Dangerous Highway

Directed by Moises Gonzalez and Deryle Perryman

In his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles: Volume One, Bob Dylan gave his seal of approval to the likes of Mickey Rourke, Ricky Nelson, and Barry Goldwater–and such is the cultural capital he commands that plenty of folks took a second look at them, wondering what they might’ve missed that Dylan could see. That’s why it was such a disappointment when he praised some of the unheralded musicians who’d had an impact on him–formidable folkie Dave Van Ronk, reclusive cult hero Fred Neil, Memphis wildcat growler Jim Dickinson–and didn’t mention Eddie Hinton, the late, great southern soul singer, guitarist, and songwriter.

It wasn’t just wishful thinking to imagine Hinton might get a nod from Dylan. Former Atlantic Records head Jerry Wexler, the man who coined the term “rhythm and blues,” was one of Hinton’s great champions over the years, and in his 1993 autobiography he recalled an early-70s session the two had played together: “A scene that always sticks in my mind is Dylan on the back porch of Muscle Shoals studio, trading licks on acoustic guitar with Eddie Hinton,” he wrote. “They buddied up and for a while were inseparable. How strange and wonderful to remember Bob Dylan and Eddie Hinton as soul brothers–two poets, one world renowned, the other known only to a few friends, neighbors and fans, both riveting artists, both brilliant.”

Hinton died in 1995 at age 51, but he’s still unchallenged as the greatest blue-eyed soul singer ever to live. “He remains unique,” wrote Wexler, “a white boy who truly sang and played in the spirit of the great black soul artists he venerated. With Eddie it wasn’t imitation; it was totally created, with a fire and fury that was as real as Otis Redding’s and Wilson Pickett’s.” That’s no hollow hyperbole, coming from a man who guided the careers of legends like Big Joe Turner and Aretha Franklin. British critic Barney Hoskyns, writing in Soul Survivor magazine in 1987, called Hinton “simply the blackest white voice ever committed to vinyl.”

In fact, Hinton’s likeness was famously and intentionally left off the packaging for his debut LP, 1978’s Very Extremely Dangerous. Hoskyns was backstage after a mid-80s Bruce Springsteen concert, where a few members of the E Street Band were singing along to the record, and recalls their reaction when he told them Hinton was white: “They were as dumbfounded as I was.”

During his lifetime Hinton was famous mostly among fellow musicians and industry insiders. He first earned a reputation as a session guitarist, adding memorable licks to chart records by everyone from Cher to the Staple Singers, Waylon Jennings to Toots & the Maytals. A gifted tunesmith as well, he wrote or cowrote classic songs recorded by the likes of Percy Sledge (“Cover Me”), Dusty Springfield (“Breakfast in Bed”), the Box Tops (“Choo Choo Train”), and Bobby Womack (“Just a Little Bit Salty”).

Until recently his own discography has been brief: though he wrote and recorded prolifically throughout his life, little of that material was released. At the time of his death, his most widely available titles were a pair of middling blues LPs cut for Rounder in the early 90s. Very Extremely Dangerous, his best solo album (and a staple on the tour buses of the Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd in the late 70s), had been out of print for more than a decade–the original label, Capricorn, was driven into bankruptcy shortly after its release by a lawsuit the Allman Brothers had brought over unpaid royalties. Not till 1997 was it reissued on CD (by the resuscitated Capricorn imprint) as a prelude to 1999’s Hard Luck Guy, which combined unreleased material from the Dangerous sessions with tunes Hinton was working on when he died, fleshed out posthumously by his friends. Soon a widespread reappraisal of Hinton was under way: critics, particularly European critics, proclaimed him an overlooked giant, and Dangerous appeared on Mojo magazine’s list of the most essential soul records of all time.

In 2000 English superfan and entrepreneur Peter Thompson–who ten years earlier had started his own label, Zane Records, in order to give a belated UK release to Hinton’s 1986 album Letters From Mississippi–put out Dear Y’all, a collection of demos Hinton recorded for songwriting clients. Two similar volumes, the excellent Playin’ Around (2004) and Beautiful Dream (2005), soon followed.

The ongoing Hinton revival now includes a feature-length video documentary, Dangerous Highway, directed by Moises Gonzalez and Deryle Perryman and narrated by bluesman Robert Cray. Both fascinating and frustrating, the film’s a well-intentioned mess that raises almost as many questions as it answers. For much of his adult life, Hinton struggled with addictions to alcohol and drugs, which exacerbated a range of mental health problems–or perhaps mental health problems drove him to self-medicate. Those struggles are the single biggest factor in the colossal “What if?” that hangs over Hinton’s career, but though his family, friends, and colleagues tolerated or accommodated his erratic behavior to varying degrees, few seem willing or able to see it for what it was–in that way the film’s a reminder that the cultures of addiction and mental illness are still relatively new. Hinton’s idiosyncrasies were the stuff of legend–when he was between checks and had to borrow money from friends, he was adamant about paying it back on the agreed-to date and would walk up to 40 miles to do so. He sometimes heard voices or suffered strange fits of anger, and once disrupted a recording session with an unprovoked attack on an old friend, fellow Muscle Shoals guitarist Jimmy Johnson, only to snap out of it when Johnson knocked him down. But though Dangerous Highway hints that these were symptoms of undiagnosed schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, no one ever says those words aloud.

The movie begins with Hinton’s birth in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1944. After his parents divorced in 1950, his mother took him to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he was a star athlete in high school. He began playing music professionally while a student at the University of Alabama in the early 60s, joining a series of R & B bands that toured the southern frat circuit. In 1967 he got a job as a session musician at Rick Hall’s FAME studio, and from ’69 to ’75 he worked at Muscle Shoals Sound–he was the first-call lead guitarist for most of the house band’s glory years. Though not a technical virtuoso, he was without peer as a musician: fellow white-soul kingpin Dan Penn has described his style as “idiosyncratic . . . he could play things that no one else could play.”

In the late 60s Duane Allman pleaded with Hinton to front his fledgling Allman Brothers Band, but he declined. Instead he poured much of his time and money into recording and producing a Beatlesque pop album for a young singer-songwriter named Jim Coleman. The record was passed over by several labels before a defeated Hinton shelved it in 1972, and it was never released during his lifetime–Coleman eventually put it out himself in 1996. The film identifies the failure of this project as the start of a long slow slide for Hinton. “It crushed him,” recalls Jimmy Johnson. “And that’s where Eddie started losing Eddie.”

For a few years in the mid-70s, Hinton lived in isolation in rural Tennessee without even a phone. He’d married his fiancee in the late 60s, and though their relationship was rocky during this time, Hinton continued to write and record prolifically. “Even in his darkest hour,” says Donnie Fritts, one of Hinton’s frequent writing partners, “he could still get up and move you with his singing.” By 1978 Hinton had moved to Macon, Georgia, where he was hanging around the Capricorn Records offices (or, according to some versions of the story, working there as a janitor). A nudge from Wexler prompted the label to fund Hinton’s first solo album, and Very Extremely Dangerous did well in its initial limited release–it sold roughly 20,000 copies and earned airplay on black radio in Detroit and Los Angeles before Capricorn folded.

This setback hit Hinton at least as hard as the Coleman rejection, and for the next few years he went downhill fast: though he fronted several bands, scored some production gigs, and went into the studio again, all his projects ended prematurely and disastrously. He repeatedly quit or forced people to fire him, and soon his unpredictability made him a pariah. By the mid-80s he was divorced and living with his mother in Birmingham, mowing lawns for money. After a fight with his stepfather, Hinton was kicked out of the house and for a time may have been homeless. An old college buddy, John Wyker, who claims to have rescued him from the streets, helped Hinton record his second solo album, 1986’s Letters From Mississippi, an occasionally inspired hodgepodge of garagey soul.

Hinton reconciled with his family and stabilized his mental health with treatment, though the drugs he was prescribed sent his weight ballooning. His final recordings, 1991’s Cry and Moan and 1993’s Very Blue Highway, lacked the fire of his best work but included a few tunes now recognized as classics, like “The Well of Love” and “Nobody but You.” His future was starting to look promising again–there was talk of a European tour–when he was felled by a heart attack on July 28, 1995.

It’s too late for Hinton to get the recognition he deserved, but there’s still plenty of time for people to discover his music. Thanks in part to a small army of dedicated proselytizers–Gonzalez and Perryman, Peter Thompson at Zane Records, even southern rockers the Drive-By Truckers (“Sandwiches for the Road,” on their 1998 debut album, is a tribute to Hinton)–his reputation is still growing. Last year the Australian label Raven released the first-ever career-spanning Hinton collection, A Mighty Field of Vision: The Anthology 1969-1993, and Zane is prepping a fourth disc in its series of songwriting demos. Connecticut author and musician Jonathan Kehew is working on a biography, and Dangerous Highway is scheduled to screen at several film festivals this summer and fall before arriving on DVD. Maybe before Dylan finishes the second volume of his Chronicles–reportedly in the works–he’ll see fit to put in a good word or two for an old soul singer he used to know.

When: Sun 6/18, 5:30 PM, and Thu 6/22, 8:15 PM

Where: Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State

Price: $4-$9

Info: 312-846-2800

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dick Cooper, courtesy of Zane Records.