Number One on Billboard magazine’s “Hot 100” for the week ending Feb. 9, 1963, was “Hey, Paula,” a song recorded by a couple of students from a West Texas college.

In the fall of 1962, Ray Hildebrand was a guitar-playing basketball player at Howard Payne in Brownwood 145 miles southwest of Fort Worth on the San Angelo highway. The Baptist institution of higher learning has been around for quite a while having been founded in 1889.

Ray, who started singing at a single-digit age in church, began to dabble in songwriting after leaving his Joshua, Texas, home for college. While most of his teammates on the Yellow Jackets basketball team may have considered that strange, not so for Russell Berry. He asked Ray to write a song for his girlfriend whose name was Paula.

The favor for his friend turned out to be harder than Ray expected. The lyrics just did not seem to work until a second teammate suggested, “Why don’t you have the girl sing back to the guy?”

Ray had never thought of that but was willing to give it a try. To his relief and mild surprise, it did the trick.

Next he had to name the fictional lovers. Ray remembered “Tall Paul,” Annette Funicello’s summertime hit, and decided Paul and Paula was the perfect combination.

Last but far from least, Ray needed a female vocalist to complete the duet the song required. In a town with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants, including the entire student body of the local college, that could have turned into a time-consuming talent search. But Ray already had someone in mind.

Jill Jackson was the petite niece of his landlady. A native of McCamey, 210 miles farther west of Brownwood, the coed had her own 15-minute show every Sunday on the local radio station, which was how Ray happened to hear her sing.

As luck would have it, Jill had caught one of the occasional performances of Ray’s musical group “The Prisoners” and also liked what she heard. Since Jill already had a favorable opinion of his singing voice, he did not have to audition for his future partner.

Following a few rehearsals, Ray and Jill debuted the song and their new act on her Sunday show. Listeners flooded the station with phone calls to inquire where they could buy a vinyl copy of that wonderful song.

The problem was, of course, there was no record to sell. That was when Jill’s mother entered the picture.

She contacted a guitarist she knew in Fort Worth, who plucked the strings at recording sessions for Major Bill Smith. The promoter’s claim to fame was “Hey Baby!” by Bruce Channell of Jacksonville, Texas, that had made a big splash earlier in the year.

There are two versions of how Jill and Ray’s recording session, both involving the determined Mrs. Jackson, came about. The first had her scheduling an appointment with Major Smith and in the other she barged into Smith’s basement studio with the shy youngsters in tow and announced they had driven all the way from Brownwood to record a song that was sure to sell a million records.

At a mere five-feet one-inch, Jill had to stand on a wooden crate to reach the microphone. Accompanied by Smith’s studio musicians, the two unknowns made music history in a matter of minutes.

Major Smith released the record on his own LeCam label. He soon sold the rights and the singers’ recording contract to Mercury Records, which rereleased it.

Ray has told the story a thousand times: “They changed our names. We called the song ‘Paul and Paula’ by Jill and Ray, They called it ‘Hey, Paula’ by Paul and Paula.” And for good measure, Mercury urged them to pretend to be sweethearts to boost sales.

“Hey, Paula” quickly climbed the pop music charts and did not stop until it reached Number One on the Billboard “Hot 100” just in time for Valentine’s Day 1963. It held onto that spot for three straight weeks ahead of such famous artists as Dion, Bobby Vee, The Drifters, The Four Seasons and Bobby Darin.

The dazed college kids, from a town in Texas almost nobody had ever heard of, suddenly found themselves in the celebrity limelight. Appearances on “American Bandstand,” “To Tell the Truth” and other popular TV shows were followed by live performances across the U.S. and in London, where a foursome that called themselves The Beatles asked for their autographs.

Ray was the first to tire of the “pop star” life with the bright lights, travel and the pressure of nightly performances. He bailed out on a Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars” bus tour and went home to Brownwood leaving Jill to press on with a substitute “Paul.”

“Hey, Paula” sold more than a million copies earning Jill and Ray highly coveted gold records, which they donated to their alma mater on a return visit in 2012. Over the past half century, they have periodically reunited for well attended encores to the delight of their many fans.

Bartee Haile writes This Week In Texas History which appears every Sunday. He welcomes your comments and questions barteehaile@gmail.com or P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393 and invites you to visit his website at barteehaile.com.

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