How a 70-year-old subway singer landed a record deal
A year ago, Bill Hudson was singing doo-wop with a group of seniors at the 34th Street Herald Square station.
Now, the 70-year-old Bronx resident is fronting a 12-piece rock band, John the Martyr, performing in hip clubs like Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory and gearing up for his first record.
“I may seem subdued, but my emotion is, like, off the scale,” Hudson, cool in a corduroy suit and newsboy cap, told The Post on a recent afternoon.
On Friday, John the Martyr will release its debut single, “Feeling Good” (+1 Records/300 Entertainment). And after decades of singing on cruise ships, moonlighting as a wedding singer and trawling amateur nights in the city’s clubs, Hudson is ready for the limelight.
“The reaction we’re getting,” he said of himself and his (much younger) bandmates, “it kind of gives me an adrenaline rush.”
Hudson was born in 1947, just blocks from the legendary Apollo Theater — where the young music enthusiast grew up watching the Supremes, the Temptations and Sly and the Family Stone perform.
“My mother called the Apollo my second home because I was there so much,” he said.
As a kid, he and his six siblings watched their aunt dance the boogie-woogie on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and launched a weekly neighborhood talent show in their Harlem apartment, which their mother, a classically trained singer, judged.
“My sister would dress up like Diana Ross; I’d pretend to be Marvin Gaye or James Brown,” said Hudson. “I had a James Brown cape . . . We all had the music bug.”
After attending Brooklyn Tech, Hudson enrolled in the Air Force in 1966. He spent the Vietnam War stationed in Guam, where he and his buddies started an R&B cover group. “I was actually making more money singing in the bars than I was in the service,” he said.
When he returned to the US in 1970, he formed the band Spice, which competed at legendary Harlem clubs such as the Baby Grand, Top Club and the Apollo. But when he got married and started having a family in the late ’70s, he had to put aside his musical ambitions.
“I watched my friends get their own labels and put out records,” said the now-divorced Hudson, who worked at an insurance company while raising his five children. “It was never a drawback for me, because I had a family, but as soon as my kids were grown, I took early retirement. I said, ‘This is my time now!’ ”
In 2010, Hudson joined the a cappella group Spank, performing on cruises and as part of the MTA’s Music Under New York subway-platform program, which is how a young songwriter named Kyle Ridley met him.
“[His voice] was just awesome,” Ridley, 28, told The Post.
Ridley and his childhood friends were forming a new band, John the Martyr, and — after showing Hudson some songs and asking his input — invited the elder musician to join as the lead singer.
“I didn’t realize until a couple of months in that he was 70,” Ridley said. “He has such a young spirit. We played New Orleans, and he did a split onstage!”
At first, Hudson wasn’t sure his soul stylings would meld with the band’s blend of rock, New Orleans jazz, traditional Japanese music and funk. But now, he loves playing with the young 20- and 30-somethings in the group. And he’s looking forward to showing the world, including his kids and his old R&B friends, his new project.
“It’s a far cry from soul and R&B,” he said. “But now, I don’t know how to describe it — it’s like a gumbo of good feelings. It’s like magic.”