In one article we have found, he was born William Joseph Hill in South
Weymouth, Massachusetts. In another article Jimmie Osborne wrote in one
of his "Things I Never Knew" columns that his real name was George Brown.
He studied the violin at the New England Conservatory of Music during
his boyhood days. An article attributed to his former publishers
noted that he spent summers with his father's side of the family
up in Brownfield, Maine.
His father may have had some influence on the direction he took
some of his songs later in life. It was said that his father wandered
a bit in his life, fought in battles with Indians while moving west
and married a woman in Alaska. But came back to Massachusetts to finally
After his parents died, Billy took to some wandering himself, moving
to California in 1918. He took odd jobs to make his way such as
washing dishes or peeling potatoes at roadside restaurants for food. He
also earned an occasional dollar or two entertaining others
wiht his violin.
He had done some research and was determined to make it to San Francisco
where hd did find work to enable him to enjoy a better diet and regain
some of the weight he had lost during his journey to the west coast.
But he had an itch to move around. After he left San Francisco, he moved to
places such as Utah, Nevada, Montana and Washington. He took jobs along
the way in mining, oil, cow and sheep towns.
He had a fascination with the western way of life. He would listen to the
oldtimers tell their stories and sing their songs of an older time. During
these journeys, he was beginning his efforts to be a songwriter.
The first song he had a hit with was "The West, A Nest And You". It made
money but not for him for as one article notes, "...he sold it for a song."
His journey took him to the town of Death Valley where he took a job
as a night time-keeper with a Borax firm. But he was hearing stories
about song writers and talking pictures in the town of Hollywood. It didn't
take him long to find a train that took him to Hollywood. He did sell several
songs to smaller independent movie companies, earning as much as $10 to $20
for each tune.
A 1950 Billboard feature article on Billy notes that one of those songs he sold
was "Rock-a-Bye My Baby Blues".
But he felt like he wasn't making progess in Hollywood, thinking there
were too many song writers like him. He thought that maybe he would have better
luck on Broadway in New York.
He did find success with one tune when he got back east, "They Cut Down
The Old Pine Tree", but again, his hunger pains caused him to sell
the song rights.
New York wasn't happening for him, so he decided to move back to Hollywood
and make another effort. He did have success this time, but not as a songwriter.
He met a gal by the name of De Dette Lee, a case of love at first sight. After
a short time of courting her, Billy was said to have sold another song for
$25, bought a Ford and the two of them eloped to Yuma, Arizona to get
The newlyweds then began a journey back to the east coast. But to get
there, they started pawning just about everything to help pay
for food and gas to get there. The story goes that when they did reach
New York, they actually left the car with the owner of a gas
station. The owner tried to give it back to them, but apparently
the couple could run faster than the owner.
His songwriting began to pay off. Around this time, he wrote
"The Old Man Of The Mountain", "The Clouds Will Soon Roll By",
"Have You Ever Been Lonely" and "There's A Cabin In The Pines". These
were apparently written under the name of George Brown. Variety noted
in an article discussing his death that he had used this name
as a means to branch out into other music genres other than the
hillbilly music one that he was finding success with. It was said
that he used George Brown for only about a year until he joined
the Shapiro, Bernstein publishing comnpany.
On January 20, 1933, a daughter was born, Lee De Dette.
Around the same time, a publishing firm, Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., Inc.
made an offer to Billy and he signed on to write exclusively for them.
Later in 1933, George Olsen, a well-known orchestra leader at the time,
was visiting the offices of Shapiro, Bernestein & Co., Inc. He was
shown a number of musical manuscripts, including a tune called
"The Last Roundup". As fate would have it, Mr. Olsen was
a native of Washington and the song appealed to him and his memories
of the West. In fact, he had a singer in his group that he felt
would be the right person to introduce the song, Joe Morrison.
In August of 1933 at the Paramount Theatre, Joe Morrison stepped up
to the microphone and the audience became silent when he began the song,
"I'm headin'g for the last round-up
Gonna saddle old Paint for the last time and ride..."
The audience roared its approval and got Joe's career off to a rousing
start. Joe was signed by Paramount Studios to do a movie.
A 1950 article indicates that Billy Hill testified in front of a
Congressional committee that was considering changes to the copyright laws.
ASCAP was fearful of what they were considering back then. Their position
was that it would have impaired the protection and income of its members.
Billy testified as to how close he had come to selling the hit song, "The Last
Round-Up" to put food on the table. He was broke, living in Greenwich Village.
The gas was shut-off. The rent for their family's apartment could not be paid. Hospitals
were refusing to admit his wife to the maternity ward. He was so desparate
that he almost sold the rights to his hit song for $25. But Gene Buck, president
of ASCAP at the time gave Billy a loan for $200 to help him out until
the song could be published and sold. As the royalties came in, he turned
in the doorman's unifirom and moved to a new home at the Park Plaza Hotel
on West 57th Street.
The New York Times wrote about these Congressional hearings on February 26, 1936.
Billy Hill was one of those who testified. The bill was seen to favor
mainly the broadcasting, motion picture and hotel industry. It was an interesting
debate. One of the arguments was about the profits from the copyright and how
to determine that. One test was whether an 'admission charge' was levied.
The New York Times also reported the testimony of Billy Hill in 1936. He verified
the story of his poverty at the time and noted that he supported an opposing
bill known as the Sirovich Bill that tightened copyright laws more towards the
favor the composers.
In the fall of 1936, Billy Hill was sued by L. Morrill Geiger of San Marcos,
California for half of the $500,000 he alleged Billy had earned from the song
"The Last Round-up" and four other titles. Mr. Geiger claimed he was entitled
to recive a hal-finterst in five of Mr. Hill's songs.
On Christmas Eve 1940, Billy Hill passed away. The Variety publication
reported that he had been ill for quite some time that included
hospital stays prior to his death. He died of a heart attack at
the Hotel Essex in Boston, Massachusetts.
Some of the songs that were written or co-written by Billy Hill:
- The Last Round-Up
- The Old Spinning Wheel
- The Call Of The Canyon
- In The Chapel In The Moonlight
- Empty Saddles
- The Glory Of Love
- LIghts Out
- There's A Home In Wyomin' (with Peter De Rose)
- The Oregon Trail (with Peter De Rose)
- Wagon Wheels(with Peter De Rose)
- The West, A Nest And You (with Larry Yoell)
- Moonlight On The Colorado(with Robert A. King)
- Candlelight And Roses(with Willard Robison and John Klenner)
- When I Was A Boy From The Mountains (And You Were A Girl From The Hills) (As George Brown with Victor Young)
- There's A Little Box Of Pine On The 7:29 (As George Brown with Joseph Ettinger and De Dette Lee)
- That's When Your Heartaches Begin(As George Brown with Fred Fisher and William Raskin)
- Just Around The Bend (From The Rainbow's End)(As George Brown with Frank McCravy and Jim McCravy)
- Rock Me To Sleep In My Rocky Mountain Home(As George Brown with Willie Raskin, Fred Howard and Nat Vincent)
Credits & Sources
- New York Times; February 26, 1936; New York, NY
- New York Times; February 28, 1936; New York, NY
- New York Times; October 18, 1936; New York, NY
- Variety; December 25, 1940; Hollywood, CA
- Country Song Roundup; No. 2; October 1949; Charlton
Pub. Corp.; Charlton Building; Derby, CT
- The Billboard; June 10, 1950; Cincinnati, OH
- The Billboard; October 23, 1982; Cincinnati, OH