The Hilltoppers were a pop vocal quartet that lit up the hit list in the early 50’s to the tune of 25 charters in five and a half years, but in early 1952 Jimmy Sacca (23, lead), Seymour Spiegelman (21, tenor), and Don McGuire (21, bass) were just three students at Western Kentucky State College.
They sang barbershop harmony at the Goal Posts, the campus candy store and hangout. What turned the barbershop banter into serious singing was Jimmy’s association with a piano player in the Ace Dining band, Billy Vaughn. The college was located in Bowling Green where Ace’s band played, and Jimmy would occasionally sit in.(Ace, by the way, was the brother of Lou, Ginger and Jean, the Dinning Sisters of Chicago whose 1948 million seller “Butons and Bows” helped keep girl groups visible in the 1940’s)
In the spring of 1952 Billy wrote a song he felt would be terrific for Jimmy’s voice called “Trying” but wanted a group to sing it with him. Now the college barbershop boys had a purpose and a fourth member since 30-year old Vaugn turned out to be the baritone they were missing.
On a Satruday in April the campus cutup cut a session in Van Meter Auditorium on the school grounds. Vaughn then took the ballad to local disc jockey Bill Stamps at WLBJ, who programmed it and received enough phone call response to watrrant sending it on to his old boss Randy Wood at Dot Records in Gallatin, Tennessee. Wood liked the group so much he shufled of to Bowling Green to sign the boys. The no-name group was then christened The Hilltoppers, the nickname of their school athletic team.
In May “Trying” came out and by August it was as if it hadn’t. Wood had a meeting with the group to decide on a new single the same day the record broke in Cleveland and Cincinatti. The success of “Trying” happened so quickly that the boys were called to perform on Ed Sullivan’s show the same week and didn’t know what to wear. They threw together a wardrobe of gray flannel pants, white buck shoes (the “in” thing those days), and their college sweaters, with one borrowed for the newest man on campus, Billy Vaughn. When they arrived in New York one of the booking agents supplied them with the beanies as an added touch. After they did Sullivan’s show other variety hours started asking for them but demanded they wear their beanies and sweaters. A gimmick was born, and so was a hit “Trying” charted on August 16th, reached number seven, and sold nearly a million copies (almost exclusively in the East as Dot had no distributors in the West).
Their second single “I Keep Telling Myself” b/w “Must I Cry Again” was a double-sided charter in January 1953 witht he top reaching number 26 and the flip raising to number 15.
Jimmy Sacca’s strong, masculine, and expressive lead led the groups solid harmonies through “If I Were King”. Then he and his vocal chords were drafted. Wood then sequestered the group in a studio until they’d recorded enough sides to carry them through a good part of Jimmy’s stay with Uncle Sam. Though the group had no chance in the next year or two to record fresh material, and though some of their already recorded songs may have sounded dated a year or two later, they mad more hits and biger charters during that period than they did when Jimmy returned to record anew.
Their first single when Jimmy was on his ay to Okinawa was the Johnny Mercer – Gordon Jenkins penned Rudy Vallee hit from 1934, “P.S. I LOve You”. Even the flip side scored (“I’d Rather Die Young”)
They had nine more successes, including “Love Walked In” from the Goldwyn Follies, “From The Vine Came The Grape”, The Mill Brothers 1944 hit “Till Then”, and The Ink Spots 1939 smash “If I Didn’t Care”
When Jimmy returned in March 1955 Uncle Sam drafted both Seymour and Don. They were replaced by Fred Waring group member Clive Dill and Bob Gaye of Four Jacks and a Jill.
Vaughn then became musical director of Dot but continued to record with the group. Eddie Crowe took Vaughn’s spot on the road. Gaye soon left to be replaced by Karl Garvin, a former studio musician. Their first music charter with the newly returned Jimmy was the title song from the Burt Lancaster film The Kentuckian.
In the late 1955 The Hilltoppers entered the cover sweepstakes, releasing The Platters “Only You”. Despite the fact that the Los Angeles pop R&B group chartered on October 1, 1955, almost six week ahead of the western Kentucky wonders, the Hilltoppers managed to reach number eight on the Pop lists while the Platters made it to number five. In England, they had their first and biggest hit at number three. A tour of England was next through the spring and summer of 1956. While there the group heard a cover of the G-Clef’s current hit by a group on Dot called the Hilltoppers – quite a shock since our boys didn’t record it. Apparently Randy Wood had formed a second Hilltoppers led by Chuck Schroder to do their own version of the song; it lost the chart race to the superior G-Clef’s record 24 to 38.
The original Hilltoppers returned to knock out a calypso hit called “Marianne”.
Seymour and Don were then released from Uncle Sam’s grasp and with Jimmy and newcomer Doug Cordoza (Seymour’s brother-in-law) formed the newest Hilltoppers.
With music rapidly changing, the Hilltoppers found it harder to chart. Their last hit was “The Joker”. They continued to tour until 1960 and then packed it in. Jimmy and Seymour went to work in Dot’s distributing operation.
By 1965 Jimmy Sacca was back with another Hilltoppers and in 1967 cut two singles for 3 J Records.
In 1968 Karl Garvin came back along with Jack Gruebel and Chuck Ayre.
The group rang in the 70’s by taking over the management of a food and beverage concession at the Holiday Inn on Okaloosa Island at Fort Walton, Florida. They then played there for most of the next two years.
Their last recordings were on MGM in 1973 and the group continued touring until they broke up in 1976. Don McGuire went into real estate in Lexdington, Kentucky. Billy Vaughn stayed with Dot for many years as arranger/conductor for Pat Boone, Gale Storm, the FOntane Sisters, and many other artists. He had more instrumental hits as an orchestra leader (28 from 1954 to 1966) than he did with the Hilltoppers and more than any instrumentalist in the rock era. Jimmy Sacca became a booking agent in Jackson, Mississippi; Karl Garvin retired to Florida; and Eddie Crowe went to work for Lockport High School in Lockport, New York. Seymour Spiegelman died in 1987.
Biography by Jay Warner