17 Aug 2011
Hazel Dickens has been performing the music of her birthplace, the hills of West Virginia, for nearly six decades. Born June 1, 1935, near Montcalm, in Mercer County, Hazel Jane Dickens was the eighth of 11 children. Her childhood was dominated by the coalmines. Her father delivered timber to the mines for a living, while several brothers worked down in them (one would later die of “black lung disease,” providing sad, first-hand knowledge for her song “Black Lung”).
Her father was also a minister in the Primitive Baptist Church, a branch of Baptist known for its strictness. No music, no dancing, no alcohol. But at home, the family was allowed to listen to the radio, which was frequently tuned in to the Grand Ole Opry, where a young Hazel heard such artists as Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, and Kitty Wells. Her conflicted father played the banjo, and early on encouraged musicianship in his children, with Hazel learning to play bass and guitar.
As demand for coal dropped in the 1950s, the Dickens’ family fortunes fell, leaving them all to live in a sharecropper’s shack. Hazel fled this coal country poverty as a teenager for the promise of a job in the rapidly industrializing Baltimore. There she met Mike Seeger, Pete Seeger’s half-brother, who was working as an orderly at the Baltimore sanitarium were one of Hazel’s older brothers was a TB patient. A student of folk music, he was fascinated by this West Virginia woman who knew all the old songs.
They formed a bluegrass band, performing in the region to some success before Seeger formed the New Lost City Ramblers and Dickens met a budding folk singer named Alice Gerrard. The two became Hazel & Alice, a well-respected act in the folk revival of the mid-’60s. When Gerrard left abruptly on the eve of their debut release on Folkways Records, Dickens immersed herself in writing her own songs.
In 1970, after the end of her marriage, Dickens moved from Baltimore to Washington D.C. and her career as an authentic Appalachian artist grew, even as she maintained a modest existence in a small Georgetown apartment and managed a Mexican imports shop in Georgetown. Her songs “Working Girl Blues,” “Black Lung,” “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There,” and “West Virginia, My Home,” has been heard on the soundtrack to the award-winning documentary “Harlan County U.S.A.” and the John Sayles film “Matewan.”
In 2001, she was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Hazel Dickens continues to perform around the world.
Hazel Dickens’ Other Awards
- The Award of Merit from International Bluegrass Music Association -1993
- Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music, Preservation Hall of Greats 1995
- Song of the year for “Mama’s Hand” from IBMA 1996
- Honorary Doctor of Humanities Degree from Shepherd College Shepherdstown, WV – 1998
- WAMMIES, Best Female Vocalist, Bluegrass 1998, 2000, 2001, Traditional and Folk, 2001
- Lifetime Achievement Award from Folk Alliance, 2002
- Distinguished West Virginian Citation from the Governor of West Virginia – 2002
- The Joe Hill Award from the Labor Heritage Foundation – 2003
R&B singer/songwriter Johnny Gill was born on May 22, 1966, in Washington, D.C. The son of a minister, he started singing when he was five years old in a family gospel group called “Wings of Faith,” along with his brothers Bobby, Jeff, and solo recording artist and member of II D Extreme Randy Gill. He attended Kimball Elementary School, Sousa Junior High, and Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
Gill’s recording career started in 1983 when his childhood friend, singer Stacy Lattisaw, convinced him to record a demo record, which eventually landed him a contract with Atlantic Records. His eponymous album, on which Gill played guitar, bass, bongos, and drums in addition to lead and background vocals, featured the minor hit “Super Love.” Gill then recorded an album with Lattisaw which included their first hit together, “Perfect Combination.”
In 1987, Gill was recruited to join New Edition and the group hit the charts with “Can You Stand the Rain,” “N.E. Heartbreak,” “If It Isn’t Love,” and “Boys to Men,” which featured Gill on lead vocals.
Gill released a second self-titled album in 1990 which included the hits “My, My, My,” “Rub You The Right Way,” “Fairweather Friend” and “Wrap My Body tight.” “Rub You The Right Way” was featured in the video game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” In 1991, he was featured in Peri “Pebbles” Reid’s hit single “Always,” from the album of the same name. The single made the R&B; Top 20. In 1993, Gill released another solo project, “Provocative.” In 1996, he reunited with New Edition for the album “Home Again.” In 1996, Gill released “Let’s Get the Mood Right,” which included “Love in an Elevator” and “Maybe,” which is considered to be one of his greatest vocal performances. In 1997 he formed LSG (Levert/Sweat/Gill) with Gerald Levert and Keith Sweat and the group had a multi-platinum debut album, “Levert-Sweat-Gill.” The group’s 2003 follow-up album was called LSG2.
In 2008, as a member of New Edition, Gill received the Golden Note Award at ASCAP’s 21st Annual Rhythm & Soul Music Awards. That year, he began touring with Ralph Tresvant and Bobby Brown in the group Heads of State. Gill has made more than 80 appearances on television and film and he is known for his cameo role on the TV show “Family Matters.” He also starred in the 2009 stage play, “A Mother’s Prayer,” also starring Robin Givens. In July 2010 Gill signed with St. Louis, MO based Notifi Records and that year he released his sixth studio album, “Still Winning,” his first album in 15 years.
Content courtesy of Washington Area Music Association.
Header image photo credit: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for BET