Baby Sister Recalls Life in Her Family
by Norma Jo Wills Hamm
When I look back over the years and realize what a legacy our Mom & Pop Wills left their 7 children, I am so very thankful. They left as a legacy to their children a love for God, family, each other, and a love for Gospel music. Our family was very close and lived in a three generational home.
Our "Granny" (Eva Denson, maternal grandmother) was born in 1876, during America's 100th anniversary year, and passed away in 1981 just one week short of her 105th birthday. She lived with us, cooked for us, and helped our working parents to raise us from the week she was widowed at age 45.
Our "Pop" and "Mom", A. B. and Leah Wills, gave us lots of love, lots of music, and lots of fun. Mom died of cancer in 1963 and Pop died in 1971. We miss them both very much, but in respect to them have carried their values to our children and our grandchildren.
As I got old enough to begin singing, I was encouraged to take piano lessons and go to Stamps Music School every summer. We were always told we could do it, so we did it. At age 13 I began traveling with my five brothers and sisters to churches and singing conventions. The family quartet needed a pianist, so that was my part. I could only
play in three keys (C, F, & G), so the group sang in those keys exclusively. I didn't even know that I was not very good because of the encouragement of my family. They said I could do it, so I did it! I'm sure it was hard to sing with my playing, but they never complained and fortunately I improved with more lessons, so I could play in more keys.
I believe God gives us the talent and others around us encourage and develop it. That is the legacy of love and encouragement. It is so wonderful to grow up with that kind of backing. As I look back on my ministry of music I realize that the things I learned at home and through traveling and singing have been invaluable to me as a pastor's
wife. I learned to sing, play the piano, travel well, meet new people, rise to the occasion in most situations and believe I can do whatever needs to be done. People I have met through my travels with the Wills Family are life-long friends and have blessed me in my ministry.
As for the legacy of loving Gospel music, after all these years my favorite is still Southern Gospel. It can lift my heart in just minutes from the valley to the mountain peak. There's no other music that can fill a heart with such joy and happiness. I love to sing it - I love to listen to it. I have been blessed to be born into the Wills
family and I love our "singing" reunions.
As years pass, changes are inevitable.
Changes are sometimes hard to take. Through changes, we emerge, we grow, we enter new areas, and do things we didn't know would work or that we could even accomplish.
One of the hardest changes for the Wills Family Quartet came in 1959. Bob had always wanted to sing in a male quartet and he got the opportunity to sing with The Inspirationals. Betty had gotten married and began her family. The twins, Bob and Betty, had always been the "stars" and now they were leaving the group. It was a very
uncertain time for us and someone else might have just quit, but not Calvin or Lou. There had been a Wills Family Quartet since 1938, there had been many changes, but this change would not stop us from singing or traveling to sing.
The six brothers and sisters were more of a concert group with lots of variety, music and comedy. When this particular change took place it reduced the group to Calvin, Lou, Bill, and Norma Jo. It was a very emotional time because everything changed. Our sound and our style changed; it opened a whole new avenue of ministry for our group. We
know that all things work together for good. When Bill and Norma Jo began singing in the group with Calvin and Lou, it was a new sound but still a "Wills sound." We began singing more in churches, it was another area opened up to us. Churches began to call and we were booked every Sunday of the year as well as during some weeks for revivals. It was
a great ministry and through it I met my husband, Billy Hamm. He later sang in The Inspirationals and traveled with my brother Bob who had taken over the group when it restructured in 1964.
Changes come, family members come and go, but there's always a Wills singing group somewhere in the country. It might be the Singing Wills Family, or the Bob Wills Family, or The Inspirationals, or a group formed in our own churches or concerts but we keep on singing.
Junior Wills Family
One of the wonderful things about Gospel music is teaching those younger than you to sing, to perform, and to love it as you do. When I traveled and played the piano for the family it was natural to work with my nieces and nephews. Randy and Cindy Wills (Calvin's) and David and Kathy Hildreth (Lou's) were so
much fun to work with and the work was very rewarding. It was hard because I wouldn't be satisfied with four kids just singing the same part; I taught them to sing four-part harmony. Thank heaven they all had good "ears" for harmony.
When I began working with them, David and Randy were 12, Kathy was 10, and Cindy was 9. Cindy as the youngest got to sing melody, Kathy sang alto, David sang tenor and that left Randy to sing bass.
It was such fun working with young voices and passing the legacy on. It was in their genes and they took to it like ducks to water. The singing part was harder for them than the performing - they were natural at showmanship. Those kids amazed me, I couldn't get them to do anything in rehearsal; they were real
"goof-offs." Yet, when they hit the stage, their voices, their rhythm blending and their harmony were almost perfect. They sang music geared to their age group and were very popular everywhere we traveled. Folks just loved the Junior Wills Family.
In 1963, at the National Quartet Convention in Memphis, Tennessee, they won first-place in competition singing The Old Country Church. As they got older, they got even better and more like pro's even though they were just teenagers. They began to play backup instruments for the Wills Family. When we began doing
our TV shows in 1965, they were a regular feature on each program; and, by far, got the most fan mail.
When the Wills Family pulled up to an auditorium to sing, four kids and five adults piled off the bus - it was a sight to behold. There was lots of energy, lots of noise, and lots of fun. I can't tell you all that went on during those bus trips, but I can say there was never a dull moment!
Wills Family Inspirational Time
Some people show "home movies" to you, but the Wills Family can show you their vintage television shows from the 1960's. Most folks who see them, love the music because it's "timeless" and the "big hair-do's" always bring a chuckle.
It was such a privilege to do television. There were 32 cast members and most were family. Wills Family Inspirational Time was the first full color Gospel TV show syndicated in the world. We made 108 of them to be shown in 50 markets around the United States. Producing those programs was hard work because we taped four
of them each month on a Friday from midnight to 6:00 AM; then, we'd hop on our buses and head out for personal appearances that weekend.
The format was always the same for each show and featured the Singing Wills Family, The Inspirationals Quartet, the Junior Wills Family. Sister Betty and brother "Big Bill" would do solos, and of course, our "Pop" would solo or sing as part of the big family choir. Lou would often read a favorite poem
and be joined by Pop on the set. Our family has always been close-knit so we would pull for each other and not be jealous of who got the most solos, or who got to sing first. We are a family and we are all proud of the accomplishments of each other.
Again I must add, that the experience of making those TV shows was so beneficial to each of our later ministries. You just can't buy that kind of experience. My life with my family has been exciting, fulfilling, and the richest legacy I can pass to my own children.
Jo Hamm is a pastor's wife and lives in Denver, Colorado.
E-mail her at