The Story and Music of Jessie Hill


Introduction to Jessie Hill

Jessie Hill (1932-1996) was an American singer-songwriter, performing in R&B and Louisiana blues. The New Orleans-born Hill was previously a member of the House Rockets, whose reformation permitted him to be the lead vocalist. His only hit was “Ooh Poo Pah Doo”, which rose to The Top 40 pop chart and Top 10 R&B chart during the early 60s music era. His following recordings, however, became less successful, and he moved to California to try his luck. There, he met some musicians like Harold Battiste and Mack Rebennack, and upon their exhortation, Hill agreed to put his singing career on hold and concentrate on songwriting. He penned tunes that were later recorded by Ike and Tina Turner, Willie Nelson (whom Hill even wrote material with) and Sonny and Cher. However, his 1972 solo album was a flop, and Hill started to experience personal and financial distress, only made worse by his excessive drinking. Returning to New Orleans in 1977, his problems only followed him there. Despite benefit gigs held in his honor, these did little to save him from his personal and financial troubles. He died in 1996 of heart failure, aged 63.

Short career summary of Jessie Hill

American R&B and singer songwriter Jessie Hill was born on December 9, 1932 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Hill helped define Louisiana music (specifically Louisiana blues) during the early 1950’s. When he was young, he started as drummer for some local bands and by 1951, he formed his own group called the House Rockers which only lasted for a year. Later, Hill worked as drummer with Guitar Slim, Professor Longhair and Huey “Piano” Smith.” In 1958,  Hill re-formed the House Rockers and by this time, he left the drumming duties and became the band’s lead vocalist.

“Ooh Poo Pah Doo”

The song “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” originated from a tune written by a  local pianist known as Big Four. Hill added lyrics, melody and finally an intro taken from Dave Bartholomew (who was known with his work with Fats Domino). In 1959, Hill was offered a recording contract by Minit Records’ head Joe Banashak. From there, he recorded and released “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” in the winter of 1960. Produced by Allen Toussaint, the single became Hill’s breakthrough hit. It peaked at #5 on the R&B and #30 on the Billboard Hot 100. The record sold 800,000 copies and it also became a standard during Mardi Gras festivals.

Hill going downhill

Shortly thereafter, Hill released another single “Whip It on Me.” It only stayed for a week placing at #91 on the pop chart. Hill released several other singles on Minit but none of them charted; he then left Minit in 1962. Shortly after he left the label, Hill relocated to Los Angeles, California where he met some musicians like Harold Battiste and Mack Rebennack who told him to become a songwriter instead. Since then, he had been writing songs for other artists such as Ike and Tina Turner, Iron Butterfly, Willie Nelson and Sonny & Cher.

In 1972, Hill attempted to get back on the charts by releasing a solo album. Recorded on Blue Thumb label with the carrier single “Naturally,” it failed to sell. Experiencing financial troubles, he started abusing himself with alcohol and narcotics. In 1977, Hill came back to his native place to find his luck musically and financially. He even drove his own taxi to make ends meet. There was even a point in his life he became homeless. Several benefit gigs had been organized to help him recover from his misfortunes. On September 19, 1996 in New Orleans, Jessie Hill succumbed to heart and kidney failure. He was 63 years old.

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