By day Willie Hill is an affable, soft-spoken merchant who runs a dry cleaning business in Pine Lake. He takes in soiled garments, oversees the process of getting them cleaned and pressed, and returns clothing and household goods to their owners.
However when night falls, particularly on the weekends, Willie Hill undergoes a transformation. Standing in a spotlight with a microphone in his hand, Hill changes into a dynamic R&B singer who intimately knows how to work a room. Affable gives way to charismatic. Gone are the blue jeans and nondescript shirt; Hill may appear in an electric blue suit with a dusting of sequins and rhinestones on his sleeves and shoulders.
And Hill, 64, belts out song after song in a powerful, sultry voice backed by a four-piece band of guys he’s been playing with for years.
One night while working the small lounge at the Take 2 International Bistro on Rockbridge Road—directly across the street from his dry cleaning business—Hill worked that room like it was a major venue—weaving his way up and down the narrow aisle, getting face to face with one female patron here, crooning to another over there. The audience loved it, demonstrated by their applause, howls and shouts of “all right!”
Hill is a seasoned professional at all this.
He got his start back when he was a boy growing up in Albany. His father, Homer Hill, was a gospel pianist and vocalist; and son learned at his father’s knee. Singing in church gave way to singing on the road with his dad.
“I just kinda picked it up naturally,” said Hill of his start.
While in the military during the ‘60s he ventured into secular music–the blues, acid rock and R&B. Eventually he landed a three-year tour of Europe with the Sounds of Soul. Through the years, Hill has performed with artists such as B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and others. Recording contracts followed with affiliations with artists such as Isaac Hayes, Steve Cropper, Booker T & the MGs, and he proudly points out that he co-founded and produced K.C. and the Sunshine Band. With singer Anthony Fontaine, Hill released three albums: Grooving on Sunday Afternoon, Selfish Lover and In a Mellow Mood. And in recent years he’s toured the South with Millie Jackson, Candy Staton and others.
However despite that success, Hill is now without the fortune he once amassed.
“Money came and went,” he said, noting that in 1981 he was worth $2.6 million. He admits he was ignorant and naïve in his earlier days, signing contracts without lawyers and operating without accountants. Then the IRS came calling for back-due taxes.
“I made a lot of mistakes,” said Hill.
However, he harbors no ill-will toward current artists and their lucrative deals. In fact, he’s pleased to see hip hop artists and others building empires much more independently and controlling their careers in a way that wasn’t possible during his prime, he said.
Hill uses his rage-to-riches/riches-to-rags experience to counsel three of his four sons who are in the music industry as well as youth hopeful for music careers. Two pieces of advice he offers are: