He began his singing career in the late 1950s as part of a gospel group called The Spiritual Five. In 1964, he moved to California and recorded “You Were Wrong” on his brother’s M.H. record label. In 1971, he recorded the hits “Faithful & True” and “Chokin’ Kind” in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. One of ZZ’s biggest selling hits came while signed to Columbia, “Love Is So Good When You’re Stealing It,” which spent 18 weeks on the Billboard R&B chart in the summer of 1977. His 1982 album, ‘Down Home’, stayed on the Billboard soul album chart for nearly two years. The track “Down Home Blues” has been called the best-known blues song of the 1980s. This track plus his songs “Taxi”, “Someone Else Is Steppin’ In”, and “Open House” have become R&B/Southern soul standards.
Hill managed to resuscitate both his own semi-flagging career and the entire genre at large when he signed on at Jackson, MS-based Malaco Records in 1980 and began growling his way through some of the most uncompromising blues to be unleashed on black radio stations in many a moon. His impressive 1982 Malaco album Down Home Blues remained on Billboard’s soul album charts for nearly two years, an extraordinary run for such a blatantly bluesy LP. His songs “Down Home Blues” and “Somebody Else Is Steppin’ In” have graduated into the ranks of legitimate blues standards (and few of those have come along over the last couple of decades). Arzell Hill started out singing gospel with a quintet called the Spiritual Five, but the output of B.B. King, Bobby Bland, and especially Sam Cooke made a more indelible mark on his approach. He began gigging around Dallas, fashioning his distinctive initials after those of B.B. King. When his older brother Matt Hill (a budding record producer with his own label, M.H.) invited Z.Z. to go west to Southern California, the young singer did.
His debut single on M.H., the gutsy shuffle “You Were Wrong” (recorded in an L.A. garage studio), showed up on the pop chart for a week in 1964. With such a relatively successful showing his first time out, Hill’s fine subsequent singles for the Bihari Brothers’ Kent logo should have been even bigger. But “I Need Someone (To Love Me),” “Happiness Is All I Need,” and a raft of other deserving Kent 45s (many produced and arranged by Maxwell Davis) went nowhere commercially for the singer. Excellent singles for Atlantic, Mankind, and Hill (another imprint operated by brother Matt, who served as Z.Z.’s producer for much of his career) preceded a 1972 hookup with United Artists that resulted in three albums and six R&B chart singles over the next couple of years. From there, Z.Z. moved on to Columbia, where his 1977 single “Love Is So Good When You’re Stealing It” became his biggest-selling hit of all. But Hill’s vocal grit was never more effective than on his blues-soaked Malaco output.
From 1980 until 1984, when he died suddenly of a heart attack, Z.Z. bravely led a personal back-to-the-blues campaign that doubtless helped to fuel the subsequent contemporary blues boom. It’s a shame he couldn’t stick around to see it blossom.
While touring in February 1984, Hill was involved in a car accident. Although he continued to perform, he died two months later on April 28, 1984 at the age of 48, from a heart attack arising from a blood clot formed after the accident. He was 48.