A tribute to a showman

Sunday, July 07, 2013

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JAMAICANS were never short on quality international entertainment during the post-Independence period of the early 1960s. The man largely responsible for whetting their appetites was show promoter Stephen Hill.

Hill, who died in 1995, ran Celebrity Concerts for over 30 years. During that time, he promoted events headlined by American opera singers Marion Anderson and Paul Robeson; soul artistes Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Jackie Wilson, The Drifters and Marvin Gaye; and jazz greats Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughn.

His trailblazing feats will be honoured at the Tribute To The Greats awards show scheduled for Curphey Place in St Andrew on July 27. Hill's son, Robert, spoke about the recognition in an interview with the Sunday Observer last week.

"It's long overdue considering the significant contribution he and my mother made. They gave the people of Jamaica the best the world had to offer in terms of entertainment," he said.

Stephen Hill's wife Dorothy, who died in 1987, was a major asset to Celebrity Concerts. Though its first major shows featured Anderson and Robeson at The Ward Theatre in Kingston during the late 1940s, it was after Jamaica gained independence from Britain in 1962 that the company brought some of popular music's biggest names to Jamaica.

Balladeer Sam Cooke, wunderkind Ray Charles and doo wop favourites The Drifters were among the chart-toppers Hill booked. Robert Hill points out that Celebrity Concerts also provided exposure for emerging local talent who appeared on many of these events.

"Artistes like Millie Small, Jimmy Cliff and Ken Boothe worked on these shows and proved they could go head-to-head with these great artistes," he said.

Kingsley Goodison, who has produced Tribute To The Greats since 1998, described Hill as "a pioneer in Jamaican entertainment. He did a great service to the industry by bringing all those acts here."

The youngest of three brothers, Stephen Hill came from a respected family. His father, Stephen Snr, was associate news editor at the Daily Gleaner newspaper while he and his older brothers, Ken and Frank, excelled in academics and sports at St George's College.

The siblings followed their father's path into journalism. But although Ken and Frank eventually forged distinguished political careers, Stephen covered the arts and entertainment scene for the Jamaica Standard, rival to the Daily Gleaner.

Hill established considerable contacts through his Jamaica Standard beat, leading to the establishment of Celebrity Concerts. Anderson and Robeson, whose talent was threatened by the hostile racial climate in their country, got the fledgling company off to a promising start.

The soul music explosion was at its peak when Hill brought Cooke, Charles and Fats Domino to Kingston in the 1960s. Marvin Gaye, then the biggest name in soul circles, was Celebrity Concerts' last big show when he performed at the National Stadium in Kingston in 1974 with The Wailers as opening act.

Of Stephen and Dorothy Hill's three children, only Stephen (the eldest) went into show promotion. Robert Hill, now 70, is a Garvey scholar who was a senior member of the University of California's (Los Angeles) History and African Studies faculty for several years.




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