KET premieres a documentary Monday night that takes viewers back to a time when one of the hottest acts in pop music was straight out of Bowling Green.
“The Hilltoppers” looks at the quartet from Western Kentucky University, then Western Kentucky State College, that sent more than two-dozen songs up the pop charts from 1952 to 1957. Though they were all the rage in their era between big bands and rock ’n’ roll, their story has largely been lost to time. The last big notice of The Hilltoppers was the group’s 2013 induction into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame.
“I grew up in the age of rock,” says KET filmmaker Tom Thurman, whose credits include films about Harry Dean Stanton, Hunter S. Thompson and Warren Oates. “I just knew bits and pieces about The Hilltoppers from things I read by Bobbie Ann Mason and Ed McClanahan.”
KET executive director and CEO Shae Hopkins, who grew up in Hilltopper Don McGuire’s neighborhood, suggested the group might make a good documentary.
“All it took was one visit to know there was plenty there for a documentary,” Thurman says of visiting McGuire, the last surviving Hilltopper, who lives in Lexington.
McGuire went to Western on a basketball scholarship after a spectacular performance in the state high school all-star game. Fellow Hilltopper Jimmy Sacca, the group’s frontman, came to Western from New York on a football scholarship, and the group was rounded out by Seneca Falls, N.Y., native Seymour Spiegelman and Glasgow native Billy Vaughn, the group’s primary songwriter and arranger.
The documentary recalls that it was Vaughn’s desire to record his song “Trying” that prompted The Hilltoppers to get together in Western’s Van Meter Auditorium. In the documentary, McGuire recalls there were 12 people in the room for the recording, though, “to this day, nearly a quarter-million people have claimed to be in there.”
That record, with the B-side “You Made Up My Mind,” was released by Gallatin. Tenn.-based Dot Records. A few weeks after release, label owner Randy Wood had called the group down to his office to break the news that the record wasn’t doing well.
“We’re sitting at his desk, and the phone rings, and the distributor from Cincinnati called and said, ‘I need 3,000 records of this black group that you have,’” McGuire recalls in the film. “We said, ‘Don’t tell them any different. Send them 3,000 records.’ An hour later, Cleveland called and said, ‘We need 6,000 records.’”
The song eventually went to No. 7 on the pop charts, and The Hilltoppers were off to concerts and TV appearances, including “The Ed Sullivan Show.” That appearance gets an extended re-airing in Thurman’s documentary, but it is another TV appearance that gives the documentary a lot of its footage: an appearance on ABC’s “The Orchid Award,” that included four songs and interviews with band members, wearing their usual Western letter sweaters and beanies.
“No one had seen that footage in 60 years, including Don McGuire and his family,” Thurman says of the show, a 15-minute series that he says lasted only half a season.
Internet searches for it reveal only sketchy information that it aired sometime between 1952 to ’54. Thurman found the episode on videotape, transferred from 16 mm kinescope.
“It really surprised me they became so popular, so quickly,” Thurman says. “These were just college kids, but tens of millions of people were watching them on TV.”
The Hilltoppers’ biggest hit was a recording of the Gordon Jenkins-Johnny Mercer song “P.S. I Love You” — not the same song as The Beatles’ hit of the same name — which went to No. 3 on the charts.
Thurman’s documentary does not take a turn into any “Behind the Music” style break-up story, except to say that the entry of rock ’n’ roll to the pop charts with stars such as Elvis Presley and Little Richard quickly put The Hilltoppers’ clean-cut harmony out of vogue.
“We did some rock ’n’ roll songs. But people knew we weren’t a rock group,” McGuire told the Herald-Leader’s Tom Eblen in his obituary for Sacca, who died in March 2015.
In addition to McGuire, Thurman’s film features comments from Sacca’s widow, Ann Sacca, and son, Jimmy Sacca Jr; McClanahan, who wrote about The Hilltoppers in his book “Famous People I Have Known,” and Mason, who was president of the group’s fan club and wrote about the experience in a 1986 New Yorker magazine essay.
While memories have faded, The Hilltoppers are not forgotten. At a preview screening of the film at Western, Thurman says a student a cappella group called The WKU Redshirts performed several Hilltoppers songs.
“Some younger people are gravitating to the simplicity of their style of music,” Thurman says. “Producing this show serves a dual purpose. We want to present it to people who came of age at that time and loved their music. But it’s also for young people interested in different types of music who wouldn’t normally gravitate to them. The voice of Jimmy Sacca should resonate with anyone interested in music.
“The story of The Hilltoppers is a way to peer into another era of music.”
9 p.m. Monday on KET. Repeats numerous times on KET stations. Visit Ket.org for airtimes.