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The Elusive Gus Hill

The following represents work in progress. The author has tracked Gus Hill as closely as his resources permitted, and hopes that this article will revive some latent memories in CAPS members and friends.

The Canadian ballad singer Gus Hill's only claim to fame is that he was perhaps the first "live" vocalist on Canadian radio, on the Montreal Marconi station XWA (later CFCF) in 1919 or 1920 (Encyclopaedia of Music in Canada, 2nd edition, p. 401A, Kallmann, Potvin & Winters, eds., U of T Press, 1992). He was accompanied in that broadcast by the legendary pianist of the Strand Theatre, Willie Eckstein, and Hill's only mention in the EMC is in the Eckstein article. Trying to determine the date of the historic broadcast and to find biographical information on Gus Hill for my projected book on the Marconi stations in Montreal and Toronto, I first went to Ed Moogk's "Roll Back the Years" (National Library of Canada, Ottawa, 1975, p. 195) and discovered that Gus Hill had recorded four acoustic sides for Herbert Berliner (Apex 566: "Mickey O'Neil" and "When Frances Dances with Me"; Apex 609: "I Was Married Up in the Air" and "Radi-adi-O") and one for Berliner's HMV black label (216242B: "Grieving for You") with the Harry Thomas Trio. There is a photograph of Hill in Ed Moogk's book but no biographical information, so I wrote to the Music Division of the National Library of Canada. They have no vertical file on Hill, but were able to provide the source of the photo, plus the original caption:

"Gus Hill, who was singing 'Cherie' and 'Lord Byng, Canada Welcomes You' through a (triple horn) Magnavox at Ottawa Exhibition and who was requested by Mrs. Meighen, wife of the Premier, to sing 'Peggy O'Neilí, the big Feist song hit". (Canadian Music Trades Journal XXII, 5, October 1921)

Since the Meighen government called an election on September 1, 1921, and was defeated, the incident had to be in or before the fall of 1921. Searching the Ottawa newspapers for reports from the Ottawa Ex, hoping for biographical information on Gus Hill, I found only that he was described as the "well-known minstrel". (Ottawa Evening Journal, September 15, 1921, p. 12)

Hill and Eckstein performed together again on the Montreal Marconi station on June 20 and 21, 1922, in a radio promotion for the Independent and United Amusements, Limited, theatre chain, where its six theatres were equipped with receivers to pick up Marconi special broadcasts between photoplays. Again, no associated newspaper story on Gus Hill.

The obvious place to look for Gus Hill was in Lovell's Montreal City Directories, but his name does not appear there at all between the middle teens and the middle 1930's. After a long while facing a brick wall, I went to Might's Toronto City Directories and found him living in Le Grande Apartments on Hambly Avenue in 1921. He showed up again in 1922, 1926-29 and 1939-46. The Toronto Assessment Rolls for that address show him in 1920 as a salesman for Leo Feist Ltd., New York Music Publishers, at 195 Yonge Street, later as a singer for that company, and named variously Gus Hill (1923), August G. Hill (1924) and Reginald E. Hill (1925). So, while working for Feist in Montreal, his home base was in Toronto.

The Toronto Star database turned up Gus Hill's appearance on the secondary vaudeville bill at the Pantages Theatre, Toronto, for the week of January 23, 1923, presumably as a Feist song plugger. Subsequently, he was a featured performer on CFCA, the Toronto Star radio station, on the evening programs of October 20 and November 6, 1923, February 1, 8 and 20, April 9, 15 and 23 and May 3, 1924. The only review I found said that he "sang very prettily".

Leo Feist, Ltd., started up a branch in Canada in late 1919, in the Heintzman Building, Toronto. Gordon V. Thompson was General Manager at the Toronto office and his early aim was to outdo the United States company in sales. To that end, he sent his staff of professional singer/song pluggers travelling from Halifax to Vancouver. The Thompson archive files at the National Library of Canada contain a document with a bit of information on Hill (MUS 44/A3,1). In the 1921 General Manager's report, Thompson wrote: "Mr. Gus Hill in Montreal has been able to show a remarkable increase in the sales in the district over which he has charge", and in the 1923 report: "....we felt that Don Linden was too expensive for the results produced and finally dropped him from our pay roll.

We then transferred Gus Hill from Montreal to Toronto. Gus is a steady, all-round professional man who has a splendid personality and is himself a singer. His place in Montreal has recently been filled by Al. Edwards, who sings and speaks both English and French....."

After 1926, Gus Hill's employment at Feist was no longer noted in Might's Toronto Directory, and by September 1927, Gordon V. Thompson was the only employee listed at Leo Feist, Ltd.

After 1923, Hill was living as a boarder in the apartment of his former next door neighbour, advertising salesman Joseph L. Thomas Williams (1879-1957). Williams moved from Hambly to Bonfield Avenue in 1936, and Hill turned up there in 1939, sharing the same telephone number. Possibly the Williams address was less a residence for Hill than a convenient place to leave his baggage,if he remained a commercial traveller. Later on, when the Toronto assessment rolls were amplified, Williamsí wife, Lily Jane, was listed as well. An hypothesis that she may have been Hill's sister collapsed when Joseph Williams' obituary revealed that her maiden name was Bush. Hill remained a boarder with the Williamses until the Might's entry of 1946, after which another tenant replaced him.

To this point in my research, some elements of the career and personality of Gus Hill have been uncovered, but he is still a great mystery. I am not certain what his real name was. I do not know when and where he was born, what he did for a living after 1926, whether he continued singing after his employment at Feist ended, and when and where he died. It is possible that he was a close contemporary of Joseph L. T. Williams, who was born in 1879. Further research may reveal where Hill was interred, and that should give at least his full name and his vital dates.

Incidentally, there was a United States entertainer named Gus Hill (born Gustav Metz, circa 1860 - 1937), who should not be confused with the Canadian version. The former was a self-styled world champion Indian club swinger (not a juggler!), vaudeville impresario/manager and inventor of the comic strip musical comedy. His hit shows included "The Yellow Kid", "Hogan's Alley", "Mutt and Jeff", "Bringing Up Father" and "Happy Hooligan". He also operated Gus Hill's Minstrels from the 1890's, is credited with discovering Montgomery and Stone and Weber and Fields, and from 1920 was one of the largest stockholders in the Columbia Amusement Company.

Finally, Meet the Elusive Gus Hill

In the above article, I outlined the state of my research on Gus Hill, the Canadian ballad singer known as perhaps the first "live" vocalist on Canadian radio, circa 1920, on the Montreal Marconi station XWA (later CFCF). We also knew that he recorded four 10Ē acoustic sides for Herbert Berlinerís Apex label and one for his black HMV 216000 series. Other than these few facts, and a photograph in the Canadian Music Trades Journal, October 1921, with a brief caption stating that he had sung for Mrs. (Prime Minister) Meighen at the Ottawa Exhibition, we knew nothing about him.

I had found that Gus Hill was not a Montrealer at all, but lived in Toronto and worked for Gordon V. Thompson, then manager of the Canadian branch of Leo Feist Ltd., New York music publishers, at 195 Yonge Street. At first he was a salesman for Feist and then a singer / song-plugger. He turned up on the secondary bill at the Pantages Theatre, Toronto, for the week of January 23, 1923, and appeared several times on CFCA, the Toronto Star radio station, in 1923 and 1924. Gus Hill was no longer listed at Feist in 1926, but continued to turn up from time to time as a boarder at the home of advertising salesman Joseph L. Thomas Williams and his wife Lily Jane. Hill disappeared from Mightís Toronto City Directory after 1946.

The breakthrough happened when I finally got at and searched the Globe and Mail database, and found a little obituary article on Reginald (Gus) Hill. He had died on Friday, January 18, 1946, at his home, 7 Bonfield Avenue, Toronto. "Onetime singer of popular songs", he had been "associated with several music firms as song sheet salesman", "had been active in business both in Toronto and Montreal", and had been ill for some years. Gus Hill was buried at Park Lawn Cemetery, Toronto, and surviving him were his parents, Mr. And Mrs. Joseph T. Williams!

I also found Lily Jane Williamsí obituary. She had died on November 10, 1970 in her 98th year. Her husband's obituary, previously found, had revealed that her maiden name was Bush and that she had come from Markdale, Ontario, near the foot of the Bruce Peninsula. Telephone calls to Bush and Hill families in Markdale yielded no memories of Lily Jane Bush nor of Reginald Hill. I was beginning to suspect that, since Mrs. Williams was six years older than Mr. Williams, and had had a child by a Mr. Hill, that this was likely a second marriage for her.

Trull Funeral Home and Park Lawn Cemetery did not agree on Gusí year of birth, so the next stop was Park Lawn, where I was directed to the family plot, south lot, east half, 796. The bottom name on the monument reads, "Son / Reginald Hill / 1894 - 1946".

With the date of 1894, to the Ontario Archives, where I quickly located Reginald Huffman Hill's birth registration on MS 929, reel 120, #009339. He was born on October 27, 1894, at Markdale, Ontario, of Lillie Janis Bush and Silas Huffman Hill, carpenter and joiner. So, Gus Hill died at age 51, plus a couple of months.

The final mystery was, what was the cause of Gus Hillís early demise? The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Office, Ontario Ministry of Consumer and Business Services, eventually surrendered the death certificate. Reginald Hill was English in "racial origin", was single, and was a traveller by trade. He had "had 'sleeping sickness' 20 yrs ago. Debilitated since", so perhaps he picked it up in his travels, when he left Leo Feist, circa 1926. The secondary cause of death was influenza, which he had had for 6 days, and he succumbed after two days to bronchial pneumonia. The certificate was signed by J.T. Williams, his step-father, who gave the birth-date erroneously as October 27, 1896.

Billed in 1921 as "the well-known minstrel", history lost track of Gus Hill. After many decades, we have recovered the full name and some of the story of the elusive Reginald Huffman (Gus) Hill, a Canadian broadcasting and recording pioneer artist.

Thanks to Marlene Wehrle and Jeannine Barriault, Music Division, National Library of Canada, Jack Litchfield, Greg Robertson and other members of CAPS for research tips and for finding Gus Hill discs for me.