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P.S. I Love You: The Hilltoppers
In April 1952, Billy Vaughn, local musician and Western alumnus, asked three Western students to help him record one of his compositions. Jimmy Sacca, Don McGuire and Seymour Spiegelman joined Vaughn at Van Meter Auditorium where they recorded Trying using a piano and a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder.
Distributed by Dot Records of Gallatin, Tennessee, Trying reached #7 on Billboard's best selling pop records list. On October 26, 1952, The Hilltoppers appeared on Ed Sullivan's nationally syndicated CBS television show, Toast of the Town. The Juke Box Operators of America voted The Hilltoppers the best vocal combination of 1953 in a Cash Box magazine poll. In March 1954, P. S. I Love You became their first gold record. From 1952 to 1957, The Hilltoppers charted 19 hits on Billboard, half in the top 10.
Successful quartets of the 1950s not only recorded popular tunes, but they sang whenever given the opportunity, be it a national television guest appearance, a night club engagement, a radio deejays' program, a state fair or a store grand opening. The Hilltoppers managed their careers around military service for three of the four vocalists, canning music for release while Sacca was in the South Pacific and recruiting others to tour in McGuire and Spiegelman's place. Having given the group their start, Billy Vaughn turned his attention to his career as a composer and orchestra conductor with Eddie Crowe and later Doug Cordoza serving as his replacements.
National Fan Club President Bobbie Ann Mason and others encouraged their fellow teenagers to attend performances whenever possible, to request that local deejays play The Hilltoppers' last release, and to purchase each new record. Many 1950s American teenage couples chose a Hilltoppers' ballad as "our song." From its beginning at Western, The Hilltoppers' music will forever exemplify the sounds of a wonderful period in American music.
Toast of the Town
Paying the campus security guard $10 for access to Van Meter Auditorium, Vaughn, Sacca, Spiegelman and McGuire recorded Trying on a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder with the help of football player Bill Ploumis, who lay on the floor and lifted the piano pedal whenever it stuck. When local WLBJ deejay Bill Stamps played it on his evening radio program Whistling In The Dark, the listeners requested it 15 times.
As a former employee of Dot Records, Stamps convinced executive Randy Wood to listen to the record. Wood then brought a professional recording crew to Van Meter Auditorium where they worked for six hours to get the right take. Once captured, the flip side You Made Up My Mind was recorded in 30 minutes.
Trying was released May 25, 1952, but did not sell well at first. As Wood assembled The Hilltoppers to break the news that their musical career would be brief, a Cincinnati distributor called to request 1000 copies as soon as possible. On August 16th, Trying was on Billboard's charts!
The Hilltoppers now faced the difficult task of balancing college course work and sudden fame. While still students, they performed on eight nationally syndicated television programs and flew to countless weekend engagements in cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Boston, St. Louis, and New York. For three of the boys, the collegiate attire of beanies, letter sweaters, gray flannels and white bucks was more than just a gimmick; missing performances due to scheduled exams was a necessary part of their dual lives.
#7 Best Selling Pops Singles, Nov. 1, 1952
#9 Most Played Juke Box Records, Nov. 15, 22, 29,1952
#10 Records Most Played by DJs, Nov. 15, 1952
Tours of Duty
From 1953 to 1956, three different Hilltoppers replaced college coursework with military service as distraction from their musical careers. Drafted in March 1953, Jimmy Sacca served first at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and then overseas in Okinawa, Korea and Japan. Prior to Sacca's return to the United States, Seymour Spiegelman and Don McGuire began their years with the U. S. Army. Recognizing the need to keep the quartet before the public, Jimmy Sacca enlisted first Bob Gaye, Clive Dill and Eddie Crowe and later Lou Mastor, Karl Garvin and Eddie Crowe to tour as The Hilltoppers. The "originals" reunited in March 1957, minus Billy Vaughn whose hit Melody of Love had assured him a place as an orchestra composer and conductor. In December 1958, when Eddie Crowe left The Hilltoppers, they returned to their alma mater to recruit music major and trumpet player Doug Cordoza, Seymour's brother-in-law.
Throughout the 1950s, The Hilltoppers kept a teenage and college following but were also a big draw for popular nightclubs like the Casa Loma in St. Louis, the Castle Farms Ballroom in Cincinnati and the Emerald Room in Houston. Tours abroad to Great Britain (1956), Germany, France & England (1958) and the South Pacific (1959) brought them international recognition.
Forever for the Four
"I started a Hilltoppers fan club, and the day that package of membership cards, autographed
glossy eight-by-ten photographs and buttons (I AM A HILLTOPPERS FAN) arrived seemed
like the turning point of my life."
~Bobbie Ann Mason, Clear Springs
Nothing can compare to a teenager's devotion. Hilltoppers fans spent countless volunteer hours mailing postcard requests to radio disc jockeys, requesting feature articles in magazines, typing newsletters, corresponding with Dot Records and traveling to hear their idols. In return, The Hilltoppers rewarded them with personal letters, backstage passes and stage introductions.
In 1954, fan club members established their winter uniform as consisting of a red sweater with large white "H", white collar, gray slacks or skirt, and a Hilltopper beanie (available for purchase from Western's Supply Store). Snapshots of The Hilltoppers on Western's campus and on the Ed Sullivan Show were available at a cost of 10 cents.
When military service kept the boys from plugging their own records, the Hilltopper-ettes wrote to all fan club presidents: "it is left up to the Fan Clubs and we must work doubly hard in order to make each release a hit. The HILLTOPPERS are counting on our loyal support, and we don't want to let them down."
By 1957, National Fan Club President Bobbie Annie Mason wrote and mailed a newsletter to three hundred club chapters. The Hilltoppers were indeed fortunate to have loyal fans that persevered through both The Hilltoppers constantly changing circumstances and their own adolescence. Their devotion was unchanging, or as Millie Hovizi, one of the Detroit club presidents, so aptly put it "forever for the four."
In her memoir Clear Springs, Bobbie Ann Mason wrote vividly of the evening she met The Hilltoppers at Castle Farms Ballroom:
"Their sound was principally Jimmy Sacca's lead backed up with a simple 'doo-wah' harmony. In their sweaters and baggy gray flannels, they swayed from side to side in unison, sort of like cheerleaders."
Bobbie Ann Mason's notebooks recorded club cheers, dues, uniform descriptions, The Hilltoppers' biographical data, appearances and a list of "Most Important Disc Jockeys to Write."
Items available for purchase included beanies ($1.50). Jumbo patches (75 cents), photo
stamps (3 for 10 cents), stickerettes (pack of 25 for 15 cents), stationery, memo
pads and snapshots (15 cents each, 10 for 1.25).
Hilltoppers Highlights, August 1956
"Only You" stayed on the British Best Selling Pop Records list from January to June 1956, paving the way for The Hilltoppers' ten-week tour of England that summer.
The Latest by the Greatest
In the late 1950s, The Hilltoppers expanded their repertoire of love ballads with the calypso hit "Marianne" and an original rhythm and blues number, "The Joker." Another style of music, however, was gaining national popularity. The November/December 1957 issue of Hilltoppers Topics included a round-table discussion of rock and roll, which Seymour found "unimaginative and repetitive." Their fans agreed: in an August 21, 1957 Kansas City Star article which described The Hilltoppers as "Singers of 'Melting' Ballads," the Kansas City and Independence fan club presidents were quoted as saying, " Pooooo . . . there's nobody in these clubs has any use for Elvis . . . In fact, Elvis Presley . . . phooey."
In addition to recording other styles of music, "the Hilltoppers broke in a new part
of their act in Indianapolis recently . . . a clever vaudeville bit in which the foursome
use straw hats and canes. Don does his part with 'If You Knew Suzie', Eddie sings
'Swannee', Seymour renders 'Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey', and Jimmy comes in
with 'Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye.'"
~Hilltoppers Topics, Nov/Dec. 1957
Tops in Pops
Best known for "P. S. I Love You" which sold over 3 million copies, The Hilltoppers secured fame for themselves and their alma mater. From Van Meter Auditorium to stages around the world, Jimmy Sacca, Don McGuire, Seymour Spiegelman, and Billy Vaughn promoted a clean-cut image of 1950s college life and romantic love. Their music is time-dated, yet timeless. Western salutes The Hilltoppers for having enhanced America's rich musical tradition.
August 16, 1952
Memories of the Hilltoppers - share your memories with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
I had only one adventure with the Hilltoppers. I was from Pennsylvania and had little money to go home for Christmas. Not unusual for those days at all. Jimmy Sacca lived in Pittsburgh which was one of the regular stops on the bus trip to Johnstown. He and about three others piled into the car and it was snowing before we got L'ville, which was a four hour road trip in those days. We slide off the road I think (details hazy) and someone took us into town where I was able to get on a bus to make the rest of the trip. No memory of who the good neighbor was.
I remember that Bill Stamps on the local radio station gave their records a big play. We all watched them on the Sullivan show and everyone knew "Trying" by heart.
Risher Holland Class of 1954
Yes, I recall the Hilltoppers.
I introduced the Hilltoppers to Eastern Iowa radio listeners in Fall of 1952. A master's student at the University of Iowa, I was working part-time at KXIC, Iowa City, and doing a disc jockey show. The Hilltoppers had recently come out with their first record. Its "Trying" was doing well regionally, but little Dot Records had not yet gone national in promotion. So I wrote Dot for a copy for KXIC. They sent me several copies of the 78 rpm record (pre-vinyl and brittle), enough for me to distribute to all stations in the market and keep two for myself. Soon the air play was bringing in requests for my old fellow students on the Hill. I'd known Jimmy Sacca and Seymour Spiegelman when we lived in the same Potter Hall dorm my senior year, and friend David Livingston sometimes mentioned his off-campus friend Billy Vaughn.
A few years later, but still in the 1950s, when I was a newsman at WHAS TV & Radio, Louisville, the Hilltoppers were guests on a live teen show, with music and refreshments, done in a large studio across the reception area from our newsroom. In charge of the reception desk was Blanche Gutig, 70ish with WHAS tenure back into the 1930s, when, she'd recall, Dale Evans was a staff singer and Barry Bingham hosted a program of classical music. Blanche adored WHAS musicians like Herbie Koch and Randy Atcher, but was happily oblivious of current popular recording artists, including the quartets.
"I'm Jimmy Sacca, here with the Hilltoppers."
"Oh, I'm sure everyone will be glad. Just take them in the studio across there and put them on the table next to the 7-Up."
Yes, the 1950s, when the Hilltoppers and I were young. Those were the days . . . of the Four Aces, the Crew-Cuts, the Hi-Los, the Platters, Frisch's Big Boys . . . and the Hilltoppers . . . on the table next to the 7-Up.
Vernon Stone, Class of 1951
Having arrived at Western in the fall of 1950, a fellow northerner, then in scarce supply, invited me to room with him temporarily – Jimmy Sacca. This temporary invitation lasted two years produced memories and friendship that have lasted a lifetime.
Living with Jimmy, my education was about to begin. In the course of events that followed, we had an immediate bonding. Little happened thereafter that excluded the other. Jimmy was like no man I had ever met – ever.
From our first day, it was apparent that my new roommate had a talent for singing that, beyond imagination, would spread from our room to the world. Anywhere that we went, Jimmy would, with the slightest invitation, entertain. I had a daily dose of Blue Moon, Moon Over Miami, and Sunny Side of the Street; these songs and others soon became campus favorites and Jimmy's talents quickly spread into the community.
Jimmy's first "major" appearance occurred during the spring of 1950 when the "Follies" was presented at Western to exhibit the various talents of the students. Jimmy brought the house down (and I heard my songs once again.)
On one early occasion, the Vaughn Monroe orchestra was in town. Jimmy's itch to sing became very apparent. I took the liberty of telling Mr. Monroe that we had a special singing talent present and asked if he could sing. When the event was over he received rave comments from Mr. Monroe saying that his talent surprised him.
During the late Fall of the next year, we had decided to invite ourselves to the very private Boots and Saddle Club; this event changed Jimmy's life forever. Sneaking in through the kitchen, we mingled among the crowd. The Ace Denning orchestra was playing. The piano player, who I later learned, earned $10.00/evening was Billy Vaughn. Naturally, our regular routine prevailed and Jim was invited to sing; he and Billy retired to the kitchen for a five minute "rehearsal." Jimmy captivated the patrons (and I got to hear my songs again). Jimmy was invited back; the next week, we entered through the front door. Jimmy sang once again. After this first medley, he was approached by Billy Vaughn who held in his hand a song that he recently had written. Again they retired to the kitchen to "rehearse" and then it happened – TRYING was born and instantly, beyond their wildest dreams, new careers were launched (I finally got to hear a different song). Jimmy became a fixture there and we were even provided with food.
Soon, a local disc jockey, Bill Stamps, popular with the college students, heard Trying and asked if he could record and play the song during his program. It became so popular that he would play it several times each evening – with this panacea, who could have hoped for more.
But much more did come. Bill Stamps took the liberty to send the tape to Dot Records, a then small country western mail order record house in Gallatin, Tennessee; word came back that they were interested in recording Jim on record for distribution. Waiting for the call seemed like an interminable period and hope began to diminish. Three weeks later, a call came in that on a Thursday night in late April, Dot would be there to record.
Jimmy needed additional singers for the background and quickly assembled Seymour Spiegelman (tenor) and Don McGuire (bass). Billy Vaughn would be the forth vocalist and the piano player of course. The Hilltoppers were born.
Permission was received to use Van Meter Auditorium for this session. We were expecting a studio orchestra and recording technicians. Present that night however, were the four Hilltoppers, the two owners of the company with a small portable recorder, and myself. The finances were so threadbare that the bass fiddle would be dubbed in later at the studio. Halfway through the session, the subject of an appropriate name for the group arose. Every imaginable combination was suggested and it was quickly agreed that they would become "The Hilltoppers," and employ a collegiate theme; school letter sweaters and beanies would be emphasized. (My dear friend Seymour, because of finances, borrowed my letter sweater and beanie.)
Since I had zero singing ability, my important contribution was as the "Go Fer." I had the very important duty to transfer equipment, go fer sandwiches, locate various needed supplies and "technically assisted" Billy Vaughn with his piano playing (the soft pedal was broken on the piano and he requested that I lay there with my head on my book to hold the pedal down. On many occasions he stated that my name should have been on the back of the label to compensate me for my contribution.
Shortly thereafter, the record was complete and was being played constantly in the local area. Who would have ever dreamed that close to a million copies would be sold and the Hilltoppers would go on to become the most popular singing group in the country. They were on their way.
Almost immediately, touring began. One of the first engagements they had was at a nightclub in Pittsburgh, my home town. To preserve finances they slept on my living room floor.
After 6-7 months, the talents of Billy Vaughn were recognized and he became studio arranger for the expanding Dot records which later sold to MGM with Billy part of the deal. He soon became head of the MGM studio orchestra. His accomplishments will forever be enjoyed.
The rest was history. Western got the Hilltoppers, I got to hear many, many, new and beautiful songs, and Jimmy had his stroll on the "sunny side of the street."
I was in high school and a huge fan of the Hilltoppers. Their recording of Darling had just been released and of course I bought a copy. When I bought a new record I played it over and over again much to the distress of my family. I was listening to Darling for what was I'm sure the umpteenth time when my poor father could take it no longer. He informed me if I played that record one more time he was going to break it. Not wanting to take any chances I stopped at least for that day.
My little humorous incident was at the Red Carpet Inn . . . I think it has changed names again. We hadn't been in Bowling Green for more than a few weeks when we attended one of the Hilltoppers concerts there with Dr. Spero Kerieakes and Helen. I had just opened my practice in Orthodontics and Spero introduced me to Jimmy before the show. Jimmy didn't know that I was new in town and opened his show with, "We have with us tonight, Dr. Charles Owsley." Well there was some polite applause while my wife and I were laughing about what they must be thinking . . . who in the heck is he?
Charles Owsley, Class of 1948
We washed Billy Vaughns' clothes at the old Allen's Launderette on Woodford Street while he was in college. He also lived across from my aunt, she hated all the noise back then that came from his house. We did not have air conditioning back then so the windows were always up, so when they practiced everyone could hear them. After they made it, everyone was proud to live close by.
Wow, what a treat to go back in time and to stir up some memories of having the pleasure of meeting the Hilltoppers in a rather unusual way. However, in a very strange way I got to thinking of Jimmy Sacca and Karl Garvin. Thanks to Google. The Hilltoppers probably do not remember Saskatoon, Sask situated in Canada. They did a performance at our university and later proceeded to party it up having dinner and then on to the Bessborough by taxi in their silk suits with no top coats. Little did they realize they had landed in a bone chilling freezing town.
I still love your music although the nostalgia really got to me. Loved reading about your lives and your accomplishments. Thanks to Karl Garvin for making sure I arrived home safe and sound. I am glad I got to meet you.
Regards, Roz Hetland
Bobbie Ann Mason Collection - portions lent to the Kentucky Library & Museum for preparation of exhibit, all materials have been returned to her.
College Heights Herald - search by date
"Four Western Musicians Hit National Spotlight," June 27, 1952
"From the Hill to the Hit Parade," October 29, 1981
"Hilltoppers Appear Here in Program," May 22, 1959
"Hilltopping the Charts," October 22, 1998
"Sacca Now 'Trying' for Uncle Sam," March 20, 1953
"Top of the Pops: Doo-wop Student Group Remembers Early Days of Rock 'n' Roll," March 22, 1988
"Western's 'Hilltoppers' Continue as Singing Hits," December 11, 1953
"Western Music Student Joins The Hilltoppers," December 12, 1958
Jackson, Carlton. P.S. I Love You, Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2007. Call # ML421.H54 J33 2007
"Hilltoppers Play a Return Engagement on 'The Hill,'" November 5, 1972
"The Hill Was Alive With the Sound of Music," May 27, 2000
"'The Hilltoppers' Get Together Again to Warble Like They Did Back at Western State College," December 26, 1953
"The Hilltoppers Quartet of Bowling Green Is on the Way to Becoming Musical Sensation," October 26, 1952
"Tunes for the Trip Down Nostalgia Lane," May 19, 1975
Mason, Bobbie Ann. Clear Springs: A Memoir, New York: Random House, 1999, Call # PS3563.A7877 Z77 1999
Park City Daily News
"Hilltoppers Add New Hilltopper," December 15, 1958
"Hilltoppers, Musical Variety, Are Invading New York To Appear on TV," October 26, 1952, p. 7
"Hilltoppers to Appear," November 2, 1972
"Seymour Spiegelman, Original Hilltoppers Member, Dies at 56," February 15, 1987
UA36I/27 Carlton Jackson Faculty/Staff Personal Papers - collection inventory
UA94/6/2/1 Hilltoppers Quartet Collection - collection inventory
An exhibit originally curated by Sue Lynn McDaniel in 2002 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the recording of Trying in Van Meter Hall. The exhibit opened May 11, 2002 and ran through January 3, 2005. This online version presents the materials as they were displayed. The original exhibit was underwritten by Integra Bank.
This website originally created by Suellyn Lathrop in 2010, revised in 2016.
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