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Raymond Hill: Remembering Clarksdale’s Unsung Reed Man

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"Blow your horn, Raymond! Blow!" If you're a fan of rock-and-roll, you've heard those words, yelled by Jackie Brenston during the solo on the groundbreaking track, "Rocket 88." Many regard it as the first rock-and-roll record, combining car-crazy fun — it celebrates swigging booze while cruising around in an Oldsmobile Rocket Hydra-Matic 88 — with the distortion of guitarist Willie Kizart's amp.

Hill’s “Going Down” from High Water Records - COURTESY BLUE T.O.M. RECORDS
  • Courtesy Blue T.O.M. Records
  • Hill’s “Going Down” from High Water Records

Whether that tag's deserved or not, the song played a pivotal role in the genre's ascendance, being the first hit recorded at Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Company and one of the biggest R&B records of 1951. What a break for Ike Turner's band, the Kings of Rhythm, for whom Brenston sang and played saxophone. And what a moment for Raymond, the superior reed man, bringing what Nick Tosches called his "post-melodic saxophone shriekings."

And yet, as a friend recently queried, "Who is this Raymond?" As it turns out, it was Raymond Hill, who, like Turner and most of his band, grew up around Clarksdale, Mississippi. Now, with the 70th anniversary of the "Rocket 88" recording session only two weeks away, on March 3rd, Hill's life is especially ripe for celebration this Black History Month. "He's an unsung hero of Black music," notes Dr. David Evans, who taught ethnomusicology at the University of Memphis for decades, and recorded Hill for the first 45 to be released on U of M's High Water Records in 1979. For once, that isn't an overstatement.

Raymond (left) and Lillie Hill - COURTESY CHERYL THURBER
  • Courtesy Cheryl Thurber
  • Raymond (left) and Lillie Hill

“Rocket 88” was only the beginning. Hill's work turns up two years later on the great Junior Parker track, “Mystery Train,” one of Sun Records' finest moments. And in 1960 he may have appeared on another milestone recording, the brilliant, oft-covered “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” by Jessie Hill (no relation), now considered a cornerstone of New Orleans R&B. Raymond Hill must have been making that journey south fairly often: One of his rare solo singles on Sun was “Bourbon Street Jump.” Although Evans is skeptical that it's Hill, Jessie Hill does shout “Spread your fingers, Raymond!" on the single's instrumental “Part 2,” a veritable showcase for the sax player.

Back then, the sax was king, and Raymond Hill brought the big tone. "He said Gene Ammons was his big idol," says Evans, who interviewed Hill while recording the High Water single. "He emulated that honking sax sound." Evans notes that Hill was also a DJ on Clarksdale's WROX, playing live on the air with a small combo. No wonder the Clarksdale Press Register dubbed him the "chief of the hepcats" back in the day.

He fell in with Ike Turner when he was 15 and was still in high school when "Rocket 88" launched Turner's band out of its local orbit. Through the early '50s, Hill recorded more tracks for Phillips, even starring as a vocalist on "I'm Back Pretty Baby." Two instrumental tracks were actually released by Sun at the time, including "The Snuggle."

In 1955, he rejoined Turner's Kings of Rhythm, now based in St. Louis. As Tosches notes, singer Jimmy Thomas "remembered Brenston and tenor sax player Raymond Hill being more or less drunk throughout the late Fifties, even though Turner fined them for drinking." Perhaps that was why Hill eventually left, or perhaps it was because Turner had his own plans for the band's young singer, Anna Mae Bullock, with whom Hill had a romance and a child in 1958. Ms. Bullock, of course, would come to be Mrs. Tina Turner, but by then Hill had moved on.

After touring with Albert King through most of the '60s, Hill eventually settled down in Clarksdale by the decade's end, and that's where he lived when Evans recorded him, this time playing guitar (with saxophone overdubs) and accompanying his wife Lillie. And that's where he passed away in 1996. "He was a very mild mannered guy, a real nice guy," recalls Evans. "And he was in the thick of it from an early age."

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