Singer Jimmy Sacca’s death recalls the Hilltoppers’ 1950s heyday

March 10, 2015

150310Hilltoppers2AThe Hilltoppers appear on Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” show Oct. 26, 1952. Left to right are Sullivan, Billy Vaughn, Don McGuire, Jimmy Sacca and Seymour Spiegelman. Below, a 1952 publicity photo. Photos courtesy of WKU Archives 


His was a voice from a more innocent era, a time when four guys wearing Western Kentucky letter sweaters and beanies could become the most popular singing group in an America just beginning to discover rock ‘n’ roll.

James W. “Jimmy” Sacca Jr. died Saturday in Lexington at age 85. He was lead singer of the Hilltoppers, who from 1952 to 1957 put 19 songs on Billboard magazine’s Top 40 chart and charmed teenagers with their clean-cut crooning about romantic love and college life.

“Jimmy was a darn good singer, ” said Don McGuire, 83, of Lexington, the last surviving original member of the Hilltoppers. “He was the main sound of the group; we were the backup singers.

“He was a big guy, 6-foot-3, so he was very impressive on stage,” McGuire added. “The teenagers absolutely loved him. He was a good-looking guy.”

Services for Sacca are Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. at Kerr Brothers on Harrodsburg Road following a 10:30 a.m. visitation. Survivors include Annie Rivers Holloway Sacca, his wife of 62 years, and their three sons.

Sacca was a native of Lockport, N.Y. and attended the prestigious Eastman School of Music. But he accompanied a high school friend who went to try out for the football team at what is now Western Kentucky University. Sacca tried out, too, and got a scholarship. He became a star on Western’s team, called the Hilltoppers because the campus is atop the highest hill in Bowling Green.

Sacca’s voice attracted the attention of Billy Vaughn, a musician and songwriter from Glasgow who was playing in a Bowling Green nightclub.

“He knew Jimmy had a good voice because Jimmy would go out to the club and be a guest singer,” McGuire said. “So he asked Jimmy to get some guys on the hill to help put one of his songs on tape to make a rough demo.”

150310Hilltoppers1ASacca recruited McGuire and Seymour Spiegelman. The quartet’s demo attracted the attention of Dot Records in Gallatin, Tenn., which came up to Bowling Green to record a session in Western’s Van Meter Auditorium.

Within months, Vaughn’s song “Trying” was on the Top 40, topping out at No. 7. The Hilltoppers became stars, making appearances on Ed Sullivan and other nationally syndicated TV shows.

Vaughn was a decade older than the three college boys, who had to stay in school to try to avoid the Korean War draft.

“They were awfully nice about letting us out of class and making up the work,” McGuire said of Western administrators, who were thrilled with the notoriety the group brought their school.

The Hilltoppers were rated America’s best vocal group in 1953 and their biggest hit, “P.S. I Love You,” sold more than 3 million copies. They toured Asia and England, where their hit, “Only You,” became the most popular song. (It did well on this side of the Atlantic, too, but was outsold by The Platters’ version.)

Vaughn left the group in 1954 to become Dot Records’ music director and a successful band leader, composer and arranger. As the other Hilltoppers graduated and were called into military service, substitute singers came and went. The guys got married and had children. But it was America’s changing tastes that finally finished the Hilltoppers.

“We saw what was coming,” McGuire said. “Rock n’ roll was our biggest nemesis, and in the late ’50s we knew it was going to run us out of the business and it did.

“We had one last hit at the end the decade,” he added, the calypso song “Marianne,” which topped Billboard’s chart at No. 3. “We thought we were back, but we weren’t. We did some rock ‘n roll songs. But people knew we weren’t a rock group.”

Spiegelman, a New Yorker, went on to a career in the recording industry and died in 1987. McGuire joined his brother in the school textbook business and settled in Lexington. Before moving to Lexington in retirement, Sacca lived in Jackson, Miss., and booked musical acts. He also made one more run at performing.

“He just couldn’t stay off the road, so he went back in the ’70s with a new group behind him,” McGuire said. “He was singing our songs, of course, and he did pretty well. But the time had come to give it up, so he finally gave it up.”

One of the teenage girls the Hilltoppers charmed was Bobbie Ann Mason, who lived on a farm near Mayfield. She would grow up to be a famous novelist and short-story writer, but in the 1950s she was the Hilltoppers’ national fan clubs president. Her mother drove her to their shows in the region, and they became good friends.

“Jimmy and the others always treated me really special,” Mason said when I called her home near Lawrenceburg. “He was a big bear of a person who gave great big hugs and was always very cheerful and generous and welcoming.

“He had a unique voice, a very powerful, expressive voice,” she said. “He could have been a solo act all along because his voice was that good. But the combination of his lead with that very particular kind of background harmony created this style that we know as the Hilltoppers.”

Mason wrote a long essay for The New Yorker magazine in 1986, fondly recalling the Hilltoppers, her years as their fan clubs president and that innocent era before rock ‘n’ roll and the turbulent 1960s.

“But I had the interesting thought the other day,” Mason said. “The kind of songs they sang are the kind of songs that Bob Dylan is singing now. They’re just timeless, wonderful songs.”

Don Wilson, Lexington’s generous Music Man, dies at 92

February 15, 2014

donwilson001Today’s Herald-Leader obituaries include Donald Eugene Wilson, who died on Thursday at age 92.

Don Wilson moved to Lexington after World War II and started work as a musical instrument repairman. He soon became famous as the baton-twirling drum major of the University of Kentucky’s Wildcat Marching Band, performing with his young daughter, Donna, from 1949-1955.

Wilson later opened Don Wilson Music on Southland Drive, which for decades has sold and rented the instruments that have helped make Central Kentucky’s high school bands some of the nation’s best. His spirit and generosity became legendary in Kentucky music education circles. I wrote this column about him when he turned 90 years old.

Rest in peace, Don Wilson. You brought the joy of music into so many Kentuckians’ lives.

Berea College archive preserves the sounds of Appalachia

December 29, 2013


Renfro Valley radio show cast at the old barn stage in the early 1950s. Left to right are Ray Sosbyee, Linda Lou Martin, Claude Sweet and Glenn Pennington. Photo courtesy Berea College Special Collections and Archives.


BEREA — As soon as sound recording equipment became small enough to fit in a car trunk in the 1950s, academics began racing around the mountains, trying to preserve the music and stories of a disappearing Appalachian culture.

Now archivists at Berea College are in another race against time: to preserve those old recordings for the 21st century and beyond and make them more widely available through the Internet.

Over the past eight years, sound archivists John Bondurant and Harry Rice have digitized more than 3,000 hours of recordings. Bondurant figures they are about halfway through the archives’ current holdings.

Some of that material, as well as a more limited collection of digitized video and photos, can be seen and heard on the archives’

131120Eblen-Berea0001The collection includes an impressive array of traditional Appalachian music, oral-history interviews, ballads, folk tales, old radio programs and black and white religious music. Plus, there are recordings of events, speakers and performances at the college going back to at least the 1960s.

Many of the recordings came from a collection started by Loyal Jones, who from 1970-1993 headed the college’s Appalachia Center, which is now named for him. But, over the years, many more collections have been donated to the college, providing a rich tapestry of authentic, one-of-a-kind sound.

The Appalachian music archives includes collections of fiddle, banjo and dulcimer tunes, band performances and recordings of Berea’s annual Celebration of Traditional Music, which began in 1974. Several collections focus on religious music, from Old Regular Baptist hymns to gospel music radio performances and Sacred Harp singing in rural black churches.

The archives also include broadcasts of John Lair’s Renfro Valley Barn Dance and related radio programs, which were broadcast between the late 1930s and the late 1950s on Cincinnati’s WLW-AM, Louisville’s WHAS-AM and the CBS Network. Although less famous than the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s WSM-AM, the shows had a huge impact on the development of country music.

131120Eblen-Berea0002Much of the radio collection was donated to Berea in the 1980s, when WHAS changed ownership and moved studios after the breakup of the Bingham family’s Louisville media empire.

“They called here and offered us these, implying that if we didn’t take them they would be thrown out,” Bondurant said. That archives included 1,500 16-inch transcription disc from the 1930s through the 1950s that were meant for short-term rebroadcast or advertiser verification.

“Like most media, it was never intended to be saved,” Bondurant said, so the transcription discs have been a challenge to copy before they disintegrate. “For most of these old programs, these are the only copies that exist.”

Those discs included episodes of Circle Star Ranch, a children’s radio show from the 1940s that featured a cowboy singer and the predecessor of WHAS-TV’s famous kids’ show, T-Bar-V Ranch, which had a loyal following among Louisville baby boomers.

Bondurant works in a tiny studio with a reel-to-reel tape player and a specially a specially modified turntable with a variety of sizes of phonograph styluses. Both are hooked up to a computer with digital sound software.

“Some of these materials, you have one shot; we play it to copy it and it should never be played again,” he said. “I’m trying to get the cleanest signal so it sounds like the original document.”

Bondurant, an amateur guitar player, worked in music licensing for Broadcast Music Inc., better known as BMI, in Nashville before earning a master’s degree in library science at the University of Kentucky.

Bondurant said the digital technology he uses to copy archival recordings has improved dramatically since he joined Berea College in 2005. And, unlike other preservation methods, digital copying makes it safe and easy to share material with researchers and other interested listeners more widely.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that digital technology is changing so fast, it will be a constant challenge to keep material preserved and accessible.

“The digital life cycle is a lot shorter than the analog life cycle,” Bondurant said. “We can still play recordings that are century old easier than we can play some DAT (digital audio tape) recordings from the 1990s that have essentially erased themselves.”

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Get musical instruments out of closet, into schools

April 25, 2012

Will Lovan knows he is fortunate.

When he wanted to learn to play the trumpet, his parents bought him one. After all, Joel and Tracy Lovan were brass players in high school and college, and Joel, now retired, was band director at Crawford Middle School.

Lovan, above, was talented enough to get into the School for the Creative and Performing Arts at Lafayette High School, which enabled him to join the award-winning Lafayette Band. The sophomore is now an all-state trumpeter and plays in the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra.

But he knows that other aspiring musicians are not so fortunate, including many kids who live near his home in North Lexington.

So when Lovan, 16, was looking for a service project to organize and lead as part of the requirements to earn his Eagle Scout rank, he had an idea: Why not urge people to donate unused musical instruments to the elementary schools that feed into Bryan Station High School?

“My goal is to get more kids involved at an earlier age,” Lovan said. “And to get the instruments that Bryan Station needs to have the kind of feeder system Lafayette and Dunbar have. Even if they’re beat-up instruments, we can have them fixed.”

Lovan and fellow members of Troop 282 will launch the instrument drive Saturday by distributing flyers in several Lexington neighborhoods. He also is appealing to parishioners at Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary Church, which sponsors his troop, and members of his own church, Crestwood Christian.

Instruments can be dropped off at any of three music stores: Don Wilson Music, 275 Southland Drive; Fred Moore Music, 443 South Ashland Avenue; and Hurst Music, 101 North Mount Tabor Road. Or contact Lovan at (859) 559-1077 or to have an instrument picked up.

Cash donations to pay for replacing pads, corks and missing parts on donated instruments can be made to the Will Lovan Instrument Drive at any Central Bank branch.

Even before he launched the instrument drive, Lovan was given two flutes and two clarinets. He soon hopes to have a basement full of instruments so Shaun Owens, Bryan Station’s band director, and Michael Payne, the assistant director, can have them reconditioned. Then they will join the inventory of loaner instruments for students at the 10 elementary schools and five middle schools that feed into Bryan Station.

Owens said he was thrilled when Lovan approached him with the idea.

“The fact that he was willing to make this happen here meant a lot to me,” Owens said. “He is a Lafayette student, and there are students in Lafayette’s feeder pattern that are just as needy and just as deserving.”

But Bryan Station’s service area has a larger population of students with economic circumstances that might prevent them from becoming involved with music.

“A lot of these kids may be afraid or hesitant to do it because they know that Mom or Dad don’t have the money to go get them an instrument,” Owens said. “We want to make sure every kid who wants to do this has the opportunity to experience it.”

Students who can’t buy an instrument can rent one from local music stores, but some kids can’t even afford that. For them, Bryan Station and its feeder schools don’t have enough loaner instruments to meet the demand.

Owens said he sometimes must use a lottery to lend popular instruments in elementary schools. If a student ends up with his second or third choice, the desire to learn might be diminished.

“I want to make sure those kids are immediately successful,” he said. “If they don’t get that immediate feedback, they’re more likely to give up.”

School music programs teach students music, but, more importantly, they teach life lessons: dedication, practice, teamwork and striving to be the best you can be.

Lexington has been home to many of Kentucky’s best high school bands and orchestras for decades, so Lovan knows there must be a lot of old instruments gathering dust in people’s homes.

“I hate to see an instrument sitting in a closet being unplayed,” Owens said. “It would be much better in the hands of a young person who could make wonderful music with it. You never know what kind of difference you could make in their lives.”


Renovated downtown school ready to put on a show

February 15, 2011

Sts. Peter and Paul Regional Catholic School, a fixture in downtown Lexington for 98 years, is inviting the community to see its $12 million renovation and expansion.

The school will be a stop Friday night during Gallery Hop, with an exhibit of student art chosen from the region’s Catholic schools. Then, on Feb. 24, Sts. Peter and Paul will launch a monthly concert, “Series with the Saints,” in the school’s elegantly restored 250-seat theater.

The first concert in this series is special: a recital of songs written by the late Kentucky folk music legend John Jacob Niles in collaboration with Thomas Merton, the famous author and Trappist monk who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown until his death in 1968.

The recital, “Written in the Stars,” will feature mezzo-soprano Sherri Phelps and pianist Rachel Taylor, with special guest Jacqueline Roberts, who was Niles’ performance partner from 1967 until his death in 1980.

Using Merton’s poetry, Niles wrote 22 songs specifically for Roberts’ voice, seven of which are included in this recital. The show will feature photographs, audio and video recordings about Niles and Merton, with commentary from Roberts.

“In many ways, this is an evening to honor Jackie,” Phelps said. “She’s the primary source for the material, and she has been passing on the performance practices, teaching them to me.”

Both Phelps and Taylor have doctorates in music. Taylor teaches piano at Eastern Kentucky University. Phelps is an opera singer who has performed throughout this country and Europe. But this material, which blends Niles’ folk music with Merton’s poetry, has special appeal for them.

“When I was studying at Juilliard in New York, this was the only Kentuckian’s music I ever heard at the school,” said Phelps, a Morgantown native. “I felt a special need to champion this music.

“And Thomas Merton is so intimately connected with Kentucky’s Catholic heritage,” she said. “This is the only song cycle he ever collaborated on with a composer.”

This spring, the recital will begin a national tour with a performance at Mission San José in California.

Phelps said Sts. Peter and Paul’s restored W. Paul and Lucille Caudill Little Theatre will be the perfect place for the show’s premiere. It is a large but intimate space with great acoustics and lighting, and a new grand piano. It is a hidden gem on the second floor of the school that serves students from throughout Central Kentucky.

The original school was built in 1913, on West Short Street between historic St. Paul Catholic Church and the Lexington Opera House. In a major commitment to downtown, the school has been more than doubled in size, with a new classroom addition and gymnasium, said Jeanne Miller, a school parent who helped to organize the project.

So far, the school project has attracted 550 donors, including the Lucille Caudill Little Foundation, which helped to restore the theater. Alltech donated science labs, and the Knights of Columbus helped pay for the gymnasium.

The 1913 building was carefully restored to make it modern, while retaining its original architectural beauty. Sts. Peter and Paul reopened in August with 490 students in grades one through eight at the renovated Short Street campus and younger children at a school beside St. Peter Catholic Church on Barr Street.

As with the new gymnasium, now used by many Lexington youth teams, Sts. Peter and Paul wants the renovated theater to be well used. Children from nearby Harrison Elementary School and residents of Ashland Terrace retirement home have been brought in to see school performances. The school also is partnering with Lexington Children’s Theatre, its neighbor across Short Street, on a summer theater camp.

“This was such a community space in the early 1900s,” Miller said. “The goal is to recreate that today, to make it not just an asset for the school but for the entire community.”

  • If You Go

    Gallery Hop at Sts. Peter and Paul

    What: Catholic Schools Invitational Art Show

    When: 5-8 p.m. Friday

    Where: 423 W. Short St.

    ‘Written in the Stars’

    What: Recital of John Jacob Niles/Thomas Merton songs by Sherri Phelps and Rachel Taylor

    When: 7 p.m. Feb. 24

    Where: Sts. Peter and Paul School, Little Theatre, 423 W. Short St.

    Admission: $8 adults, $5 students

    More information:

The best show in Lexington on Saturday night

November 29, 2009

Having seen too many disappointing Kentucky-Tennessee football games, I decided the best show in town Saturday night would be at historic Floral Hall at The Red Mile. I was right.

Lexington’s Ben Sollee, an amazing musician and songwriter who is going to be really famous one of these days, was playing with collaborator Daniel Martin Moore at a benefit for Institute 193, a creative little (and I do mean little) art gallery at 193 Limestone St.

Sollee is a classically trained cellist, but sings and plays the instrument like nobody else you’ve ever heard. He mostly performs his own music, a combination of folk, jazz, bluegrass and R&B.

More than 100 people were there, and it was a terrific night of music in one of Lexington’s classic small venues. About the only illumination was Christmas twinkle lights wrapped around the octagon-shaped building’s central support posts, which made for a lovely atmosphere (and difficult photography).

For more about the musicians, go to and  To learn more about Institute 193, go to

Click on each thumbnail to see the complete picture.

Another thought on Lexington’s music potential

June 7, 2008

Steve Austin, who directs the new Center for Community Legacy Initiatives at the Blue Grass Community Foundation, formerly headed the “smart growth” group Bluegrass Tomorrow. He is one of those people who tries to think like a hockey player. You know, focus on where the puck is going, not where it is now.

While in Austin, Texas, on the Commerce Lexington trip, he noticed an interview in Austin Monthly magazine with Guy Forsyth, a singer and songwriter. Down in the article, Forsyth was quoted as saying home prices have tripled since he moved to Austin in 1990, pricing him out of many neighborhoods, despite his success.

A generation ago, musicians began coming to Austin because they were being priced out of California. “Austin has peaked, but they don’t know it,” Austin said. “Being the next hot thing has passed for them.”

If young musicians can no longer afford to live in Austin, will they stop going there? Where will they go instead? “Why couldn’t it be Lexington?” he wondered.