Ronnie Hilton [real name Adrian Hill] (1926–2001), singer, was born Adrian Hill on 28 January 1926 at 65 North Road, Kingston upon Hull, east Yorkshire, the sixth child of John William Hill, an able seaman in the merchant navy and later an aircraft worker, and his wife, Sarah Elizabeth, née Morgan. He attended Paisley Street School in Hull, where he sang in the school choir.
Hilton left school at fourteen and joined his father at the Blackburn aircraft factory in Leeds as an apprentice fitter. In 1942 he joined the Gordon Highlanders, serving in both Europe and the UK during the Second World War. Towards the end of his army service he served in the officers' mess and sang with the regimental band at social events. He was demobbed in 1947 and returned to Leeds, where he resumed his apprenticeship as a fitter, under the interrupted apprenticeship scheme, at a sewing machine factory. On 24 April 1948 he married Joan Lilian Conyers (1926–1986), a typist; she was the daughter of Harry Conyers, a joiner from Leeds. They had two daughters and a son.
Hilton sang regularly in Leeds working men's clubs with various local bands and, in 1951, he entered a singing competition at the Shaftesbury Cinema in Leeds, which he subsequently won. The prize was a month's residency with the Johnny Addlestone Band at the Starlight Roof, a factory social club at Hepton's clothiers in Leeds. He eventually stayed with the band for three years, during which he made several appearances with the BBC Northern Variety Orchestra.
In 1953 Hilton was asked by a local songwriter to record a demonstration disc, which was sent to the publishers Keith Prowse Music in London. The recording was heard by Wally Ridley, the influential recording manager at HMV Records, who signed him to a recording contract and suggested the name change to Ronnie Hilton. With his light operatic voice he became one of a group of home-grown UK balladeers, including the contemporary Hull chart topper David Whitfield, who were signed by UK record companies to compete with American singing stars such as Eddie Fisher, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and Perry Como.
Hilton's first record for HMV, in 1954, ‘Hey There’, was not a hit, but his second release, ‘I Still Believe’, reached number three on the charts in December 1954 and was the first of fifteen top thirty hits between 1954 and 1959. Often recording songs that had been hits in the USA, his further chart entries included ‘Veni Vidi Vici’, ‘A Blossom Fell’, ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’, ‘Stars Shine In Your Eyes’ and ‘Young and Foolish’. In May 1956 he had his only UK number one with ‘No Other Love’, taken from the Oscar Rodgers and Richard Hammerstein musical Me and Juliet. Originally a US hit for Perry Como, it remained at the top of the UK charts for six weeks and was also a top ten hit in America. Subsequent chart entries included ‘Who Are We’, ‘Around the World’, and ‘Magic Moments’. His last hit of the decade came in August 1959 with ‘The Wonder of You’, later recorded by Elvis Presley.
During this time Hilton became one of the biggest singing stars in the UK, appeared in three royal command variety performances, and performed at sell-out concert tours, summer seasons, and pantomimes for impresarios such as Lew Grade and Bernard Delfont. He made frequent guest appearances on radio and TV, and presented two radio series of the Ronnie Hilton Show for the BBC Northern Region. In 1957 he sang at the Festival of British Song in an attempt to represent the UK at the first Eurovision song contest, finishing the runner-up to the singer Patricia Bredin, also from Hull.
Hilton's hits dried up as rock and roll, skiffle, jazz, and beat music began to dominate the charts in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and musical taste and fashion changed. However, he made a surprise return to the charts in 1964 with ‘Don't Let the Rain Come Down (Crooked Little Man)’ and then, in 1965, with the Christmas novelty release ‘A Windmill in Old Amsterdam’, written by Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks. The song became a stalwart of the BBC's Junior Choice radio programme and a perennial children's favourite. It eventually sold over a million copies and became the song with which Hilton was most associated.
After his chart career was over Hilton remained in demand for cabaret performances and pantomime, especially in the north of England, where he lived most of his life. TV appearances in the 1970s included Morecambe and Wise and The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, as well as two series of Hilton's Half Hour made for Scottish TV. In 1980 he presented the series Brass in Concert for Yorkshire Television. A passionate Leeds United supporter, during the Don Revie era of the 1960s and 1970s Hilton recorded songs such as ‘Leeds United Calypso’, ‘Glory Glory Leeds United’, and ‘The Tale of Billy Bremner’. He toured with 1950s nostalgia concert shows, featuring contemporaries such as Russ Conway, Clinton Ford, and Ruby Murray, and, in the early 1990s, presented Sounds of the Fifties on BBC Radio 2. In 1989 he was awarded a gold medal for services to popular music by the British Academy of Song Composers.
Hilton's first wife, Joan, died in 1986. After her death, he was reunited with the dancer Christine Miles [Westoll] (b. 1945), the daughter of Walter Arnold Harold Farrance, kitchen designer; her previous marriage had been dissolved. They had had an affair in the mid-1960s, which had produced a son. After resuming their relationship, they married on 21 January 1989 in Leeds.
Hilton suffered his first stroke in 1976. Further strokes in the 1990s brought his forty-year show business career to an end. He died on 20 February 2001 at Ersham House nursing home, Ersham Road, Hailsham, east Sussex. In December 2002 the Ronnie Hilton White Rose Memorial Garden was opened, adjacent to the David Whitfield Memorial Garden, on Hull's Freetownway.
C. Larkin, ed., Encyclopedia of popular music, 4th edn (2006) · ‘Ronnie Hilton’, Discogs, www.discogs.com/artist/439529-Ronnie-Hilton, accessed on 4 May 2016 · Daily Telegraph (22 Feb 2001) · The Guardian (22 Feb 2001) · The Independent (23 Feb 2001), review section · ‘York Road, Hepton and Co.’, Leodis: a Photographic Archive of Leeds, www.leodis.net, accessed on 4 May 2016 · ‘Ronnie Hilton’, Official Charts online, www.officialcharts.com/artist/1547/ronnie%20hilton/, accessed on 4 May 2016 · The Times (22 Feb 2001) · d. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert.