(October 2, 1956 – August 5, 2012)
He quickly corrected me one evening when I told the audience he was born in South Carolina. Though most of his formative years were spent there, Stephen T. Hill was born in the great state of Missouri. His musical roots were planted deeply in the rich Carolina music scene as not only a gifted singer, but also a top-notch guitarist. He honed his craft on stages and in the studios of Greenville.
I treasure the memory of him saying that if he was ever going to reach a new level in the music business, he had to make the move to Nashville. So he packed up his wife Kathy, daughters Melody and Miriam and his all-boy son, Caleb, and took the giant steps of faith toward Nashville. I know firsthand, making new friends in Music City and developing music business contacts is not easy. But word of his ability and excellent ear training got around soon enough, and he found himself working in some of Nashville’s best studios. His new contacts led him to background vocal appearances on projects by Nancy Sinatra, Marie Osmond, Don McLean, Dolly Parton and more.
I think Stephen would have told you that his most life-changing connection came when he befriended Ben Speer.
Ben suggested that Bill Gaither use Stephen on the vocal sessions for the Homecoming video series. After Bill heard Stephen’s blue-eyed soul style and his incredible vocal range and feel, he called on this Missouri-born Carolina boy for features on almost every Homecoming video since.
I first met Stephen a few days before our first Homecoming recording session together. Producer/guitarist Bobby All paired the two of us to sing background vocals for a Christian country project he was producing. Our vocal blend was natural and the friendship that sparked that day developed into a true brotherhood. As vocal contractor for the Nashville Network program “Prime Time Country,” it was such a joy for me to call my versatile buddy in to sing behind the variety of guest artists from every genre of music. From the “Soul Man” Sam Moore, to the “Rose Garden” of Lynn Anderson, to Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash” — Stephen could easily handle it all.
His exposure on the Gaither videos and as a part of the Homecoming Tour opened the door to countless new friends, pastors and churches across the country. Most folks don’t know that he was a Bible scholar, an avid reader and an ordained Baptist minister. As a songwriter, he enjoyed hit releases by the Talleys, Karen Peck & New River, Gold City and many other gospel groups and soloists. In 2003, Stephen had the bright idea that he and I should try to book a Christmas concert or two. That first year we did over a dozen Christmas concerts together, and have done as many or more every year since. We were finalizing plans for our busiest Christmas tour to date in 2012. Our travels have included some of the funniest circumstances imaginable — from an arrest, to highway encounters with animals, to church vans out of gas less than a mile from the airport, to sound systems with one microphone and more — but that is all material I am saving for the book!
I say all this to point you to what it all really boils down to. I have been blessed to make music for a living since before I graduated from high school. Having spent more years on the road with him than anyone in my musical career, I can honestly say there was never a more honest, dedicated purveyor and example of the Gospel than Stephen Hill. Our paths together ran through dozens of states and many countries around the world, and in every venue his message was clear and his love for people was contagious. His talent was heaven-sent, and I am a much better person having had the opportunity to call him my singing partner and friend. Even though his mega-sized heart stopped just before his concert at a church in Carolina on August 5, his heartfelt message and influence will beat on forever. He was truly blessed to do what he did best on earth, right up to the moment he moved on to another new level.
Blessings, Godspeed as you go — may angels guard your way, old friend!