Billy Vaughn

Editor’s Note: More than a few artists profiled on transcend eras. Because Billy Vaughn’s popularity peaked in the early 1960s, and because of his ties to “cover” songs in the rock and roll era, it seems most appropriate to place him in the 1960-present category.

The old joke goes that “Billy Vaughn never met a song he didn’t try to cover.” Through the 1970s and 80s, most music historians ignored or criticized Vaughn’s career, as it was hip to put down the 1950s practice of “covering” and softening black music to make it palatable for conservative audiences.

With the passing of time, of course, we now recognize that cover artists made an important contribution to the progression of popular music, and deserve credit for building a bridge to rock and roll. They also helped expose r & b sounds to a broader audience. An audience that might not buy Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” in 1956 eagerly bought Pat Boone’s milder verion. Boone’s rendition — produced by Vaughn — was ridiculed by the music world for most of the following five decades. Today it is recognized as a pioneering sound, an important stepping stone for listeners who were initially put off by the comparably “harsh” sounds of rock and roll. It goes without saying that the Beatles would not have enjoyed the overwhelming success of Beatlemania in 1964 if artists like Pat Boone — and especially Billy Vaughn — hadn’t paved the way a few years earlier.

Billy Vaughn’s career in American pop began with a group that specialized in cover songs. A multi-talented musician, Vaughn was born and raised in Kentucky and taught himself to play the mandolin at age three. He played a number of other instruments, and after a stint in the Army, Vaughn enrolled at Western Kentucky State College as a music composition major. Now in his late 20s, he earned a living working as a barber during this time, and supplemented his income by playing piano at local nightclubs and lounges.

Vaughn’s piano skills caught the attention of a couple other Western Kentucky students who had formed a vocal trio called The Hilltoppers. After joining the group as a pianist, Vaughn soon added his baritone voice to the vocal mix, fleshing out the Hilltoppers sound. In 1952 the group hit paydirt with a Vaughn composition called “Trying.” The record was released by the tiny Dot Records label of Nashville, and its modest success launched both Dot and the Hilltoppers on the national scene.

For reasons unknown the Hilltoppers put little emphasis on Vaughn’s original compositions, and moved almost exclusively to making cover versions of songs old and new, both popular and obscure. Vaughn, who was clearly the most musically talented of the group, took increasing control of the group’s sound. Hits included covers of “Till Then”, “Poor Butterfly”, and 1953’s “P.S. I Love You”, which was the group’s biggest hit.

By 1954 Vaughn was ready to take on new challenges, and left the Hilltoppers to become musical director of rapidly growing Dot Records. Recording as a solo artist, Billy struck gold almost immediately with his softened version of “Melodie d’Amour,” which he transformed into the classic “Melody of Love” and took to number two position on the pop charts. This unpretentious song spent more than six months on the charts. A year later another cover recording by Vaughn, “The shifting whispering sands (part 1 & 2)” hit number five — actually tying the highest chart position reached by Rusty Draper’s original. Vaughn’s covers and softened remakes would regularly steal chart position (and record sales) from the original from 1954 until 1962, when he had his last major hit with a cover of Bert Kampfaert’s “Swingin’ Safari.”

In his role as musical director of Dot Records, Vaughn was looked at by some as a less innovative version of Mitch Miller, who headed Columbia and regularly tallied his own “sing along” hits. The two were alike in that they greatly influenced the sound that came out of their respective labels, but Vaughn actually played instruments whereas Miller mostly produced or directed. For his part, Miller was more of an innovator than Vaughn, who was content to present benign, musically perfect covers. Dot Records quickly became known as a “cover” label. Whether this was Vaughn’s preference or the direction of Dot founder Randy Wood is unclear. By the time Pat Boone hit the top spot with a sanitized version of “Ain’t That a Shame,” the die was cast. Dot in the late 1950s and early 1960s became an odd collection of cover artists like Boone, fading stars like Eddie Fisher and Vaughn Monroe, and hard-to-define acts like Roy Clark and Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs.

Back to Billy the artist. After a few minor and mid-chart hits in 1956, Vaughn had a big record with 1957’s cover of “Sail Along Silvery Moon,” which spent half the year on the pop charts and peaked at #5. Today it is probably the song most identified with his career. During the same year he hit the top ten with a smoothed-over version of “Raunchy,” which stayed on the charts almost as long as Silvery Moon.

Vaughn continued to rack up modest hits through the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the five year period from 1956 to 1961, some sort of Billy Vaughn record was on the Top 100 Billboard chart virtually every week. And since Vaughn had a hand in hits by Tab Hunter (Young Love) and Pat Boone (Love Letters in the Sand), his musical impact was unavoidable during this period. In fact, Billy Vaughn remains the best-selling bandleader on the pop charts since the advent of the rock and roll era in 1955. Considering his participation in so many hits on Dot Records, it is safe to say that Billy Vaughn is one of the most successful and best-selling artists of all time.

Although Silvery Moon represented the high point of his record sales, Vaughn continued to chart right up until 1966, when he scored for the last time with — you guessed it — a cover version of another current hit. Some of the notables after Silvery Moon were “La Paloma” (#20) in 1958, the irrepressible “Wheels” (#28) in 1961, and the cover of Bert Kampfaert’s “Swingin’ Safari” in 1962. The 1966 hit, incidentally, was a woozy rendition of the Beatles’ “Michelle.” After that, Vaughn recorded in Europe with a new orchestra and arrangements that sounded a bit, well, not as good as when he was in his prime.

By the 1970s, record sales slowed considerably. Vaughn more or less retired, although he continued to tour overseas from time to time. As time went on his popularity seemed to surge in certain international markets, particularly Japan. Although he popped up from time to time at oldies concerts and on public television, Vaughn lived a quiet retirement in California. He succumbed to cancer at age 72, in 1991.