July 26, 1929 – March 7, 2015
Lockport native Jimmy Sacca, lead singer of the Hilltoppers, a vocal quartet that notched 29 hit singles from 1952 to 1957, died Saturday in St. Joseph’s Hospital, Lexington, Ky. He was 85.
James W. Sacca Jr. attended Lockport High School, where he earned a football scholarship to Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky. But the gridiron was forgotten when he and two fellow students, Seymour Spiegelman and Don McGuire, formed a vocal trio that sang at a campus gathering spot called the Goal Posts.
In the spring of 1952, Billy Vaughn, a piano player in a local orchestra, wrote a ballad called “Tryin,’” which he thought would suit Mr. Sacca. Vaughn also sang, and he joined Mr. Sacca’s group to make a record of the song, which was sent to a local radio disc jockey. Listener response was good enough that the DJ called Randy Wood, owner of the Dot Records label. He signed the group, which was then named the Hilltoppers after the university’s athletic teams.
Dot’s release of “Tryin’” became a hit, eventually reaching No. 7 in the Billboard magazine charts and No. 5 in the Cashbox Magazine listings, and the quartet was summoned to New York City to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on CBS. A video of the Oct. 26, 1952, appearance shows Mr. Sacca, considerably taller than the other three vocalists, stepping out in front of his colleagues and singing their debut hit in a powerful baritone. They wore college letter sweaters with a large W on the front, and multicolored beanies, suggested by an agent.
There were appearances on many other TV variety shows, but the group’s trajectory was interrupted when Mr. Sacca was drafted into the Army in 1953; he was stationed in Okinawa for two years.
But before he left, the Hilltoppers recorded a large batch of songs, which Dot issued during Mr. Sacca’s absence. Six of them hit the Billboard Top 10, including the group’s all-time biggest seller, “P.S. I Love You,” a certified gold record that reached No. 4 in 1953.
It reportedly sold 3 million copies, according to an article on the Western Kentucky University website.
Cashbox named the Hilltoppers the top vocal group in America for 1953, and they won a vocal group popularity poll on WNEW Radio in New York in 1954.
When Mr. Sacca got out of the Army in March 1955, Spiegelman and McGuire were drafted, while Vaughn had been hired to be musical director of Dot Records. With replacements, one of them being the late Eddie Crowe of Lockport, Mr. Sacca and the Hilltoppers continued their career.
They covered the Platters’ hit “Only You,” and the Hilltoppers’ version reached No. 8 on the Billboard chart and No. 3 in Cashbox in late 1955. The record peaked at No. 3 in Great Britain and was on the British chart for 23 weeks.
On the strength of this, the Hilltoppers toured Britain in 1956. While they were overseas, Dot Records hired other singers, called them the Hilltoppers and issued more records.
After Mr. Sacca and company returned to the U.S., they recorded a calypso song called “Marianne,” which became the group’s highest-ranking U.S. hit, peaking at No. 2 in Cashbox and No. 3 in Billboard in the spring of 1957.
With varying personnel, including the return of Spiegelman and McGuire, the Hilltoppers toured in the U.S. and abroad until 1960, when Mr. Sacca went to work in record distribution for Dot. He formed a new Hilltoppers group around 1965 and recorded occasionally until 1973. They sang for two years in a Holiday Inn in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., in the early 1970s. The Hilltoppers performed for the last time in 1976, and Mr. Sacca became a talent booking agent, first in Jackson, Miss., and later in Lexington.
Mr. Sacca was inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame in 2008, when he received a lifetime achievement award. The Vocal Group Hall of Fame in Sharon, Pa., had inducted the Hilltoppers in 2005, and the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame did so in 2013.
Survivors include his wife of 62 years, the former Annie Rivers Holloway; three sons, Jimmy, Terry and Tommy; a sister, Elma Scapelliti; 12 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Services were scheduled for Wednesday in Lexington.