Kentucky has always been home to a rich musical heritage, with an especially strong tradition in bluegrass and other forms of country music, but the state has sometimes provided a fertile birthplace for something a little different. One of those occasions was the creation of the pop music singing group, the Hilltoppers.
They began as a trio, formed by three Western Kentucky University students — two of whom were actually from New York. Jimmy Sacca and Seymour Spiegelman joined up with Kentuckian Don McGuire to form a singing group that appropriated the school’s nickname – Hilltoppers – but didn’t have a lot of success until they recruited a fourth member. He was another Kentucky native, a pianist who was a little older than the others, and his name was Billy Vaughn.
I’ve written before about Billy Vaughn’s career as a bandleader and record producer, but in his early years he was pretty much an unknown until he found a home with the Hilltoppers. Once he joined, the group began to make some waves when they recorded his composition, “Tryin,” and – with some help from a local DJ – managed to interest Dot Records in their song. After starting slowly, the record managed to crack the top ten and the group was on its way.
Playing on the college angle, the guys began building their image by appearing everywhere in letter-sweaters and beanies, including guest shots on TV shows such as those of Milton Berle, Perry Como and Ed Sullivan. They soon became one of America’s favorite singing groups and it translated to record sales too, with several best-sellers that included “I’d Rather Die Young,” “To Be Alone,” “Love Walked In,” and “P.S. I Love You,” a old song that would later be a hit for the Beatles. (Oops – see discussion below.)
In 1955 Billy Vaughn’s new friends at Dot Records enlisted his aid as a producer (and eventually a popular bandleader and recording star), and he was replaced in the Hilltoppers by Chuck Schrouder. By then the group had started feeling the pinch of reduced record sales, probably because of teenagers’ growing affection for newer types of music, so they more or less reinvented themselves by becoming a white version of groups such as the Platters. In fact one of their biggest successes was that group’s classic, “Only You,” but they also had some hits of their own, including their biggest, “Marianne,” and “The Kentuckian Song.”
Like many others, they began winding down in popularity through the years, finally breaking up in the 1960’s. Various splinter groups formed by some of the members in subsequent years had limited success, and eventually the Hilltoppers became just another name from the musical past.