Portsmouth Native Jim Hill Passes Away
at Age 87
Editor’s note: This story was written with the help of my friend Greg Tingler, who formerly sang with The Gospel Harmony Boys and The Sentries. At one time, he was the next-door neighbor of Jim Hill, and he grew up in the same church on Mabert Road in Portsmouth, Ohio. They shared many of the same friendships over the years, and Greg gives us his insight into some stories you may have never heard before about this gospel legend. On a side note, I had the thrill of a lifetime to accompany Hill on the piano in 1994 when he sang “What a Day That Will Be” at my church for the funeral of his friend, Hazel Belcher.
The time was the mid-1950s, and the town was Portsmouth, Ohio. Jim Hill was a new Christian. According to several historical online accounts, his mother-in-law, who was then only 50 years old, had just suffered a debilitating stroke. He had her on his mind as he drove home from work one day. He contemplated Rev. 21:4 which describes a day when “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away.” The words to a new song began to flood through his mind.
“There’ll be no sorrow there, no more burdens to bear.” This was the first line he penned to his classic hymn, What a Day That Will Be. He had an accordion in his house at the time, recalls Greg Tingler, his next-door neighbor who was just a kid at the time. “He couldn’t play it, but he knew enough to squeeze the bellows and figure out a melody line.”
Lucky for Hill, Tingler’s mother Evelyn was an accomplished pianist and had played several years for area music groups such as The Gospel Tones and The Singing Star Trio. She also happened to be standing in the kitchen washing dishes while she listened to him hammer out the tune to his new song. Before long, he showed up at her doorstep asking for help.
He sang the notes to her as she wrote down the chords, and they kept at it until it came out the way he wanted. Then he took her to play the song for his friend, Harold Patrick, another well-known pianist in the southern Ohio area, who scored the composition. He sent the finished work to Ben Speer who published the piece, and the rest is history. Today, this song is sung in churches around the world and is even becoming a standard in hymn books.
“It keeps growing,” said Tingler. “It’s a worldwide song. It’s hard to know how many copies have been sold. It’s become a classic like one of Fanny Crosby’s songs.”
There is no other song quite like it, and nobody sang it like Jim Hill. (Watch for yourself at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnvZL_zW2JI.)
He finally experienced that day for himself when he passed away on Tuesday, January 9, 2018, in Middletown, Ohio, at the age of 87. (See his obituary HERE.)
A Lifetime of Musical Achievements
Hill’s birth name proved to be prophetic for his future career. The night before he was born, his family stood and sung around the piano when they began to discuss what they would name their new baby if it was a boy. They decided to name him in honor of James Vaughan, a famous American music teacher, composer and song publisher who is hailed as the founder of Southern Gospel music. Little did they know they he would be a future gospel music legend.
He grew up at the former Mabert Road Christian Baptist, a church bursting with gospel music talent in the 1950s and 60s. Patrick and Tingler also grew up in this church which at one time boasted four traveling gospel groups who traveled the region and sang in their church choir on Sundays. Another Mabert Road member, Hobart Day, was the roommate of George Thomas (“Dad”) Speer, the patriarch of the Speer Family, when they both attended the Vaughan School of Music.
Hill studied opera at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and the Metropolitan Opera Company. In 1945, he and Harold Patrick joined together with John Conley to organize a group called The Campmeeting Boys. In 1947, they added a fourth member and changed their name to The Golden Keys Quartet.
This group not only advanced Hill’s career but that of a young songwriter named Bill Gaither whose early version of The Gaither Trio sang in concerts with them. The Golden Keys recorded and performed several of Gaither’s songs, and Bill’s brother Danny eventually moved to Portsmouth to join the Keys. (Trivia note: Danny Gaither also taught Industrial Arts, formerly known as Shop class, at Wheelersburg High School while he lived in the area.)
After Hill’s recent passing, Bill and Gloria Gaither issued a statement saying it was Hill who infused them “with his unique magic that made audiences hear the messages and made us believe that maybe there was a calling on our own lives to keep writing.” [Read the full Gaither statement HERE.]
During a recording session for “The Ninety and Nine” by the Golden Keys Quartet, Jim Hill held out a note at the end of a song for so long, he fell over and passed out because he ran out of breath. His fellow members had to revive him to go on with the session.
In 1962, Doyle Blackwood invited him to join the “New” Stamps Quartet. Reportedly, the Stamps’ first Skylite recording with Hill of What a Day That Will Be was the biggest selling album at the National Quartet Convention in 1963. In 1968, he joined Hovie Lister & The Statesmen Quartet.
During his time with the Statesmen, one of his biggest fans was Elvis Presley who was a great lover of southern gospel music. One night, Elvis attended one of their concerts. From backstage, he yelled a request to sing For God So Loved, another song written by Hill. After the performance, as he walked off the stage, Presley grabbed him with a hug and tears in his eyes and told him that was his favorite song. The Statesmen were also a favorite group of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and performed for him on several occasions while he was governor of Georgia. Hill was nominated for a Dove Award as Songwriter of the Year in 1969.
He left the Statesmen in the 1970s and returned home to Xenia, Ohio, to become a traveling shoe salesman until his retirement. He continued to perform at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion and on selected Gaither projects, and in 2012, he was inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame. He was a long-time member of Towne Boulevard Church of God in Middletown and was a worship minister and choir director at the church for many years.
More recently, his friend Dean Hickman (a former member of the Golden Keys and currently with the Guardians) would occasionally take him along to area churches. Even though his memory was failing, he could still sing the words of the gospel songs he performed for so many years, and he gave it his best while he “kicked his leg,” his trademark move during many of his concerts.
Tingler last saw Jim Hill approximately three years ago. “He was frail and about half the size of what he used to be, but he sang What a Day That Will Be,” he said. “He sang with as much power and excitement as he ever did.”
What a thrill to know he sings today with the many saints in Heaven who performed with him down through the years. We will never forget the contributions he made to the rich legacy and heritage of Southern Gospel music and the pride this native son brought to southern Ohio.
Jim Hill also has a star on the Portsmouth Floodwall.