From at-home talent shows as a child to performing in subway stations as an adult and signing a record deal at 70 years old, music is just part of Bill Hudson’s DNA.
The lead singer of John The Martyr — a band he described as having a “gumbo” sound, mixing soul, rock, blues and R&B — has been a part of the New York City music scene for decades, dating to his days growing up in Harlem.
“It all began in the home,” said Hudson, who grew up with six siblings and an appreciation for a wide array of music genres. “We used to hold talent shows…I would be James Brown or somebody.”
Yet it was a chance encounter during a performance on the subway that took the soulful vocalist down a new path in his music career. In 2015, Hudson was singing with the acapella doo wop group Spank as part of the MTA's Music Under New York program, which brings performers into subway stations to make riders' commutes more enjoyable, when guitarist and songwriter Kyle Ridley walked by.
“That’s how I met Kyle…one of the founding members of John The Martyr,” Hudson recalled.
Ridley, a New Orleans native who moved to the city from Los Angeles, was looking for background vocalists for a new project he was working on when he stumbled across Spank on the subway. Not even a week later they were recording in a tiny room in a Manhattan Guitar Center.
“We did a rough draft of the tunes…experimented on harmonies and he took what he liked,” Hudson said of the session.
Ridley and Hudson had hit it off though, and not long after the pair found themselves back at the Guitar Center working on what would later become some of the original tracks on John The Martyr’s upcoming album.
“To hear them now from where they began is amazing to me,” Hudson said of the songs.
After bringing in bandmates Dustin DiSalvo (drums) and Chris Hines (guitar), the group spent months woodshedding, Hudson said, cultivating a unique sound that eventually caught the ear of Jonny Kaps, co-founder of +1 Records.
John The Martyr was signed to the label last month, according to Kaps. Hudson said they’ve already recorded eight of about 10-12 planned songs, and expect to debut a new tune, “Fury,” at their show on Thursday at Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side.
Despite his recent success, however, Hudson said he’s not married to the record label or even to John The Martyr. “I’m married to the music.”
Hudson, who now lives in University Heights in the Bronx, has spent his life watching the New York City music scene change before his eyes.
“I played all the landmark spots in Harlem,” he said of his youth. “My mother used to call the Apollo my second home because I was always at the Apollo.”
Even when life was interrupted by the Vietnam War, he found a way to make room for music in his life while serving three years in the Air Force.
“Music has a whole environment of unpredictability,” Hudson said of his life’s passion. “I’m just thankful that I can still do this at my age…Hopefully it will continue to until my last breath.”