Time Will Tell : The Hilltoppers ©1999JCMarion


Perhaps the greatest male vocal group of the Interlude Era, The Hilltoppers, had a very inauspicious beginning. They began as a vocal trio with the members being Jimmy Sacca, Seymour Spiegelman, and Donald McGuire who were students at Western Kentucky University in the town of Bowling Green. One of Sacca's acquaintances was a pianist in a territory band in the area named Billy Vaughn. A song written by Vaughn was given a run through by the trio, and through various rehearsals Vaughn himself was added to the vocal mix and the trio was now a quartet. As the story goes, the guys gathered around a piano in the corner of the campus auditorium at something like one a.m. on a spring night in 1952 and tape recorded the new song called "Trying". The tape was then given to a local radio deejay who liked the tune and soon got in touch with Randy Wood the head of Dot Records in suburban Nashville, Tennessee. Wood listened to the tape and was duly impressed and signed the quartet to his label. The group then took their name from the Western Kentucky University athletic teams nickname, The Hilltoppers.

Dot Records released "Trying" on #15018 in late May and it got very little reaction at first. The boys were thinking about what to do for a second release when the record started to sell, initially breaking big in Cleveland from plays on station WERE. Soon other parts of the Midwest were following and Dot Records and The Hilltoppers were in the midst of a breakout hit. The syllable bending intro to the song presented an immediate 'hook' that caught the listener's ear and provided an identifiable sound that caught on. The record hit the national charts in mid-August and remained there for much of the rest of the year. The record was a solid top ten hit and sold more than 750,000 copies for Dot. Late in the year The Hilltoppers second release for Dot was issued - "I Keep Telling Myself" and "Must I Cry Again" on #15034. This time both sides of the record hit the national charts although not nearly as dominant as the initial record. During January of 1953, "Must I" got into the top fifteen best sellers, while the flip side charted as high as number 26 in the country. Neither side had the staying power of "Trying" however, and the next Dot release "If I Were King" was on the national charts for only one week at number 22, and then dropped from sight.

In May of 1953 The Hilltoppers were in the recording studio to pile up a number of tunes to carry them through Jimmy Sacca's military service (courtesy of the draft). In June the next Dot Records release on #15085 hit the radio stations and record stores. "P.S. I Love You" and "I'd Rather Die Young" provided a huge double sided hit for the group. "P.S. I Love You" (not to be confused with The Beatles tune from a decade later) was written by Johnny Mercer in the mid thirties, and provided Sacca with a great tune for his style of vocal delivery which overcame some sugary and sentimental lyrics. The tune was performed with a strong rhythm guitar accompaniment and tight harmonies by the group. The flip side "I'd Rather Die Young", was a country type weeper in waltz time and was again a featured showcase for the vocal style of Jimmy Sacca. The chart performance by this record was tremendous, with both sides getting into the top ten best sellers across the country and remaining on the charts for more than five months. It sold well over a million copies for Dot Records and made The Hilltoppers a top popular music act in the early fifties.

The group returned on the next record with another two sided top ten hit, although not as dominating as the previous release had been. "Love Walked In" the pop standard from the motion picture "The Goldwyn Follies" and "To Be Alone" on Dot #15105, both reached as high as the number eight position on the charts and the record had a chart life of close to three months. The year 1954 was a big one for The Hilltoppers. No sooner had the sales and airplay for "Love Walked In" begun to fade when Dot #15127 was released and began to take off. "Time Will Tell" and "From The Vine Came The Grape" provided another two sided charter. "Vine" was the much more successful of the two, getting into the top ten and remaining on the best sellers list for two and a half months. "Alone" and "You're All That I Need" on #15130 did almost nothing nationally, but #15132 featured the group's take on a previous hit for The Mills Brothers called "Till Then". This turned out to be another solid hit getting into the top ten and staying for three months throughout the spring of 1954. The flip side also got some airplay despite being almost a replay of "I'd rather Die Young". This one was called "I Found Your Letter" and again it was a country styled weeper in waltz time. "Poor Butterfly" on #15156 was next for the guys and it was a solid hit barely missing the coveted top ten best sellers. By now the lead singing of Jimmy Sacca had provided The Hilltoppers with one of the more identifiable sounds of pop music of the early fifties.

Dot #15163 paired "Mansion On The Hill" and "Alone With My Heart" which sunk without a trace, but "Sweetheart" on #15201 charted briefly during the summer. "At Sundown" was another Dot release that didn't do much, but the group's version of the Inkspots classic "If I Didn't Care" was better received breaking into the top twenty in August of that year. By now the rock 'n' roll revolution was under way and the Hilltoppers were one of the many pop performers trying to stay afloat in this sea of changing styles. The final Dot release of 1954 "Time Waits For No One" (from the film "Shine On Harvest Moon") also charted briefly at number 25 late in the year. The first Dot record out in 1955 was the immediately forgettable "Frivolette". By now Jimmy Sacca was back from military service, while two other members (Spiegelman and McGuire) now were called, and so the personnel of the Hiltoppers was changing.The group also took note of the state of pop music and its trends of the times, and the result was Dot#15351, a cover of the R & B group The Cardinals hit ballad, "The Door Is Still Open". Sacca showed that he could do a credible job on a blues ballad and the record did quite well. "The Kentuckian Song" seemed a natural for the former WKU guys as they did a turn on the title tune from the Burt Lancaster film. The release on Dot #15375 managed to hit the top twenty in mid 1955.

By now Dot Records became the home of the cover records with Pat Boone and Gale Storm, and so The Hilltoppers continued this trend. "Searchin'" was released on Dot #15415 to little success, but the group's cover of The Platters "Only You" on #15423 was a big smash getting into the top ten best sellers in November of 1955 and spent more than three months on the charts closing out the year for Dot Records. Success eluded The Hilltoppers for the next year as subsequent releases did not chart, sell in great numbers, or be featured on radio. "My Treasure" (#15437) made a quick one week appearance at number 31, but "When You're Alone" and a try at teenage listeners called "Do The Bop" on #15451, "Faded Rose" (#15459), "Eyes Of Fire Lips Of Wine" (#15468), a cover of the G-Clefs "Ka-Ding Dong" (#15489), and "No Regrets" on #15511 all did little. The next release for Dot however, provided a sudden change in the fortunes of the group.

In 1957 pop music experienced a calypso trend begun by Harry Belafonte and aided by folk music groups such as The Kingston Trio, The Tarriers (with Vince Martin), and The Easy Riders (with Terry Gilkyson). It was just such a tune by The Easy Riders called "Marianne" that The Hilltoppers recorded for Dot #15537 and resulted in the biggest chart success of their career. This record coincided with the return of previous members Spiegelman and McGuire (by now Billy Vaughn had left the group to concentrate on production for Dot Records, plus his own successful recording career as a producer and leader of an instrumental orchestra also for Dot).The recording of "Marianne" was a four month charter and got to the number three position in the country. After a few more records that did little on the pop charts ("I'm Serious" on#15560, "A Fallen Star" on #15594, and "My Cabin Of Dreams" on #15626), The Hilltoppers charted for the last time at the end of the year in 1957 with a cover of Billy Myles Ember release "The Joker" with a strong vocal by Jimmy Sacca. The record on Dot #15662 got into the top twenty five and remained on the charts for a month.

After their last chart hit in 1957, most of the output for Dot Records by The Hilltoppers in the late fifties and early sixties were remakes and re-releases of their earlier hits. The group was a mainstay at Dot Records for twelve years calling it over in 1963. A reformed Hilltoppers in the early seventies made two records for MGM and remade their biggest hits on two records for ABC Paramount in 1974 and continued to perform until quitting for good in late 1975. This ended nearly a quarter century association of pop music by one of the premier acts in the field from the pre-rock fifties, and beyond. The Hilltoppers musical legacy is an important part of American musical history.

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