MY KENTUCKY: Billy Vaughn’s magical melodies
By Sam Terry
Jobe Publishing, Inc.
Riding the wave of success as one of the founding members of The Hilltoppers, Glasgow native Billy Vaughn became music director of Dot Records in 1954. By December 1 of that year, his recording of “Melody of Love” had soared in popularity to enjoy a 27-week run on Billboard’s Best Seller chart where it peaked at #2.
Just a few years earlier, Vaughn was a veteran working as a barber alongside his father in Glasgow. Thanks to the GI Bill, Vaughn seized the opportunity to enroll at Western Kentucky State Teachers College in Bowling Green, becoming what modern terminology would define as a “non-traditional student.”
While at Western, Vaughn enlisted the aid of three college students – basketball player Don McGuire, football player Jimmy Sacca from New York, and another New Yorker, Seymour Spiegelman – to help him record a song he’d written. Bribing the campus security guard with $10, the group gained access to Van Meter Auditorium and once inside, they recorded “Trying” using a reel-to-reel tape recorder. The pedal on the piano was known to stick and football player Bill Ploumis was enlisted to lay beneath the instrument to lift the pedal back in place.
The popularity of the resulting recording set in motion the musical career of The Hilltoppers. Only six months later, on October 26, 1952, the group appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS Television. Their melodic voices, good looks, and Western letter sweaters and beanies caught the attention of the country. The day after their appearance, “Trying” sold 100,000 copies. Their next hit, “P.S. I Love You,” sold a million copies the following year when they were named Top Vocal Group of 1953 by Cashbox magazine.
The success of the “Trying” and “P.S. I Love You” was only the beginning of Vaughn’s storied musical career as a songwriter, arranger, bandleader, and musician. His arrangements earned him 11 Gold Records and 2 Platinum Records, as well as having the distinction of being the first person to earn a Platinum Record. Vaughn charted 42 single records on the Billboard Charts and 36 albums on the Billboard 200. His recordings also hit charts in Germany, Italy, India, New Zealand, Australia, Latin America, and Japan. The Billy Vaughn Orchestra began touring in 1965 with sell-out tours in Japan, Brazil, and South Korea.
One of Vaughn’s most memorable compositions captured the essence of life on a summer evening in Barren County. Made popular by The Mills Brothers, “Jimtown Road” included numerous references to local personalities such as “Puddin’” Hagan; Vaughn’s brother-in-law, W.H. “Tubby” Grissom (later Mayor of Glasgow), and “Pauline Slaughter,” a thinly veiled reference to Kentucky’s most famous madam who presided over her house of ill repute in Bowling Green. Vaughn included cultural references to everyday life such as canning green beans and “a Barren County car” which was stopped “with a load,” recalling that Barren County was a dry county where alcohol could be legally purchased.
My Kentucky appears weekly in Jobe Publishing newspapers in celebration of the 225th anniversary of Kentucky statehood. Past columns can be accessed at www.jpinews.com
I was born in 1951 and started my elementary schooling in Glashow, Ky. One of my little friends was a girl named Charlotte, sister, I believe, to Billy Vaughn. I met him once while playing with Charlotte at her home.
I currently reside at Lake Viking in North Missouri. I retired from teaching Englush at the University of Central Missouri in 2016.
Correct comment. GLASGOW
I immediately became a Billy Vaughn fan when I first heard his composition of ‘La Paloma’. I love all his compositions where he uses twin saxophones like ‘La Golondrina’, ‘Sail along silvery moon’ and ‘He’ll have to go’, to name a few. I believe in this mode he eclipses all the world’s great orchestras like ‘James Last’, ‘Bert Kaempfert’, ‘Andre Rieu’ etc.
I am glad to submit a couple of comments regarding Mr. Billy Vaughn, one of my “Big Five,” five well-known cultural personages I declared long ago as having helped to shape me as an adult. I attributed my appreciation and love of music, my appreciation of and intent to aspire to innovation, and my appreciation of and fascination with detail (in many things, including music and viewable arts) to Billy Vaughn. I first heard his music with the album “Billy Vaughn Plays” in 1960, when my father brought the just-purchased album into the house and played it on a phonograph player. My mom and dad listened and danced to it. The first song I heard that day was the lead song “Cimmaron” and my favorite on the album was “Moonlight and Roses.” My life changed –for the better– that day. I was nine years old and I was already appreciating pop music by then, but that album sparked something special for me that I have carried with me the rest of my life. I ended up acquiring every BV album through the years, constituting the centerpiece of my 9,500 LP music album collection. I was fortunate to have met and chatted with him during a dance date he made at Disneyland in around 1979 (we sat together for about four or five minutes at my ringside table and I remember he kept a saxophone on his lap and unconsciously fiddled with it during our time together…indeed he was soft-spoken and reticent to gab).
I could go on with countless comments about BV’s music, but it can suffice that BV’s music has been with me ever since and seldom does a week go by that his sounds don’t fill my environment in one way or another. I took my family to and saw his museum exhibit in Glasgow, KY back in 2001 and paid homage to him at his monument in the town’s central square. Indeed Billy Vaughn was innovative, hugely busy, influential, and a good man from what I have always heard.