J.D. Hill has been a blues musician in New Orleans for nearly 35 years. It hasn’t been easy, but the city is always the place Hill wants to be.
Serious illness, displacement after Hurricane Katrina, scarcity of gigs after the flood and more financial struggle, including the loss of his beloved home in the Musicians’ Village, made life with the blues hard. Hill may be one of those artists who gets labeled “legend,” but whatever that abused term means, it doesn’t mean rich.
The just-turned-60 singer and harmonica player takes consolation in his wealth of experiences. Hill performed with a golden gang of New Orleans greats: Dr. John, Deacon John Moore, Allen Toussaint, Cyril Neville, Jessie Hill, Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey and James Booker.
Even before he moved to New Orleans in 1981, Hill jammed with the pre-stardom Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan in Austin, Texas. In the past decade, too, he performed for presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter. And he made a cameo appearance in Harry Connick Jr.’s 2007 Lincoln SUV commercial.
“I guess I’ve been at the right place, at the right time, sometimes,” Hill said last week.
Saturday at The Willow, the Carrollton neighborhood venue formerly Jimmy’s Music Club, Hill will play his first official local gig since his Nov. 6 return to New Orleans. He’s back following 18 months in his hometown, Lockport, New York. Hill stayed with his brother, Joe, in Lockport while he received cancer treatment through the Veterans Health Administration.
“I’m not rich,” Hill said. “I’m far from rich. But my brother told me when I was up there, ‘Man, you can’t buy all of that, the things you done and the places you went.’ ”
The cancer diagnosis Hill received last year stopped work on his new album. He hopes to finish the recording now that’s he is back in town. He’ll perform some original songs he’s already recorded for the project Saturday at The Willow, a gig organized by veteran music club owner and promoter Jimmy Anselmo.
“J.D. is considered one of the best blues people alive,” Anselmo said.
“I sure appreciate it,” Hill said. “I ain’t dead yet.”
Not feeling well a few weeks ago, Hill didn’t attend the Nov. 20 visitation and musical tribute for Toussaint. In 1985, songwriter, producer and pianist Toussaint recruited Hill to help record the all-star New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness theme song, “Give Today for Tomorrow.” Hill also performed for one of NOAAHH’s inaugural benefit concerts.
In the early 1990s, Toussaint, in his producer’s role, called Hill again, to help record an album by the Hard Pack. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.’s cartoon mascot, Joe Camel, inspired the creation of the imaginary blues band composed of camels. But in 1997, following years of criticism that Joe Camel encouraged underage smoking, Reynolds dropped the character from its ads and merchandise.
After Hill’s move to New Orleans from Austin in 1981, he quickly joined the local scene. Hill worked with his band, the Jammers, and often appeared with Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack, and Moore. He’s featured on Moore’s in-concert album “Live at the 1994 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.”
“I came for a visit and never left,” Hill said.
“Somebody in Austin said, ‘You ought to check out New Orleans. With the music you’re playing, you have a better chance there.’ ”