THE IDLE AMERICAN: A road less traveled

Published 10:42 am Thursday, November 1, 2018

Commentary by Dr. Don Newbury


He’s far more than a “once was,” but, even with an odometer he disconnected several years ago, he’s still well short of being a “has been.”

At age 78, Ray Hildebrand still is a Christian entertainer, most remembered for writing and singing Billboard magazine’s number one musical hit for February 1963. Fact is, his “Hey, Paula” number, sung with a college co-ed when both were students at Howard Payne University in Brownwood, was heralded as tops in the world at the time.

Appearing at some of the world’s largest musical venues in 1963, they once pre-empted The Beatles, whom London promoters claimed could be booked any time. “The Beatles even wanted our autographs,” Hildebrand remembers.

A year deep into stardom, Ray took the other fork in the road, opting to entertain in schools, churches and other Christian venues, the latter including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.  (Other Texans long associated with FCA are another HPU graduate, Bunny Martin, world yo-yo champion; Rev. Neal Jeffrey, an All-American quarterback at Baylor, and Grant Teaff, former BU coach and longtime president of the American Football Coaches’ Association.)

He may sing and play guitar from a stool since he underwent knee replacement surgery earlier this month.  That’s when he claimed to have only two appointments–one for a pedicure and the other the next day with the surgeon. “I wasn’t about to have doctors and nurses giggle about my ugly toenails,” he explained.

Son of school teachers, Ray was born in Joshua, TX and is a graduate of Harlingen, TX High School.  A college basketball player, he spent two years at Navarro College before graduating two years later at HPU.

THE IDLE AMERICAN: A road less traveled

He wrote “Hey, Paula,” for basketball teammate Russell Berry, as something of a pre-proposal musical tribute to then Paula Roulette. (Russell and Paula have been married for 55 years.) At the time, Ray was in summer school, lifeguarding at the swimming pool. Funds were short, so he lived under the gymnasium bleachers—with the coach’s permission, he emphasizes.

In reality, Ray wasn’t Paul, and the other vocalist wasn’t Paula. Still another collegian, Riney Jordan, was a disc jockey at Brownwood Radio Station KEAN, gave the couple 15 minutes of airtime on a Sunday afternoon, and “Hey, Paula” shot from there to the top of the charts.

(“Paula” was Jill Jackson, longtime wife of Los Angeles businessman Marvin Landon. Since her “Paul and Paula” days, her performing with Ray has been sporadic.)

Even the quickly-arranged initial recording in a Fort Worth studio was unlikely. They showed up without an appointment when the scheduled artist failed to show.

The producer vowed that he’d record something that afternoon “if it had to be the Star-Spangled Banner.”

Instead, he recorded “Hey, Paula.” Within a few months, Dick Clark on American Bandstand presented the couple with a trophy denoting the record’s million-sale mark.

Ray sang periodically with the Billy Graham Evangelism Association and later was offered a position with Graham’s promotion agency.

He declined, settling with his late wife, Judy, in Kansas City. For many years, he was a real estate appraiser by day and an entertainer on nights and weekends, and often at prisons.

Judy died of cancer at age 57 in 1999. He continues to reside in KC, where families of his daughter and son live. Nowadays, he spends considerable time with seven grandchildren and a pair of great-grandchildren.

Come Nov. 2-11, he’ll make several Texas appearances, mostly in churches. Full of zest, Ray is a tonic.

One of his 500 compositions we’ll request is, “Say I Do,” a favorite the late Ray Price sang on his final album.

My college buddy is as talented and wholesome as it gets.

It’ll be great to see him again. If he’s still favoring his left knee, I’ll challenge him to a foot race.


Dr. Newbury is a former educator who “commits speeches” roundabout. Comments/inquiries to: Phone: 817-447-3872. Website: Twitter: @donnewbury. Facebook: don Newbury.