New KET documentary spotlights fame of Kentucky-based 1950s balladeers The Hilltoppers
For Release: 09/23/16 1:19 PM
During the 1950s, an unassuming quartet from Bowling Green, Ky., made the astonishing rise from college singers to national fame – culminating in 21 songs on the Top 40 charts. The Hilltoppers’ path to stardom is the subject of a new KET documentary premiering Monday, Oct. 24 at 9/8 pm on KET and Sunday, Oct. 30 at 8/7 pm on KET2.
Rich in archival performance footage, rare home movie clips and interviews with those who knew the group best – including the group’s sole surviving original member, Don McGuire – KET’s The Hilltoppers looks back at a magical period in American history when TV was new, juke boxes were all the rage and four Kentucky singers were at the top of the charts.
The group, who met at Western Kentucky State College (now Western Kentucky University), included original members McGuire and fellow Kentuckian Billy Vaughn, plus native New Yorkers Jimmy Sacca and Seymour Spiegelman. They recorded their first song, “Trying,” in Western’s Van Meter Auditorium. It became a smash hit and their ticket to a national audience via a performance on Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” TV show.
Follow-up hits included “Love Walked In,” “To Be Alone,” and “P.S. I Love You,” all top-10 chart toppers in 1953. Throughout the 1950s, The Hilltoppers enjoyed a steady stream of live performances across the country and on TV, including appearances on “The Milton Berle Show” and “The Perry Como Show.”
“Everyplace I went in the mid-1950s, every diner that I went into, had four or five Hilltoppers songs on their juke box,” says Kentucky writer Ed McClanahan, who is interviewed in the program. “It’s story music. They’re telling stories of broken loves and broken hearts.”
Fellow Kentucky writer Bobbie Ann Mason – who launched and spearheaded The Hilltoppers’ national fan club in the 1950s – is also featured in the documentary. “There was a moment in time between Big Band and rock ’n roll, between Big Band and Elvis, say, where The Hilltoppers belonged. They expressed the emotions teenagers had at the time,” Mason says.
In addition to McGuire, who shares first-hand memories of the group’s success, the program also interviews Ann Sacca, the widow of lead singer Jimmy Sacca, and Sacca’s son Jimmy Sacca Jr., who each reflect on the popularity and influence of The Hilltoppers’ music. Music historian Holly George-Warren is featured as well, offering insights on The Hilltoppers’ lasting legacy in American music history.
“So many singing groups from that era seem almost interchangeable now, but not The Hilltoppers,” says director Tom Thurman. “Their sound is unique, and this originality might be their greatest strength.”
The Hilltoppers is a KET production. Tom Thurman is producer/director. Shae Hopkins, Craig Cornwell and Teresa Day are executive producers.
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