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Published: Thursday, 8/27/2009

Pianist played with Knorr, led own trio

Howard B. Hill, Jr., 85, of Springfield Township, a former professional pianist who performed with his own trio and for many years with the Johnny Knorr Orchestra, died yesterday in Hospice of Northwest Ohio, Toledo.

His death was believed to be related to heart disease, but the specific cause was not known, his wife, Victoria, said.

Mr. Knorr, whose 14-piece orchestra is celebrating its 50th year this year and which still plays regularly at Centennial Terrace in Sylvania, described Mr. Hill as "a very exceptional musician."

Mr. Hill played with Mr. Knorr's orchestra for 23 years.

For years, he also had the Howard Hill Trio, which played dinner and dance music at such long-gone Toledo venues as the Billyle Supper Club, the Charcoal House, the Willows, the Tivoli, and the 3-D Club.

"Music was his life," said Mrs. Hill, who was married to him for 55 years.

She said her husband continued to play with Mr. Knorr's band and give private piano lessons until three years ago, when she made him quit because of his deteriorating health from heart ailments.

The Knorr orchestra travels thousands of miles a year taking its big-band sound to Chicago, Washington, and Mackinac Island, Mich.

Mr. Knorr said Mr. Hill was easy to perform and travel with.

"He was an exceptional person to work with," Mr. Knorr said. "If a problem came up with a song we got a request for, he'd work it out."

Mr. Hill "was an exceptionally fine pianist," Mr. Knorr continued.

"He knew the different styles of music, and he fit in with the band tremendously. He also sang a fair amount of vocals."

One of those vocals, "Rhumba of Love," is on the Knorr band's 50th anniversary compact disc, Just the Way You Like It.

Other vocals he enjoyed performing were "All Right OK You Win," "Straighten Up and Fly Right," and "Drinking Champagne," Mr. Knorr said.

Mr. Hill grew up in Toledo and graduated from Libbey High School.

Shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and was sent to the South Pacific. There, he spent more than three years in combat, surviving such ferocious campaigns as Guadalcanal and Peleliu.

Mrs. Hill said her husband's quiet, nonconfrontational personality belied his brutalizing wartime experiences.

"The fighting he did was amazing. I don't know how he did it. He was at Guadalcanal at 18," she said. "He had terrible malaria. He was hospitalized for a month at a time, and he'd get well enough and they'd send him out to another battlefield, and he never complained."

Mr. Hill was the son of Edith and Howard Hill. He learned music as a boy and studied it at Bowling Green State University.

Mr. Knorr said his old bandmate will be sorely missed - "He had a special place in my life for so many years."

Surviving Mr. Hill are his wife, Victoria; daughter, Denise Stiebeling; sons, Fred, Dean, and Rick; two grandchildren, and two stepgrandchildren.

Services will be at 11 a.m. tomorrow in the Weigel Funeral Home, 204 Chestnut St., Swanton, where the body will be today after 4 p.m.

The family requests tributes to Hospice of Northwest Ohio.

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