The Things That Are Real (Watertime)
Playing 7 p.m. Jan. 15 at Bellevue Community Church w/Michelle Wright, Duane Jarvis and Ian Crockett
6:30-8:30 p.m. Jan. 16 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers
9 p.m. Jan. 21 w/Becky Hobbs, Sandy Mason and Kacey Jones at an Alive Hospice benefit at Bluebird Cafe
Benita Hill sightings are rare these daysrarer, at least, than 15 or so years ago, when she held court at Mère Bulles and The Merchants as the city’s top jazz chanteuse. Or, before that, when, as one of Two Desperate Women, she and Pam Wolfe did cabaret and comedy around town.
Eventually, though, Hill scaled back. Her responsibilities as a single mother, her shift of energy to songwriting andone week after Garth Brooks cut her “Two Piña Coladas” (co-written with Shawn Camp and Sandy Mason)the news that she had developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma pulled her off the stage and into a more private place.
Credit faith and chemotherapy for her survival, though the fact that Hill has kept recording and playing the occasional show owes mostly to her grit. But what’s to explain her latest release, The Things That Are Real? For those accustomed to Hill’s sultry, swinging music, this album, which is highlighted by dramatic, inspirational ballads that combine low-key production with showstopper choruses, suggests American Idol more than the Great American Songbook.
At her home studio, perched in the director’s chair once reserved for Harlan Howard at BMI, Hill laughs and agrees with the observation. “This was a personal album,” she says. “I wanted to present these songs in the most minimal way, by doing it myself here at my home, because they represent my soul journey. It was important that they come out naturally rather than arranged into some sort of style that people might identify with me.”
Regardless of style, Things reflects Hill’s artistic reach more fully than any of her three previous CDs, all of them available on her Watermark label. Up to this point, her songs have been strongly crafted, yet transferable enough to be picked up by Brooks, Billy Joe Royal, Billy “Crash” Craddockpretty much anyone who could recognize and carry a worthy tune. Not so with Things, on which Hill delivers messages so personal that it might smack of presumptuousness for anyone else to adopt them.
“It wasn’t anything that I planned out in advance,” she says. “It’s just that I’m older, I’m middle-aged and I think of things now in more universal terms than whether my music is going to be commercially accepted. It’s about being content with who you are when you reach a certain time in your life, not about trying to please anybody. But that doesn’t mean these songs don’t have broad appeal.... I’ve already had women anywhere from 30 to 65 tell me they can relate a lot to what these songs say.”
In other words, the Oprah demographic, that big slice of the pie represented by women who are moving from one set of self-images to another. Hill knows that diaspora well, though her own route has been far from typical. Her earliest memories are of stage outfits, show tunes and adults who, like her mothera headliner at Chicago’s famous Aragon Ballroomlived within a swirl of show-biz glitz. Shades of those days now lie inside a box tucked away in Hill’s studio.
“This is my mother,” she says, dusting off a black-and-white glamour shot captioned with the name Carmen Revelle. The look is nightclub exotic, appropriate to the days of swank society and swizzle sticks. Other photos follow, all of them autographed. From Lena Horne, “To Carmen, with all the best to you.” Ted Lewis signed his, “To Carmena swell girl.” A reference from Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to some forgotten party draws another laugh. “What do you think that’s supposed to mean?”
These images were already fading in the early ’50s, as Hill’s mother eased away from the spotlights and the bandstands to raise her daughter. Even so, Benita began to sing, and with that came a stream of wedding gigs, coffeehouse stages, pilgrimages to swinging London, originals that caught Owen Bradley’s attention and a rock ’n’ roll odyssey that included a tour with the Allman Brothers. All of which contributed to the emergence of a complex identity that allowed Hill to sing down-home backup for the likes of Conway Twitty and Waylon Jennings and then to peel into a slinky gown and long white gloves for a supper club serving of Gershwin.
Hill’s new album brings these elements together. “As a singer, I’m at home with jazz,” she explains. “That’s where my voice is most comfortable. But I think of myself as a songwriter first, which is how I approached this album. The songs were more important to me than the arrangements.... I’m not a great jazz player, but I can develop my ideas well at a simpler level, so I wanted to push those limits and see how far I could go with doing most of it on my own. It was like Woman Against Machine, but with help from Gene Eichelberger, who mastered all of my albums, I’ve learned how to get the best sound out of the equipment in my studio.”
For Hill, taking controlaside from contributions made by guitarist Chris Leuzinger and Hill’s regular keyboardist, Kevin Madillfits right in with the theme of the project. This metaphor is beyond reproach: Few would argue that it’s better to avoid challenges than to deal with them. As music, though, Things is something of a challenge itself. It’s not easy to go from the hip, bluesy Benita of her first album Fan the Flame, or the hearthside purr of her holiday disc Winter Fire and Snow, to the holy Helen Reddy-ness of “I Am a Woman of Power” (“ ’cause I draw my strength from the Lord”). Or to the bravura of “You Forgot That I Could Fly,” the tagline of which, “to be honest, so did I,” is as inevitable as it is honest.
But Hill hasn’t abandoned jazz. “I’m writing all the time, and I have some wonderful new jazz things that I’m going to include on my next album,” she assures. “But I would hope that everything I write is universal enough to transcend any category. It was tough to struggle for survival. I’m not doing that anymore, and I’m really grateful for that. It’s just taken me a while to realize how blessed I am and to find a way to put that into my music.”
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