody Has To Cry another quality song which features an impassioned and emotive vocal could’ve been released as a single. However, Happiness Is All I Need got the nod, and was released as a single. Z.Z. Hill flew to Dallas to appear on the television show The !!! Beat, but even this publicity didn’t help sales Happiness Is All I Need. Just like previous singles, it failed to find and audience and Z.Z. Hill was zero from five.

As 1966 dawned, Z.Z. Hill had released five singles for Kent Records, and was no nearer making a breakthrough than the day he signed to the label. For his next single, Jules Bihari and Roscoe Gordon’s No More Doggin’ was chosen. It features a Motown inspired dance track whose ‘contemporary’ sound it was hoped would appeal to record buyers. Hidden away on the B-Side the Z.Z. Hill penned The Kind Of Love I Was which was a bluesier sounding track. Z.Z. Hill’s sixth single for Kent Records showcased the two sides of the Texan singer. Alas, ZZ Hill’s cover of No More Doggin’ was no more successful than his previous singles, and failed to chart.

Just a few weeks after No More Doggin’ failed to chart, Z.Z. Hill was back with his seventh single for Kent Records, I Found Love. It was penned by Z.Z. Hill and was one of his finest releases. He’s accompanied by backing vocals as he gives thanks for the love he’s found. On the B-Side was the shorter version of Aaron Collins’ uptempo Set Your Sights Higher. Backing vocals and horns accompany Z.Z. Hill on another of the hidden gems from his time at Kent Records. However, when I Found Love was released in 1966, it too failed commercially and things were getting serious for Z.Z. Hill.

By then, Z.Z. Hill had released  seven singles for Kent Records and none of these singles had troubled the charts. However, the Bihari brothers thought that their new producer, Richard Parker who had penned and produced a number of successful singers. The Bihari brothers believed that he could turn round Z.Z. Hill’s career. 

Richard Parker took Z.Z. Hill into the studio where they recorded the  Fred Hughes and Freeman King ballad You Can’t Hide A Heartache was recorded. For the B-Side Aaron Collins’ twelve bar stomper Gimme Gimme was chosen. When You Can’t Hide A Heartache was released on Kent Records in 1966, Z.Z. Hill, his producer and the label owners the Bihari brothers hoped that it would provide the Texan soul man with a hit single. Alas, it wasn’t to be and the search for a Z.Z. Hill’s first hit single for Kent Records continued.

After eight singles which failed to chart, the Bihari brothers might have been forgiven for reigning in the spending on Z.Z. Hill. After all, he wasn’t making Kent Records any money. Quite the opposite, with eight singles failing to even trouble the lower reaches of the charts. Despite that, the Bihari brothers decided to release Z.Z. Hill’s debut album.

Rather than send Z.Z. Hill into the studio to record fresh material, six of his first seven singles became The Soul Stirring Z.Z. Hill. Only No More Doggin’ and The Kind Of Love I Want were omitted from The Soul Stirring Z.Z. Hill when it was released in 1966. Sadly, it was a familiar story with The Soul Stirring Z.Z. Hill failed to find an audience. Following the commercial failure of The Soul Stirring Z.Z. Hill, it was  a year before the Texan soul man returned to the studio.

In January 1967, Z.Z. Hill headed to Custom Studios, in Culver City, where he met Mike Akopoff who was tasked with rescuing his career. By then, Z.Z. Hill desperately needed a hit single, and the song that was chosen was Allen Toussaint’s ballad Greatest Love. Z.Z. Hill sounds not unlike Ray Charles as he delivers a heartfelt, hopeful and needy vocal that is full of emotion. When it was released by Kent Records, Greatest Love started to sell well, and it looked like it was about to give ZZ Hill his first hit single in three years. However, distribution problems hampered the sales of  Greatest Love and Z.Z. Hill’s search for a hit single continued.

Just two months later, on the ‘16th’ of March 1967, Z.Z. Hill was back in  Custom Studios with Mike Akopoff, where he recorded two new tracks. The first was Jimmy Holiday, Jimmy Lewis and Cliff Chamber’s horn driven dancer Where She Att which would be his tenth single. On the B-Side was Z.Z. Hill’s Baby I’m Sorry where horns and harmonies play an important part in this irresistible dancer which could’ve been released as a single in April 1967. It stood a good chance of doing better than Where She Att which never came close to troubling the charts. Z.Z. Hill was zero for ten after three years at Kent-Modern Records.

When it came time for Z.Z. Hill to record his eleventh single, Jimmy Holiday, Jimmy Lewis and Cliff Chamber’s Everybody Needs Somebody was chosen. Singer-songwriter Jimmy Lewis even supplied a demo which Z.Z. Hill copied when he came to record his heart-wrenching cover of Everybody Needs Somebody. On the B-Side was Arthur Adams’ You Just Cheat And Lie which was a slick and hook-laden uptempo dancer. Later in 1967, Everybody Needs Somebody was released as a single, but this quality cut followed in the footsteps of its ten predecessors and failed to chart.

Despite his lack of success, the Bihari brothers hadn’t given up on Z.Z. Hill. They decided to book a week’s studio time in June 1967 where he recorded his sophomore album A Whole Of Soul. It was an album that featured cover versions of familiar songs, including many soul classics. This included David Porter and Isaac Hayes’ When Something Is Wrong With My Baby which joined Jimmy Hughes’ Steal Away, Toussaint McCall’s Nothing Takes The Place Of You, Deadric Malone’s You Gonna Make Me Cry, Wilson Pickett’s Midnight Hour, Bettye Swann’s Make Me Yours, Allen Toussaint’s Greatest Love and Sam Cooke’s You Send Me and Nothing Can Change The Love I Have For You. They were Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper’s Knock On Wood; Andrew Wright and Calvin Lewis’ When A Man Loves A Woman and Art Harris and Fred Jay’s What Am I Living For? These songs became A Whole Of Soul which was produced by Mike Akopoff. Could the album transform Z.Z. Hill’s fortunes?

Sadly, it wasn’t to be and A Whole Of Soul which is a hugely underrated album by Z.Z. Hill slipped under the musical radar when it was released by Kent Records later in 1967. Z.Z. Hill’s career was now at a crossroads.

After the release of A Whole Of Soul, Kent Records released What Am I Living For as Z.Z. Hill’s twelfth single in December 1967. It found Z.Z. Hill laying bare his soul as backing vocalists accompany him every step of the way. Tucked away on the B-Side was a powerful and poignant cover of Nothing Can Change This Love (I Have For You). Despite the quality of both songs, What Am I Living For failed to trouble the charts.

Just a month later, in January 1968, Z.Z. Hill released the ballad Nothing Can Change The Love I Have For You which featured another ballad Steal Away on the B-Side. Both songs featured Z.Z. Hill at his most soulful and he breathed meaning and emotion into the lyrics. However, Nothing Can Change The Love I Have For You passed record buyers by and it was a case unlucky thirteen for Z.Z. Hill.

Nothing more was heard of Z.Z. Hill until he released a cover of Arthur Adams and Larry Perrault’s You Got What I Need on Kent Records in September 1968. It was produced by Freddy DeMann was an uptempo track where strings and backing vocalists accompanied Z.Z. Hill’s needy vocal as his search for a hit continued. Sadly, the slick and contemporary sounding You Got What I Need failed commercially, and it was nearly the end of the road for Z.Z. Hill.

Three months later in December 1968, Z.Z. Hill was back with a cover of Tim Hardin’s Don’t Make Promises (You Can’t Keep). This was Z.Z. Hill’s fifteenth single for Kent Records which was once again, produced by Freddy DeMann. He again uses strings and backing vocalists who accompany Z.Z. Hill on his catchy single that should’ve charted. Alas, Don’t Make Promises (You Can’t Keep was the one that got away for Z.Z. Hill. Sadly, it was also Z.Z. Hill’s swan-song for Kent Records. 

After the release of Don’t Make Promises (You Can’t Keep, Z.Z. Hill left Kent Records after releasing fifteen singles, twelve B-Sides, two albums and ten bonus tracks on disc two. All this features on That’s It! The Complete Kent Recordings 1964-1968 which was recently released by Kent Soul, an imprint of Ace Records. That’s It! The Complete Kent Recordings 1964-1968 is the most comprehensive overview of Z.Z. Hill’s time at Kent Records.

Disc one features the fifteen singles Z.Z. Hill released on Kent Records and twelve singles. This includes the twelve tracks from his first seven singles which that became Z.Z. Hill’s debut album The Soul Stirring Z.Z. Hill. However, this is only half the story of Z.Z. Hill’s time  at Kent Records.

Then on disc two there’s Z.Z. Hill’s sophomore album A Whole Of Soul and ten bonus tracks. This includes two tracks from 1984 the ballad Please Take Me Back and I’m Gonna Love You made their debut on the Kent compilation Final Appearance. Eight years later, the ballad You Won’t Hurt No More which featured on The Down Home Soul Of Z.Z. Hill which was released by Kent Records in 1992. In 2000, You’ve Got Me Chained To Your Love and My Girl Has Gone Away featured on Southern Soul Brothers a Kent Soul complication that featured Clay Hammond and Z.Z. Hill. The other tracks on disc two are alternate versions of I Need Someone (To Love Me) and You Don’t Love Me which were released 1971, while If I Could Do It All Over, You Won’t Hurt No More and Nothing Can Change The Love I Have For You were released in 1972. All these tracks have been sweetened by adding strings to the original recording. In doing so, they transform these tracks which are a reminder of what was a golden era for Z.Z. Hill.

Despite consistently recording soul music of the highest quality, neither Z.Z. Hill’s fifteen singles, nor the two albums he released for Kent Records were a commercial success. This was ironic as the music Z.Z. Hill recorded at Kent Records was some of the finest of his career. During the seventies, thirteen of Z.Z. Hill’s singles charted in the US R&B charts and two in the US Billboard 100. 

This included Don’t Make Me Pay for His Mistakes which reached sixty-two in the US Billboard 100 and seventeen in the US R&B charts. However, when Kent Records decided to release I Need Someone (To Love Me), it reached eighty-six in the US Billboard 100 and thirty in the US R&B charts. After this, Z.Z. Hill’s singles charted in the US R&B charts, but most were minor hits, apart from Love Is So Good When You’re Stealing which reached fifteen in 1977. Sadly, Z.Z. Hill would only enjoy two more hit singles during his lifetime.

In 1982, Cheating in the Next Room reached nineteen in the US R&B charts, while Get A Little, Give A Little stalled at eighty-five in 1984. Sadly, on April the ’27th’ 1984 Z.Z. Hill passed away aged just forty-eight in Dallas, Texas. That day, soul and blues music lost a truly talented singer-songwriter who never enjoyed the commercial success and critical acclaim that his considerable talent deserved. That was despite Z.Z. Hill’s career spanning four decades. However, Z.Z. Hill released some of the best music of his career at Kent Records, during the golden period which is documented and celebrated on That’s It!The Complete Kent Recordings 1964-1968.

Z.Z. Hill-That’s It! The Complete Kent Recordings 1964-1968.

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