November 21, 1940 – August 18, 2023
When Ray Hildebrand went to London in 1963 to sing, the Beatles asked for his autograph. Overnight, Hildebrand had made it big in popular music with his very first recording, a song called “Hey, Hey Paula” sung with his friend Jill Jackson. It was the No. 1 pop song in 1962 and would sell three million copies. He had written the song sitting on his bunk while living in the gym at Howard Payne College (Texas), where he was an outstanding basketball player. At 6 foot 3, Hildebrand was quite a competitor on the court.
In months, he and Jill would be singing with the Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, Roger Miller, Sonny James, Patsy Kline, and a host of stars with Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Elvis Presley sent his wife-to-be Priscilla a 45 rpm of “Hey, Hey Paula” from Germany when he was in the Army. Even today, the song gets millions of views on YouTube with its golden oldies appearances.
However, this fortune and fame was short-lived and didn’t appeal to the Texas lad. One night in Cincinnati at age 22, he slipped a note under Dick Clark’s hotel door that said he wasn’t cut out to be a pop/rock star and was leaving the tour. Raised in a humble Christian home to parents who were educators, Hildebrand’s soul-searching led him to music that he was born to sing songs about Jesus and His love for mankind.
He married his college sweetheart, Judy Hendricks, the daughter of a Baptist pastor. In July 1967, Hildebrand’s love for athletics and music led him to join the staff of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) in Kansas City, Missouri. He became a superstar with FCA over the next 14 years, really for the rest of his life. Before Hildebrand, music at FCA Camps consisted of hymns and choruses, but Hildebrand was also an anointed songwriter. He would write a song for each camp theme.
Before FCA, Hildebrand had started writing Christian songs and Kurt Kaiser of Word Records expressed great interest in his creations. They resonated with pop melodies, only they were about Jesus and following His way of life. Thus, many believe that Hildebrand was the first contemporary Christian music artist and writer. In 1967, Word Records released an album entitled “He’s Everything to Me.” It was Hildebrand’s first album, and it was widely recognized as the first album to feature a Christian artist with a new pop/folk sound that entered the Christian music market. From this, he influenced thousands to get a guitar and lead youth in singing.
Only God knows the countless coaches and athletes, and many others, who gave their lives to Jesus Christ through the ministry of Ray Hildebrand. His personality and stage presence were one of a kind. His winsome smile, humor and unpredictable mannerisms won peoples’ hearts. Even unsaved youth would catch the spirit and sing with Hildebrand until Jesus became real to them. He brought joy and love. He was the same ministering to prisoners, juveniles, nursing home patients and professional athletes. He loved everybody, and people considered Hildebrand their friend.
Hildebrand was inducted into the FCA Hall of Champions in 2003. He was cited for his decades-long faithful ministry to coaches and athletes and for music he wrote that was used at FCA. Songs would include “Courage To Conquer,” “The Life That Wins,” “A Special Kind of Man,” “We Really Do Need Each Other,” “Say I Do,” “Turn It Over To Jesus” and many more.
Many honors came to Hildebrand in his 82 years. He was recognized by the Texas State Legislature; a marker at Howard Payne; he was inducted into the Kansas Music Hall of Fame; he toured parts of the world; he had gold and platinum records and albums; and he and Paul Land spent 26 years touring as the Christian Smothers Brothers. However, Hildebrand always considered his seven appearances at Billy Graham Crusades to be among his greatest privilege. Ed Markham, a lifelong friend from high school, nominated Hildebrand for the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and it is still in consideration by the committee.
Hildebrand lived his last 24 years without his soulmate, Judy, who passed away of lymphoma in 1999. However, his daughter, Heidi, and son, Michael, gave him seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, and they lived within minutes of each other.
In two of his songs, Hildebrand brings us comfort still today.
“If I live, well praise the Lord. If I die, well praise the Lord. If I live or die my only cry will be, Jesus in me, praise the Lord.”
And then there is:
”Anybody here wanna live forever, say I do. Anyone here wanna walk on golden streets, say I do. Anyone here sick and tired of living like you do. Anybody here wanna a home with love forever, say I do.”
Hildebrand has crossed the finish line and is now joining the saints in glory and praise to his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. What a reception he must have received.
“Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints.” - Psalm 116:15
Watch the tribute video to Hildebrand here.
View Hildebrand’s Hall of Champions info.
About the Author:
Wayne Atcheson serves as the Senior Ambassador and Historian for the Billy Graham Library and Archive Center. He also serves in donor ministry and as host to special guests to the Library. He and Hildebrand shared a close friendship as they served on staff at FCA together and throughout the rest of Hildebrand's life.
Photos courtesy of Ray Hildebrand Facebook Page