Only on rare occasion does a talent grace the gospel music world that leaves an audience of all generations and walks of life emotionally invested in every word laid out before them, but Jim Hill possessed such a gift. Hill passed from this life and entered into the eternity he sang about in his famous song, “What a Day That Will Be”, on January 9 at age 87. Hill had been out of the full-time gospel music scene for more than forty years, yet his powerful legacy never died with his career. Had Hill’s only contribution to gospel music been “What a Day That Will Be”, his impact would have still earned him his overdue induction into the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame. His contributions to our music will impact generations to come. The following paragraphs and commentary from his friends and peers serve as a very brief tribute to one of gospel music’s truly great pioneers.
“Jim was a true gentleman! To the end he could move a crowd with his passion for what he was singing. We lost a great man, a great songwriter, and a great friend.”
-Sue Dodge, Speer Family/Gaither Homecoming
“Jim sang with an aura of pure joy. It was contagious!”
-Duane Nicholson, Couriers
“Jim was humble, likeable, friendly, and he was a real gentleman. And he recorded two of my songs with the Golden Keys!”
-Linda Robinson Sholar, Speer Family
Born in Portsmouth, Ohio, on November 2, 1930, Hill studied opera and auditioned with the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and the Metropolitan Opera Company. Yet his masterful ability at interpreting a lyric, his background in church music, and God’s divine intervention insured a longtime career in the gospel field. Hill, John Conley, and Harold Patrick formed The Campmeeting Boys in 1945. Two years later, the group added a fourth member and rebranded as The Golden Keys Quartet. Hill’s time with the Golden Keys would be interrupted by service in the US Army during the Korean War. After his honorable discharge in 1951, Hill returned to The Golden Keys. Collectively, the lineup of Hill on tenor vocals, bass singer Clarence Claxon, baritone Pat Duncan, and pianist/lead singer Harold Patrick remained together for over a decade.
In the early 1950s, Hill’s beloved mother-in-law suffered a debilitating stroke at a relatively young age. Devastated and full of questions, Hill’s mind reflected upon the truth in Revelation 21:4, and quickly he penned “What a Day That Will Be”. Hill had no idea of the impact his lyric would place upon the world. Among the first artists to record the song were the Homeland Harmony Quartet and the Speer Family. The demand for the song soon necessitated that Hill and the Golden Keys record it, and elevated the Keys, a longstanding “weekend warrior” group, to the upper echelon of gospel quartets.
“Jim was a very kind and gracious man, and could really stir an audience when he sang. Only Heaven will reveal the people that really believed the lyrics to his song, “What a Day That Will Be”, and were insired to see that day come. He has now joined all those who have gone before and is truly living out that song!”
-Jeanne Johnson, Speer Family
The Keys were a popular feature at concerts and all-night sings, with their simple, emotion-filled arrangements. Not only did the group showcase Hill’s songwriting talents, but they were also among the first to record songs written by a young Bill Gaither, including early Gaither classics such as “I’ve Been to Calvary”, “Lovest Thou Me”, and “I’m in Love with Jesus”.
The Stamps Quartet recruited Hill in 1963, and his addition quickly proved a turning point for the legendary quartet. Two years later, JD Sumner took the helm and and further accentuated the group’s new musical direction. Hill’s songwriting flourished during his tenure with the Stamps. Songs such as “Each Step I Take Draws Me Closer Home”, “No One Ever Cared so Much”, “I’ll Make it to Heaven Someday”, and my personal favorite, “For God So Loved”, became staples of the Stamps’ programs.
“When I first joined the Stamps playing drums, Jim was singing tenor with them. His voice and performance were always a crowd favorite. “What a Day That Will Be” and “For God So Loved” were huge hits in our concerts. Jim came to see the Blackwood Brothers in Covington, Kentucky, a year or two ago. He was so complimentary. What a treasure he was!”
-Billy Blackwood, Blackwood Brothers
Hill’s endless energy and dynamic stage presence were noted by his fans and peers. Hill was noted for kicking his feet head high when he got in the spirit. Yet his adrenaline didn’t overshadow his musical background and professionalism. Hill most desired to maintain longevity. In 1969, he shifted from tenor vocals down to the lead spot upon joining Hovie Lister and the Statesmen. Hill breathed new life into a legendary sound over the following four years.
Noting the sometimes lacking opportunities for gospel singers, Hill made the decision to retire from full-time gospel singing in 1973, but he was never too far away from the public eye. By the early 90s, he was a regular on the Gaither Homecoming productions. Hill’s rich voice still captivated audiences, and he continually encouraged a new generation of artists.
“Jim Hill was one of those individuals who, when he walked into a room, commanded attention. He carried himself with such class and dignity, but within seconds of talking to him, you realized he was one of the most engaging, down to earth people you could ever meet. I tell folks all the time that the greatest compliment I ever received in my Gospel music career came from Jim Hill, not once, but twice. I recorded his great song “For God So Loved” with the Florida Boys. Jim stopped me at a Gaither taping in Nashville and told me that we sang his song with the most feeling of any he had ever heard. I was blown away to receive such high praise from the author. The last time I saw Jim, he came to hear the Dixie Melody Boys near his home in Ohio. After the concert, he knocked me out again when he told me that I was the best emcee he had heard since Hovie! I don’t share these stories to pat myself on the back, rather to show what kind of a man and encouragement Jim Hill was. He was a great singer, one of the finest communicators ever in our business. Not to mention, he wrote three of my all time favorite songs, “What A Day That Will Be,” “For God So Loved,” and “No One Ever Cared So Much.” Most of all, Jim was a true gentleman and friend.”
-Josh Garner, Dixie Melody Boys/Florida Boys
Hill received much-overdue honor in the 2000s when he received the Living Legend Award at the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion, and upon his induction into the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2012. A recent video of Hill appearing in concert with The Guardians and The Booth Brothers demonstrated that Hill could still inject incredible emotion into his legendary songs.
“Jim Hill defines what it means to be a professional. His voice was fantastic but, if possible, even greater was his ability to communicate a song to an audience. Another attribute he had was the ability to make everyone feel loved and encouraged. We have all been blessed by knowing him.”
Michael, Ronnie and Paul, The Booth Brothers
It is impossible to eulogize Jim Hill, whose body of work breathes new life even today. Jim has joined his many friends, peers, and fans singing where there is no more sorrow, no more burdens, no more sickness, no more pain, and no more parting. Forever he will be with the one who died for all of us. Thank you Jim Hill, for your life, your music, and your legacy.