Don McGuire, the last surviving member of The Hilltoppers — four clean-cut guys in Western Kentucky letter sweaters and beanies who became one of America’s most popular vocal groups before rock ‘n’ roll swept the country — has died at age 86.
McGuire, who was born in Hazard and had lived in Lexington since the 1960s, died Friday at Baptist Hospital after a short illness.
“He was such a lucky guy,’ said his son, Kreis McGuire of Bowling Green. “He always put family first and he never forgot where he came from.”
The Hilltoppers put 19 songs on Billboard magazine’s Top 40 chart between 1952 and 1957, crooning about romantic love and college life. They were rated as America’s most popular vocal group in 1953.
Their biggest hit, “P.S. I Love You,” sold more than 3 million copies. They toured Asia and Great Britain, where their hit, “Only You,” became the most popular song. (It did well in this country, too, but was outsold by The Platters’ version.) Their last big hit was the calypso song “Marianne,” which topped Billboard’s chart at No. 3.
Jimmy Sacca died in Lexington in 2015. Billy Vaughn died in California in 1991 and Seymour Spiegelman in New York City in 1987. All were or had been students at what is now Western Kentucky University, whose teams are called the Hilltoppers because the campus sits on the highest hill in Bowling Green.
“When I was a farm girl in western Kentucky, the Hilltoppers’ songs on the radio seemed to me proof that you could be from Kentucky and yet go places,” said author Bobbie Ann Mason. “They were my inspiration.”
As a teenager in Mayfield, Mason became the group’s national fan club president. She wrote an essay about the experience for The New Yorker magazine in 1986.
“Don was always so much fun, unexpectedly down-to-earth for a big star,” Mason said. “He had a healthy perspective on his fame as a Hilltopper, and he knew when to quit the group and live a more normal life. I will miss his gentle, teasing humor and the sound of his voice.”
The Hilltoppers convinced Dot Records in Gallatin, Tenn., to do a recording session with them at Western’s Van Meter Auditorium. Within months, their record of Vaughn’s song “Trying” was on the Top 40, eventually hitting No. 7.
As they recorded more hits, The Hilltoppers became early television stars, appearing on variety shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle, Dave Garroway and Jonathan Winters.
McGuire liked to tell the story of rushing back from an appearance in New York with Perry Como because he had a history test the next morning, his son said. A girl sitting behind him in class pointed out that he still had stage makeup on his neck.
Before graduating from WKU, McGuire also found time to play basketball under famed coach E.A. Diddle. The Hazard High School graduate later served in the U.S. Army. He and the other Hilltoppers were inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in 2013.
After The Hilltoppers broke up, McGuire spent 25 years as a school textbook salesman for the publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. He later sold real estate.
McGuire is survived by his wife of 65 years, Maxine; his son; two daughters, Cindy Shell and Lisa Baumgardner, both of Lexington; nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Visitation will be Tuesday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Kerr Brothers on Harrodsburg Road. The funeral will be Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. with private burial at Camp Nelson National Cemetery. Memorials are suggested to the Bobby and Don McGuire Scholarship Fund at Western Kentucky University’s College Heights Foundation.