The guy could seemingly sell anything. He could ‘sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo’, as the old cliche’ goes. He could cause consumers to want something that they never previously wanted or realized they needed and next thing you knew, he had people buying that product. His loud, booming voice in effect became a household staple in many American homes. Billy Mays would become known as “The King of The Info-mercials”.
William Darrell Mays, Jr. was born on July 20, 1958, in McKees Rock, Pennsylvania. He was the son of William Darrell Mays, Sr. and Joyce Palm Mays. Later on, he was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he basically grew up. He attended Sto-Rox High School and later he attended West Virginia University, where he acquired fame as a linebacker on its football team. But Billy later dropped out and for a time worked at his father’s hazardous waste company before he moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1983.
Around the mid-80s Billy got involved in the sales business, selling Washmatik washing machines to passersby on the Atlantic City boardwalk. At first, he was something of a flop; he wasn’t getting anywhere until he began to watch the older, experienced hucksters. As he later acnowledged when he became a celebrity ” I was taught to pitch by a by a lot of old pitchmen. That’s the kind of style I have.” By the late 1980s-early 90s he had graduated to homeshows, selling virtually everything from maintainance products and tools to cleaning products and food choppers.
In 1993, Billy developed a friendship with his rival, Max Appel, who was the founder of Orange-Glo International, who just invented a new, powerful cleaning product known as “Orange-Glo”. He was hired to be one of the company’s promoters. In 1993, many people were beginning to hearing of a new commercial innovation called “info-mercials”, which was more than just ordinary television commercials. By its very definition, it provided extensive information and demonstrations about various products, hence its name.
Billy Mays would turn Orange-Glo products into virtual household items as well as household words. He introduced such products as Oxi-Clean, Orange Clean, and Ka-boom, which was introduced on the then-new Home Shopping Network in St. Petersberg, Florida around 1995.
On his very first day on the TV network, sales increases skyrocketed to numerous customers in just one day. Billy had a very rapid-fire delivery. He became well-known for his loud, abrasive shouting during his info-mercials. One news columnist called him “A full-volume pitchman, amped-up like a candidate for a tranquilizer-gun takedown”. Billy wasn’t your typical TV pitchman, he was a television celebrity. In time, more and more Americans became familiar with that craggy face, and that loud, booming voice that made you just want that bottle of Oxi-Clean or Orange-Glo, even though you may have never even heard of these products before. Billy Mays didn’t just sell Orange-Glo or Oxi-Clean, he became the voice of these products, you’d thought he invented them himself, which of course, he didn’t.
In time Mays became such a nationwide celebrity that he was able to start his own company, Mays Promotions, Inc, in which he was its CEO. In time other companies began to utilize the colloquial skills of this dynamic young man. He became The Pitchman of All Pitchmen who could sell virtually anything simply with the power and volume of his voice. He appeared on many “As Seen on TV” infomercials, such as “Mighty Putty”, for instance. In fact, he was even beginning to appear on the Internet when in December 2008 he began appearing on ESPN online service ads. He appeared in December 2008 and January 2009 during ESPN’s Bowl Games.
In March 27, 2009, Mays appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and on June 23, 2009, one of his last public appearances, he appeared on The Tonight Show with Conan O’ Brien.
On June 27, 2009, returning from a business trip, there was a malfunction on Billy May’s plane in which he was hit on the head by falling luggage. He appeared not to be seriously hurt, but he quipped, “I got hit on the head with some luggage. But I got a hard head”. Those would be the last public words most persons would hear from Billy Mays.
That night, when he was at home, he complained about feeling groggy after having dinner. He went to bed. The next morning, June 28, 2009, at about 7:45, AM, Sunday morning, May’s second wife, Deborah (His first marriage in the early 1980s ended in divorce ) went to wake him up for breakfast. But he wouldn’t wake up. She panicked and called paramedics, who pronounced Billy Mays dead. He had evidently died in his sleep. He was only 50 years old and at the height of his career.
The whole world was in a state of shock. Just a few days earlier, they were just beginning to cope with the reality of the death of Michael Jackson, and now Billy Mays, who was The Michael Jackson of Pitchmen.
At first, some speculated that May’s death was the result of the accident he had on the plane, but it was later revealed by a coroners’s report that Billy Mays evidently died of congestive heart failure induced by the use of cocaine, which the coroner report indicated, contributed to his death.
May’s funeral was held in his hometown at McKees Rock, the pallbearers wore blue shirts and khaki pants, the clothes that Billy Mays wore when hawking his products. He was buried with a shirt with the Oxi-Clean logo on it. Billy Mays is survived by his parents, his second wife, Deborah Mays, his son from his first marriage, Billy Mays III and a daughter, Elizabeth, from his second.
In his short, glamorous life, Billy Mays has indeed become a legend that will not be easily forgotten to those who knew and loved him.