About The Artist
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 settle down.
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 married.
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
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:
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