Grady Champion – Steppin’ In – A Tribute To ZZ Hill
Malaco Records – 2019
12 tracks; 45 minutes
Since he won the IBC in 2010 Grady Champion has kept busy, setting up his own D Champ label and releasing albums regularly, most recently on Malaco, this tribute album being his third on the label. Grady covers twelve songs associated with the late ZZ Hill who was at the peak of his powers when he passed away in 1984, aged just 49. One of the great soul-blues singers, ZZ Hill remains hugely popular with African-Americans and his music is still played in the clubs and bars of the Southern states, as well as being covered by many working bands on the circuit.
Grady handles all lead vocals and harp, with a rhythm section of Frederick Demby Sr on bass and Edward Rayshead Smith on drums/B/Vs, Will Wesley on guitar, Sam Brady on keys and Jewel Bass and Lahlah Devine on B/Vs; The Jackson Horns (Kimble Funchess and David N Ware on trumpets, Dr Jessie Primer III on tenor sax and Steve Kincaid on baritone) appear on several tracks. Eddie Cotton (a regular collaborator with Grady) adds guitar to two tracks.
George Jackson wrote many songs for Malaco artists and his “Down Home Blues” was a huge hit for ZZ just before his death and remains a frequently played and covered song. Grady plays it pretty straight and his gritty vocals work well, aided by some fine backing vocals, great organ work and snappy guitar fills. A second Jackson song from George here is “Cheating In The Next Room” (a co-write with Robert Miller), one of those classic cheating songs with a lovely horn and organ arrangement which brings the very best out of Grady’s vocals. Pairs of songs seems to be a theme here as Bobby Patterson provides the naggingly catchy blues of “When It Rains It Pours” and (with Jerry Strickland) “Open House At My House” which features Grady’s harp work on one of those songs in which the singer grows increasingly suspicious of what his woman is doing when he is out.
The trio of Walter Godbold, AD Prestage and Joseph M Shamwell supplies the excellent “I’m A Blues Man” with its terrific horn chart and the suggestive “Shade Tree Mechanic” and Miles Grayson wrote the uptempo “Who You Been Giving It To” and “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing” (with Lermon Horton) which features some great guitar from Eddie Cotton. Eddie also plays on BT Lexing’s “Bump And Grind”, another big number for ZZ on which Grady plays strong harp and delivers the lyrics with relish: “You see I want to grab one of these pretty girls, then slow drag her across the floor, do like ZZ used to do back in 1984”.
Denise LaSalle’s “Someone Else Is Steppin’ In” has been covered by many, including Denise herself, Buddy Guy, Magic Slim and Johnnie Taylor, but ZZ had the first recording back in 1982. Grady’s version bears comparison to those illustrious predecessors with strong backing vocals and horn fills to beef up the chorus. Two of the less well-known songs here are Jerry Williams’ “Right Arm For Your Love” which includes some lovely guitar tones from Will Wesley and Jimmy Lewis and Richard Cason’s (probably best known for collaborations with Ray Charles) “Three Into Two Won’t Go”; both songs feature striking horn arrangements.
As with most tribute albums, the success can be judged by whether the disc makes you go back and listen to the originals. Grady’s disc did that for this reviewer and is recommended to fans of soul-blues music.