When Billy Hill enlisted in the United States Marine Corps the summer after he graduated from Princeton High in 1961, he never expected that the move would result in his becoming a top-selling recording artist.
But that is exactly what happened.
In July, 1963, Essex, a group Hill had helped found, recorded the song “Easier Said Than Done,” written by Larry Huff and William Linton, and released by Roulette Records. The song topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart on July 6 of that year and stayed there for two weeks. It also hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot R&B Sides chart on July 20 and stayed there for two weeks.
All from a quintet of active-duty Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
Hill will perform, along with a host of local bands and singer-songwriters at the fifth annual marathon eight-hour concert to benefit Jam for Life, which promotes awareness of organ and tissue donation, on Sunday, September 20, at Katmandu in Trenton beginning at 11 a.m. Performers include including the Dadz, the Tone Rangers, the John Bushnell Band, the Charles Laurita Band, Chowder, Ernie White, Lisa Bouchelle, Sarah Donner, Keith Monacchio, Mike Matisa, Sandy Zio, Kelly Carvin, and Fried Okra with Brian Summers, a recent transplant recipient.
Hill says the Essex was formed on the bus trip back from boot camp at Parris Island, SC, in fall, 1961. “A couple of us got together and started singing. When we got to our company, we just kept singing together, in the shower, or different places. Just getting together and singing. One day we said, ‘Why don’t we do something.’ So we started rehearsing, four or five hours a night.”
Soon the guys heard about another singer, Anita Humes, who also happened to be a Marine on the base. They invited her to sing lead, and the quintet eventually became good enough to sing for money in clubs when they weren’t on active duty time during the day.
Eventually Hill and groupmate Walter Vickers spent a weekend driving from North Carolina to New York to hawk the still-unnamed group’s work. As they drove north, they ran through a town in Maryland called Essex. And just before hitting New York City, they passed through Essex County, NJ. “We said, ‘that’s it. The Essex.’”
They finally got an audition with Roulette Records, but the group had to arrange for each member to get a three-day pass from their base. “We did that, and they asked us to record right away. We went up and recorded, and the song became No. 1 just a couple of months after that.”
The distinctive beat on “Easier Said Than Done” came from the clicking of the teletype machines in the communications office at Camp Lejeune, group member Linton states on a website devoted to the history of the group and the song.
The songs — and the performers, in some cases — that surrounded the Essex’s only hit became much more successful and famous than did Hill’s group. Preceding “Easier Said Than Done” on the top of the Hot 100, for example, was the Japanese novelty hit “Sukiyaki,” by Kyu Sakamoto, and following the Essex hit was “Surf City” by Jan and Dean. On the R&B chart, the Essex’s top hit was preceded by Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger” and followed by “Fingertips (Part 2)” by Stevie Wonder.
Album photos of the Essex that survive from that time show Hill with his three male bandmates standing behind lead singer Humes. All five singers are wearing their Marine Corps uniforms.
"The Pentagon didn’t like that,” says Hill. “Our commanding officer didn’t like it so much. Anita’s commanding officer thought it was great, but ours didn’t like it so much. He said, ‘I’m gonna break up this singing group,’ and he proceeded to do that, eventually.”
Some of the group’s members were sent to Europe. Hill was sent to Okinawa, where he was stationed for 14 months. “Rudy (Johnson) was sent overseas immediately. He never even got to do a show with us, and he was an original member,” Hill says.
Among other gigs, the Essex had the opportunity to perform on “American Bandstand” for Dick Clark. They also did a show at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem.
Hill now performs with his own group, the Billy Hill Band, which has been together for 25 years. Five years ago, the Essex reunited for one of those now-famous PBS oldies specials, which was recorded in Pittsburgh and used to bolster the network’s fundraising efforts.
Hill, 66, is retired and lives in East Windsor with his wife, Grace, to whom he has been married for eight years. After leaving the Marines, Hill worked first in a music store and a Pennsylvania steel mill, and then as a proctor at Princeton University. While at that job, Hill recorded a few songs under the name Billy Proctor.
He later spent 25 years as a correctional officer at Trenton State Prison, where he briefly led a music program for inmates.
Hill, who has four sisters, grew up in Princeton, not far from Paul Robeson Place (formerly Jackson Street) and Chambers Street. His father died when he was eight years old, and his mother and grandmother raised him. “My mother was an instructor for Singer Sewing Machine when it was over in the Princeton Shopping Center,” he says. “It was very lucrative for them, and they were able to buy a home in Princeton.” He also likes to remind everyone that he was very good in basketball and football.
After his father’s death, he spent four years in Ohio with the Dokes family, his cousins, because there were many boys in the family. One of Hill’s youngest cousins, Michael Dokes, grew up to be heavyweight boxing champion of the world post-Muhammad Ali.
He has one son, Shawn Gillette, 46, and two daughters, Adrienne, 41, and Billie, 37, with his first wife, and five grandchildren.
Princeton, says Hill, “was a great place to grow up. There was a poor section, but not what you would call a ghetto. We would get together, sing on the corners.”
Jam For Life, KatManDu, Waterfront Park, Route 29, Trenton. Sunday, September 20, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Marathon multi-band concert to benefit the Jam for Life Foundation, which promotes awareness of organ and tissue donation. Visit jamforlifefoudation.com. $15 in advance; $20 at the door. 609-393-7300 or www.katmandutrenton.com.
Also, Billy Hill andthe Meg Hansen Group will appear on Saturday, October 3, at Sotto 128, 128 Nassau Street. 609-921-7555 or www.sotto128.com.