|Grady Champion wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter by opening his latest release with ‘Down Home Blues,’ a song that has been called the best-known blues song of the 1980s. Champion’s 11th album, “Steppin’ In,” is a loving tribute to fellow Malaco Records’ recording artist, the late great Z.Z. Hill, who is best known for his recordings in the 1970s and early 1980s, including his 1982 album for the label, “Down Home,” which stayed on the Billboard soul album chart for nearly two years. Champion is a torch bearer for the combination of authentic Mississippi blues and contemporary soul styling devised by Z.Z. Hill that helped to restore the blues to modern black consciousness.
The collection of a dozen specially chosen tracks was recorded in Jackson, Mississippi with Champion backed by his veteran road band of guitarist Will Wesley, Frederick Demby Sr. on bass, Sam Brady on keys and Edward Rayshad Smith on drums, for that gritty live in the room feel. Special guests include fellow IBC winner Eddie Cotton, The Jackson Horns and home girls Jewel Bass and Lahlah Devine suppling the backing vocals. The group gives ‘Shade Tree Mechanic,’ from Hill’s 1983 album, “I’m A Blues Man,” the full Wang Dang Doodle treatment by swinging the riff a bit more and, of course, adding Champion’s vaunted blues harp. The Jackson Horns join the party on the classic blues of tough love ‘Someone Else Is Steppin’ In,’ providing melodic flourishes under Champion’s pleading vocal. Cotton brings in his guitar to join Grady’s call for the band slow down on the heavy-duty track ‘Bump And Grind,’ so he can get on the dance floor with the girls like his hero used to do. Grady then steps right into Z.Z. Hill’s shoes for the autobiographic ‘I’m A Blues Man,’ perfectly replicating his every move.
Wesley’s lead guitar shines on the tale of a man done wrong ‘Open House At My House,’ and another soul blues prototype from Hill’s 1982 album, “The Rhythm And The Blues,” ‘Who You Been Giving It To,’ is covered with detailed loving care. The horn fueled ‘Three Into Two Won’t Go,’ is a sweet bit of Memphis Soul, and the collection would not be complete without Hill’s first hit for the Malaco label ‘Cheating In The Next Room.’ The hymn of endless devotion, ‘Right Arm For Your Love,’ is delivered with new energy and Cotton fires off the opening lead line to another signature track from “Down Home,” the fiery blues ’Everybody Knows About My Good Thing.’ Texas blues and soul singer/songwriter Bobby Patterson wrote ‘When It Rains It Pours’ for Hill in 1982 not knowing the world would lose him just two short years later. Champion closes the set delivering this prophetic deep cut with reverence and fortitude.
Champion dedicates the album to Hill’s biggest fan, his own mother Jerry Dean Champion, who schooled him in the artistry of her favorite bluesman by playing the records of Z.Z. Hill on their farm in Canton, Mississippi. The youngest of 28 children, Grady Champion has had many teachers and mentors in his life and with “Steppin’ In” he pays tribute to the two closest to his heart.
Rick J Bowen
Grady Champion was born October 10, 1969 and grew up on a farm in Canton, MS within a religious household. The youngest of his father’s 28 children, he joined his church choir at the age of eight and realized his passion for music. When he was 15, he and his family moved to Miami, FL, but he only attended high school there for a year before moving back to Mississippi to graduate.
Grady returned to Florida at the age of 18 and started in the music industry as a promoter for the rap label Sun Town Records. By the early 90s he embarked on a brief career as a rapper, performing under the moniker MC Gold. However, he soon discovered that he had a natural talent for the blues, and he incorporated hip-hop into blues music. At the age of 24, he worked for FJH Music, owner Frank J. Hackinson, once President of Columbia Pictures, for five years, learning the “ins” and “outs” of the music business as he worked to build his career as an entertainer/musician. In 1998, after learning to play the harmonica, Grady self-released his first blues project, “Goin’ Back Home.”
Champion enjoyed performing at blues clubs all over Florida and was quickly scooped up by Shanachie Records that released “Payin’ For My Sins” (1999) and “2 Days Short Of A Week” (2001). In 2003, Champion’s song, co-written with Kevin Bowe, entitled ‘Trust Yourself’ was included on Etta James’ “Let’s Roll” album that won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album and a Blues Music Award for Soul/Blues Album of the Year. “Back In Mississippi: Live At The 930 Blues Café” followed in 2008, released on Grady’s own GSM Music Group imprint. In 2010, he won the International Blues Challenge, enabling him to expand his regular tour itinerary to include most of the U.S., Canada, and Europe. He has since played the Chicago Blues Festival, the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, and the Portland Waterfront Blues Festival.
In 2011, Champion released “Dreamin’” that was nominated for two 2012 Blues Music Awards – Best Soul Blues Album and Song of the Year for ‘Thank You for Giving Me the Blues.’ The song ‘Make That Monkey Jump’ won a Blues Critic Award in the Best Down Home Blues Song category. In 2013 Grady released “Tough Times Don’t Last” on his own Grady Shady Music imprint.
Champion signed to the legendary Malaco Records, headquartered in Jackson, MS, in 2013 and his first full-length release, “Bootleg Whiskey,” was released the following year. In 2016 Malaco released his sophomore recording with the label, “One Of A Kind.”
“I play what I feel,” says Grady Champion, whose socially conscious lyrics and inspiring live performances have earned him a 2014 cover story in Living Blues magazine. His appeal has crossed over between predominantly white fans of traditional blues and predominantly black soul-blues fans. “I think blues has a bright future…. You just gotta be able to hang in the game.”