Judith Hill had already endured more than her fair share of heartache and disappointment before competing on The Voice Season 4 or appearing in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. In 2009, she lost her mentor, Michael Jackson, just as she was set to perform with him at that year’s much-hyped This Is It London concerts. She ended up singing “Heal the World” at Jackson’s memorial service instead.
Five years later, Hill found a new mentor in another legend, Prince – who produced her debut album, Back in Time – only to experience an even more devastating loss, when Prince passed away suddenly this past April 21.
Judith has laid low ever since, only addressing Prince’s shocking death in a couple of heartbreaking social media posts. But now, in a new interview with the New York Times, she has revealed that she was actually with Prince on his infamous April 15 flight from Atlanta, the one that made an emergency landing after Prince fell unconscious.
Hill recalls that Prince’s “eyes [became] fixed” while the two were dining on vegetables and pasta and chatting about music during their flight to Minneapolis after Prince’s gig at Atlanta’s Fox Theater. “Thankfully, I happened to be looking into his face,” she says – noticing his change in demeanor – which allowed her to act quickly, even though she was “very freaked out.”
The only other passenger on the private jet that evening was Prince’s friend and assistant, Kirk Johnson; when Hill and Johnson could not revive Prince (Hill says she shook Prince and shouted his name), they “knew it was only a matter of time; we had to get down. We didn’t have anything on the plane to help him,“ Hill tells NYT. They alerted the pilot, who landed the jet in Moline, Illinois, where Prince was revived on the tarmac by paramedics with a shot of Narcan (which is often used to treat opioid overdoses). Eighteen minutes later, an ambulance took Prince to Trinity Moline Hospital; by the time they arrived, he was conscious again, “which was such a relief to me, because I thought he was gone,” Hill tells NYT. Crisis was, temporarily, averted.
“He wasn’t dreary or drowsy, or anything,” Hill recalls in her NYT interview of the hospital visit. “He wanted to watch Zootopia. He loved those films. I was going to pull it up on my phone. He said, ‘No, no, no, not here. We’re going to pick a special time and place to watch that.’" Hill hoped that this was a one-off incident; Prince returned to Minneapolis the same morning of his health scare.
At the time, the press reported that Prince was merely suffering from the flu. But it turned out that his April 15 Atlanta concerts would be his final performances; six days later, he was dead from a fentanyl overdose. Hill tells NYT she had no idea that Prince was abusing prescription meds due to his hip pain, saying, “I only know what everyone knows about his pain – I read about it… He was quick on his feet. Never said anything, that this is hurting, never a sign of struggle. That’s why it’s all very shocking.”
Hill does reveal to the New York Times that she was among the friends who were instrumental in getting Prince the help to beat his opiate addiction. “He [sought treatment] because he was concerned, and he wanted to do the right thing for his own body,” she says. “And that’s the part that breaks my heart, because he was trying. He was trying.”
Speaking to Yahoo Music last year, as she was preparing to release the Prince-produced Back in Time, Hill recalled her first meeting with her future friend and advisor. Prince unexpectedly invited Hill to his Paisley Park studio in Minneapolis after randomly catching a TV interview with Hill in which she spoke of her dream to work with him. She was floored. “He said, ‘I’d like to call Judith,’ and he reached out to my management,” Hill recalled incredulously. “He personally called me on my cell phone. It was an unknown number. Oh, they prepped me. They said, 'Prince is going to call you today.’ I was shaking.”
Hill then joined Prince at Paisley Park in winter 2014 for a whirlwind recording process, that, true to the album’s title, was totally old-school: all-analog, the result of freeform Paisley Park jam sessions. One track on Back in Time, “Turn It Up,” even amusingly featured Prince yelling in the background, “Omigod, Judith, I saw you on The Voice!”
“It was so inspiring and refreshing, because it was like going back to the old days of just jamming… just hit 'record,’ one take, organic. Nothing was too overthought, just what we felt at the time,” Hill told Yahoo Music. “His process is really amazing, and I learned a lot… He pushes you to excellence and he just wants the best for you. And he lives in a whole 'nother world. So it rubs off on you, and you just grow so much musically.”
At the time of her Yahoo Music interview, Hill noted a common thread between Michael Jackson and Prince, two of the 1980s’ greatest musical icons, when it came to work ethic. “There’s a lot of great similarities in terms of their epicness and how they approach things,” she said. “The attention to detail, being very specific about everything they want. They see the big picture and they’re very involved. I just learned as an artist that it’s so important to be hands-on.”
But “Michael was different,” she now tells the New York Times, because she only knew Jackson “as a fan and as someone that worked for him.” Prince and Hill, on the other hand, were very close. While Hill doesn’t confirm to NYT that she was romantically involved with Prince, she does say “there was a very intense relationship. I deeply cared for him… He told me that he loved me and that he would always be there for me… Now he’s gone, and I realize I was leaning on him a lot. And that’s what’s scary. I’m on my own.”