The 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.”
Sacca 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.”