Still Burning 

Hill not discouraged by problems

Hill not discouraged by problems

Nashville songwriter and vocalist Benita Hill doesn’t get too discouraged by the heartaches and problems she has encountered trying to forge a career in the music business. After all, when you’ve overcome cancer, life’s daily challenges just don’t seem so daunting.

”I view what’s happened with me in the last year as a miracle,“ Hill says. ”I’d been working out here for 18 years, and I didn’t know if anything would ever really hit big for me. Then when the cancer came, I was like, 'What else?’ But it proved to really be a good break, if that makes any sense. The outpouring of love from the Nashville music community was incredible; it really makes you feel good to know that there are that many people who care about you.“

Now, Hill says, things are beginning to take off for her. She cowrote two songs on Garth Brooks’ latest album, Sevens, and the single ”Two Piña Coladas“ has a tentative release date in the spring. The subsequent publicity has also rekindled interest in her recent CD, Fan the Flame, which demonstrates her ease with everything from the bluesy ”Take the Keys to My Heart“ to a jazzy update of the Patsy Cline hit ”Walkin’ After Midnight.“ The disc also contains a superb interpretation of Fred Koller and John Hiatt’s ”Angel Eyes,“ which was a sizable hit by Jeff Healey.

Hill, who’ll be appearing Tuesday at The Sutler in a concert sponsored by the Tennessee Jazz & Blues Society, has always nurtured eclectic musical tastes. She cites as her inspiration a pantheon of classic singers, among them jazz immortals Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, and Anita O’Day, bluesman Bobby ”Blue“ Bland, and pop icons Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand. The daughter of Carmen Revelle, a former big band singer who performed live on NBC radio during the late ’40s and ’50s, Hill got an early education in jazz. After graduating from high school in Elmhurst, Ill., she moved to Nashville in 1979. Here, she met legendary country producer Owen Bradley, who prompted her to pursue a career in the music business. ”Once Mr. Bradley told me that he liked the songs I was writing, that was enough encouragement for me,“ Hill says.

Things went smoothly for a while. She signed with Polygram in 1987 but got a harsh dose of record-company politics after the label released the single ”You Make It Hard to Say No.“ The company went through an overnight change of administration—which meant she was right back where she started, with no contract and no prospects. ”I didn’t know anything about the business until that happened,“ she confesses.

Hill shifted her focus to writing and spent time singing in local clubs. Her adaptability served her well during professional stints as a background vocalist for Conway Twitty, J.J. Cale, and the Allman Brothers; perversely, it was her time with the Allmans that helped cement her desire to sing jazz. ”When you’re shouting over those huge amplifiers and all that noise and losing your hearing, then you start thinking about maybe doing something else,“ she says.

Throughout her years in Nashville, Hill’s resiliency has allowed her to keep going, regardless of the setbacks. Her cancer is now in remission, and she speaks with gratitude and excitement about upcoming prospects. And as for all the negative publicity about Brooks, Hill won’t have any of it. ”It said wonders about Garth that he didn’t look at labels when he heard my record,“ she says. ”He just heard music, and he picked two songs that you wouldn’t necessarily think he’d even notice.“

Likewise, she describes the current atmosphere for jazz in Nashville as ”better than it’s been in a long time. There are more places today where you can go and hear jazz, and more places where you can play and work. I think there’s a growing audience here for jazz and for jazz artists.“ Hill’s show Tuesday night begins at 7:30 p.m. She’ll be backed by pianist Kevin Madill, bassist Mike Webber, saxophonist Rock Williams, and drummer Kenny Malone.

Clear as a Bell

The recent death of Junior Wells underscores the fact that only a handful of blues harmonica greats are still active. On that short list is the fiery Carey Bell, who appears Tuesday night at the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar. Best known for a shattering, exuberant style that incorporates yells and trills, Bell was an accomplished player by the age of 12, when he came to Chicago in the mid-’40s with his father.

Bell first broke in as a bassist with some of Chicago’s finest groups, including one led by ”Big“ Walter Horton. During his stint with Horton, the bandleader tutored him on harmonica, showing him some of the tricks that have since become part of Bell’s repertoire, particularly splintering upper-register lines and shimmering overtones. Bell also played some electric guitar and occasional drums, but by the early ’60s he was known for his harmonica work.

All of which is to say, the man has chops. In addition to dates with everyone from Horton to Muddy Waters, Bell has recorded several classic releases of his own for Delmark, Alligator, and Blind Pig. He remains an active performer today. He has a brand-new release on Alligator, and he continues to tour the country with his son Lurie. For more information about Tuesday’s show, call 24-BLUES.


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