Z. Z. Hill

Daddy B. Nice's #5 ranked Southern Soul Forerunner

Portrait of Z. Z. Hill by Daddy B. Nice

"Love Is So Good When You're Stealing It"

Z. Z. Hill

Composed by Frank O. Johnson & Jimmy Lewis

In the 2003 song, "You Said It, No I Didn't(Lies)," a duet by the Love Doctor and Thomisene Anderson that very likely never would have been made if there had been no Z. Z. Hill to cultivate the musical landscape, there's a wonderful passage in which Thomisene is raging about the poor-country-boy characteristics of her boyfriend, whom she'd mistaken for more of an upwardly-mobile sort.

"You said your favorite singer
Was Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye.
Johnnie Taylor Jr., Z. Z. Hill
Is all I ever hear you play."

Note she says Johnnie Taylor Junior, not the crowd-pleasing giant of Southern Soul, Johnnie Taylor. The reference to JTJr. and Hill is meant to convey the somewhat seedy and impoverished (in her eyes) cultural world of the under-class.

To an outsider, this condescension looks more economic and cultural than musical. And indeed, talking about Z. Z. Hill affords the opportunity of addressing a topic that tends to get swept under the rug. Chitlin' circuit R&B has gotten very little respect and love from the greater African-American musical community, especially the industry professionals and aficionados of jazz, smooth jazz, "urban" R&B, hiphop/rap and even blues who could do so much to "open doors" for the music.

These influential (and upwardly-mobile) people are dismissive of Southern Soul and chitlin' circuit artists. Being sophisticated, they tend to keep their opinions to themselves, but if you scratch at them hard enough, they'll gripe that chitlin' circuit rhythm and blues focuses too much on "cheating"; it's too lewd ("Strokin'," "Candy Licker"); and most of all (if you scratch really hard), they'll tell you the music is embarrassing, a little too real (like the crazy uncle who insisted you sit on his lap, and gave the nieces underwear every year for Christmas), a reminder of down-home roots that best remain forgotten.

The moralistic strain continues to this very day, even within the Southern Soul community itself. Diatribes against artists who revel in R-rated sex and adultery pop up regularly on websites and in "write-your-own-review" sections of CD-selling sites. Consequently, the very themes that brought Z. Z. Hill success and fame are the very subjects that have drawn the most derision on the one hand (from the "sophisticated" secular world) and damnation on the other (from the "religious" and gospel world).

Add to this list of grievances the fact that Z. Z.'s music sounds dated, that at best the production has a fuzzy amiability, and that (while we're piling on) your Daddy B. Nice probably never would have become a fan of Southern Soul if he had been driving through Mississippi in the late 90's and only heard Z. Z. Hill singing "Down Home Blues" and "Cheatin' In The Next Room" (and never heard Johnnie Taylor singing "Big Head Hundreds" and "Soul Heaven"), and it all makes you wonder how Z. Z. Hill ever lured an audience in the first place, much less influenced every other Southern Soul musician on the planet.

But to say Hill's music sounds dated or compare it to music ("Big Head Hundreds") that not only built on it but came fifteen years later is hardly fair--because Hill's life was cut short. But that's the way it went down. And thus, in a musicial genre that practically defines the word "obscurity," Z. Z. Hill has been relegated to being the most obscure of Southern Soul masters.

A more valid comparison of the impact made by Hill's "Love Is So Good When You're Stealing It" and "Cheatin' In The Next Room" would be to Sam Cooke's "You Send Me," about which your Daddy B. Nice wrote:

"It's hard to convey the revolutionary impact of the recording. All of what the world now thinks of as "soul" has imitated its style, rendering the traits that made it unique little more than contemporary cliches."

Substitute the words "Southern Soul" and the same can be said for Z. Z. Hill's signature songs, which introduced a countrified blues, a pop-ized blues, a kind of slow-rocking, melodic blues to America's musical heritage.

It's important to realize that while artists make songs, it's the public who make hits. Z. Z. Hill created a lot of music on a lot of topics (his songwriters comprise a "Who's Who" of Southern Soul composers), but it was the Frank O. Johnson/Jimmy Lewis-written "Love Is So Good When You're Stealing It" that struck a chord with the public, and it was the fans who elevated it to hit status.

Every artist knows the difficulty of changing his or her artistic identity once a product--a hit record in this case--has won favor with the audience. The point is not that the artist necessarily wants to change. The point is that an artistic history has been created, and the record-buying public has as much of a share in the direction an artist's career path takes as the artist himself. If the artist diverges, and the public finds the path uninteresting, he disappears.

The legendary status accorded Z. Z. Hill in the formation of contemporary Southern Soul music is thus a record of what the public wanted, and the fact that Hill followed up "Love Is So Good When You're Stealing It" with hits like "Cheatin' In The Next Room" and "Three Into Two Won't Go" eliminates any doubt. What the public wanted from Z. Z. Hill (and by extension, all of Southern Soul) were songs about infidelity--people "on the edge."

At one time or another, every musician and songwriter has found himself marvelling at the near-impossibility of writing a good song about a happy marriage. Marriage isn't rocket science. We lash out at our spouses when we've been hurt. Once the trust is gone, the trouble signs appear--that's the fertile ground for songwriting (and novel-writing, movie-making, and every other art form).

The majority of married people are happily monogamous, but almost all married couples have gone through the rocky periods when affairs happen. Not only can they relate to it, they are riveted by it. So for certain pundits and segments of the musical community to continue to act as if Southern Soul music isn't there, and to excuse their disdain for the music on the grounds that it is sentimental or immoral is really kind of a cop-out.

This much is certain: if they truly examined the work of Z. Z. Hill (and by extension all of Southern Soul), they would find brilliant, deeply-felt portraits of the sheer trouble that adulterous love wreaks on the lives of otherwise mature and upstanding people.

In the George Jackson-written "Cheatin' In The Next Room," for example, Hill sings:

"But love is no longer there.
The woman of his heart no longer cares.
It's best to call it quits.
And go your separate ways.

Playing that cheating game
Only leads to heartache and pain,
And cause each other unhappy days."

Those words, coming after the sordid confession of the narrator's affair, constitute some of the most heart-breaking lyrics in 20th-century music.

In "Love Is So Good When You're Stealing It," Z.Z. sings:

"Is this any kind of way
For a man to live his life?
With a full-time woman
And a part-time wife?"

These are not superficial remarks. These are the gut-check, guilt-ridden, fully-sentient thoughts of a man seriously examining his own out-of-whack life.

In "Second Chance," Z. Z's cuckolded husband listens to his wife's act of contrition ("Z. Z., I'll do anything, and I'll promise anything. . . If you just forgive me. . . I ain't gonna do it no more.")

In a surprisingly calm and reflective response, Z. Z. replies:

"I gotta admit I still love you. I ain't about to deny that. And I'd probably be willing to give it another try, if I could just believe any part of what you're saying. I gotta admit we did have some good times together. Had a heap of laughs. Had a whole bunch of troubles, too. But somehow we made it. Nahhhh! Nah, baby, I can't do it. I ain't gonna chance it. You just ain't gonna do right. Forgive me, baby, it just ain't gonna work."

The fact is that "cheating" as expressed by Z. Z. Hill actually takes place on a much deeper, more three-dimensional level than people give it credit for. In a recent Southern Soul song, I've heard Hill's "Second Chance," dialogue from above boiled down to:

"You can't turn a 'ho (whore) into a housewife."

Pithy, but not exacty on the same level. The young soul musicians of today who are doing their own takes on the "cheating" theme and, as if it were a rite of passage, increasingly covering Z. Z. Hill material, need to remember that "cheating" is not a cliche. Not unless they make it one.

A "cheatin'" song doesn't have to be maudlin or guilt-ridden, but if it just's an exercise in imitation, if it's just art-about-art, if it's not based on some real life experience that entails a personal commitment on the part of the performer to the lyrics (see Bobby "Blue" Bland), it's not worth the studio time it took to record it. On the other hand, as long as a "cheating" song conveys the same passion and "real-life" feeling that Z. Z. Hill once gave to it, it will never have to beg for acceptance in your Daddy B. Nice's musical world.

--Daddy B. Nice

About Z. Z. Hill

In a state known for its musically-ground-breaking iconoclasts-- Bob Wills, Buddy Holly and, more recently, Mel Waiters, Erykah Badu and Patrick Green--the Naples-born Z. Z. Hill (1935) is arguably Texas's most distinguished musical pioneer. Brought up on gospel music--he matriculated with a group called the Spiritual Five--Hill followed his producer-brother Matt into secular music and released a series of singles in the early sixties.

In tandem with Matt (the M.H. label) and a succession of recording companies (Kent, Atlantic, Mankind, Unitied Artists), Z. Z. (born Arzell) notched a number of now-obscure hit singles through the sixties and early seventies, including presently out-of-print albums on Kent (Lot Of Soul, 1969, and Dues Paid In Full, 1971), Mankind (Brand New Z. Z. Hill, 1971), and United Artists (The Best Thing That's Happened To Me, 1972, and Keep On Loving You, 1975).

In the late seventies Hill signed with the prestigious Columbia label (onetime home to Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, etc.). If you want to know the musical milieu of the period, watch the John Travolta-starred/Bee Gee's-scored "Saturday Night Fever" or (for an even more accurate musical barometer) the 1976 Richard Pryor-starred/Norman Whitfield-scored "Car Wash" and meditate on the inner-city, disco euphoria and enthusiasm of the day.

Even Johnnie Taylor and Hill had the "fever." (Hill's dalliance in disco beats and arrangements can be sampled on many of the tracks on Let's Make A Deal, 1978, and The Mark Of Z. Z. Hill, 1979, both on Columbia.)

In the face of this maelstrom of percussion-dominated dance music, the appearance of Z. Z. Hill's "Love Is So Good When You're Stealing It," (Columbia, 1977), which became an R&B hit single (and Hill's biggest ever), was as momentous a development in the history of R&B as had been Ray Charles' hit single "I Can't Stop Loving You" fifteen years earlier. Both were songs that went against the grain, that flew in the face of the prevailing musical winds. Both were songs people at the time thought they didn't want to hear. And yet, just as the Charles song had been foreshadowed by "Georgia On My Mind" and other country-like Charles material, so too was Hill's "Love Is So Good When You're Stealing It" a logical next-step from previous Hill tunes like the little-noticed, Swamp Dogg-produced classic "Second Chance," which Hill had recorded way back in 1971.

Z. Z. Hill's "Love Is So Good..." never really dented the pop charts, but Hill was prescient enough to understand the impact the record had made with his "core" Southern Black audience--an audience hungry for contemporary blues--and he had the forsight and fortitude to take a giant step forward.

As it worked out, it was also a benchmark step in the evolution of today's rhythm and blues. Z. Z. Hill's five year (80-84) collaboration with Jackson, Mississippi's Malaco Records was the true beginning of what we now call "Southern Soul." What Hill had done before--what he had only "hinted at"--now exploded in an effusion of across-the-board musical excellence. Hill's blues swung and sounded great. The albums were packed with quality songs. In order, they were:
Z. Z. Hill (81),
Down Home (82),
The Rhythm & The Blues (82),
and I'm A Blues Man (83),
all printed by Tommy Couch's Malaco Records. Of the four, the two undisputed classics were Down Home and I'm A Blues Man.

Hill was felled by a heart attack in 1984--at the heighth of his powers. A number of posthumous records have been released, but these days you're more likely to hear echoes of Z. Z. Hill tunes or themes in a "branching-out" process from the Z. Z. Hill/Southern Soul genealogical tree. The influence is extensive. Thus, "Love Is So Good When You're Stealing It" and its opening lines, "Here we are, darling/At the Hideaway Inn," leads directly to Ronnie Lovejoy's classic, "Sho' Wasn't Me," and its opening lines, "Girl, you say your sister saw me/Coming out of the Holiday Inn." Which comes full circle with another generation in the supercharged version of "Love Is So Good When You're Stealing It" done by Rue Davis and young Patti Sterling, who growls and snaps like a reincarnated Della Reese.

Thus, you have Hill's "Cheatin' In The Next Room" flowing into "I've got a wife and a woman too/And I don't know what to to do" from the Carl Sims' classic, "Trapped," and from there to the younger generation in the form of T. K. Soul's "It Ain't Cheatin' (Until You Get Caught)."

These days you're more likely to hear a Z. Z Hill tune in a remake. Not only will you hear old masters like Little Milton (now also passed) rendering their own classics from Z. Z. Hill vehicles (Milton's "This Time They Told The Truth"). You'll also hear Southern Soul "young guns" like Vick Allen ("Who You Been Giving It To"), Delbert McClinton ("Givin' It Up For Your Love"), Rick Lawson ("She Was Cheatin' Better Than Me") and Eddie Seawood ("Shade Tree Mechanic") delivering updated takes on Hill tunes and themes. Meanwhile, Hill's "Down Home Blues," written by George Jackson, has become the default/generic rocker of the genre. What Kool & The Gang's "Celebration" is to disco, "Down Home Blues" is to Southern Soul.

Song's Transcendent Moment

"Here we are, darling,
Right back here again,
At the Hideaway Inn,
Same old room number ten."

If You Liked. . . You'll Love

If you loved Ray Charles' "I Can't Stop Loving You," you'll be beguiled by Z. Z. Hill's "Love Is So Good When You're Stealing It."


In the late nineties, when I first began to visualize a charting of Southern Soul music, my overriding motive was to correct what I perceived to be a grievous wrong. When I searched the Internet for information on the great artists I heard on radio stations on my trips through the South, I could find nothing about them. I was able to find information on blues and soul artists up to about the 1980's, but anything more contemporary was still a "dark continent"--unknown, unexplored and unmemorialized. Even "southern soul" was a suspect term, used mainly as an adjective to describe older artists geographically tied to the Deep South.

To help right that wrong, I went about constructing a Top 100 chart of the best Southern Soul artists from the 90's to the present, and I profiled those performers in "artist guides". But when I had finished that chart (Daddy B. Nice's Top 100), I again found myself faced with a wrong. This time the oversight was my lack of attention to the artists whose best material had been recorded prior to the 90's and 00's, artists without whom the Southern Soul phenomenon would never have occurred. Yes, one could find information on these performers on the Internet, but not up-to-date information, and not in the context of contemporary Southern Soul.

That is what brought me to formulate the chart you are reading: "Forerunners." Rhythm & Blues as it's played, appreciated and revered in the Deep South. The Golden Oldies of the Chitlin' Circuit. The artists who "count" and the songs that "matter" to the artists, producers and deejays who understand and create the Southern Soul sound. And that's different--although not altogether different--from the soul music many of us grew up listening to outside the Deep South. Although fans may be coming to this music long after it was first recorded, I believe it will only whet their appetite for Southern Soul music all the more. DBN.

Honorary "B" Side

"Cheatin' In The Next Room"

5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 
Sample or Buy Love Is So Good When You're Stealing It by Z. Z.  Hill
Love Is So Good When You're Stealing It

CD: Chitlin' Circuit Soul
Label: Rhino

Sample or Buy
Chitlin' Circuit Soul

5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 
Sample or Buy Cheatin' In The Next Room by Z. Z.  Hill
Cheatin' In The Next Room

CD: Down Home
Label: Malaco

Sample or Buy
Down Home

5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 
Sample or Buy Second Chance (Do You Believe You Deserve A) by Z. Z.  Hill
Second Chance (Do You Believe You Deserve A)

CD: Brand New Z.Z. Hill/Friend
Label: Ace (U.K.)

Sample or Buy
Brand New Z.Z. Hill/Friend

5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 5 Stars 
Sample or Buy Shade Tree Mechanic by Z. Z.  Hill
Shade Tree Mechanic

CD: I'm A Blues Man
Label: Malaco

Sample or Buy
I'm A Blues Man

4 Stars 4 Stars 4 Stars 4 Stars 
Sample or Buy Down Home Blues by Z. Z.  Hill
Down Home Blues

CD: Down Home
Label: Malaco

Sample or Buy
Down Home

4 Stars 4 Stars 4 Stars 4 Stars 
Sample or Buy I'm A Blues Man by Z. Z.  Hill
I'm A Blues Man

CD: I'm A Blues Man
Label: Malaco

Sample or Buy
I'm A Blues Man

4 Stars 4 Stars 4 Stars 4 Stars 
Sample or Buy This Time They Told The Truth by Z. Z.  Hill
This Time They Told The Truth

CD: This Time They Told The Truth
Label: Legacy

Sample or Buy
This Time They Told The Truth

3 Stars 3 Stars 3 Stars 
Sample or Buy Please Don't Let A Good Thing End by Z. Z.  Hill
Please Don't Let A Good Thing End

CD: Down Home
Label: Malaco

Sample or Buy
I'm A Blues Man

3 Stars 3 Stars 3 Stars 
Sample or Buy Three Into Two Won't Go by Z. Z.  Hill
Three Into Two Won't Go

CD: I'm A Blues Man
Label: Malaco

Sample or Buy
I'm A Blues Man

3 Stars 3 Stars 3 Stars 
Sample or Buy Who You Been Givin' It To by Z. Z.  Hill
Who You Been Givin' It To

CD: The Rhythm & The Blues
Label: Malaco

Sample or Buy
The Rhythm & Blues

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