Vaughn, Richard Smith (“Billy”)
Vaughn, Richard Smith (“Billy”)
(b. 12 April 1918 in Glasgow, Kentucky; d. 26 September 1991 in Escondido, California), conductor and arranger whose smooth orchestral versions of pop and R&B hits made him one of the most successful recording artists of the 1950s and 1960s.
Vaughn was one of four children of Alvis Radford Vaughn, a barber and fiddle player, and Sally Maud McWherter, a homemaker. At the age of three Vaughn taught himself how to play the mandolin, the first of eight or nine musical instruments he would go on to master. In early 1941 Vaughn enlisted in the armed forces and joined the Hundred and Twenty-third Cavalry Mounted Band of the National Guard, where he served for four years. While stationed in Mississippi, Vaughn was able to focus on music and develop his arranging and composing skills. He joined a sextet and the base’s big band, which performed at various off-base events. At one of these events Vaughn met a Mississippi high-school girl named Marion Smith. Vaughn and Marion were married on 17 April 1943; they had three children.
When Vaughn was discharged from the service after the end of World War II he decided to pursue a career in music. He enrolled at Western Kentucky State Teachers College (now Western Kentucky University), in Bowling Green, in 1947 and studied composition. He never actually graduated, but in 1992 he was awarded an honorary degree by the university and membership in the inaugural class of its Hall of Distinguished Alumni.
In 1952, Vaughn formed a vocal quartet, the Hilltoppers, with three college friends: Jimmy Sacca, Don Mc-Guire, and Seymour Speigelman. Vaughn wrote a song called “Trying,” which would become the first of his many hits when Dot Records released the group’s recording of it in August 1952. The success of the Hilltoppers led them to radio and television appearances, including Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town (26 October 1952), American Bandstand, and the Perry Como and Frankie Laine shows. The group also appeared on the cover of Cash Box magazine with a second hit, the million-selling “P.S. I Love You,” which went to the top of the charts. The Hilltoppers sold more than 8 million records and were consistently ranked among the top ten vocal groups throughout the 1950s, including America’s number one vocal group in 1953.
Vaughn left the Hilltoppers in 1954 to become musical director of Dot Records, which specialized in cover records—new versions of familiar songs. He began to arrange and direct recording sessions for the Fontane Sisters, Pat Boone, Johnny Maddox, Gale Storm, the Mills Brothers, and many other Dot recording artists. It was also at this time that Vaughn established his own group, Billy Vaughn and His Orchestra. Perhaps due to his personality, Vaughn preferred working behind the curtain, and he insisted that his new band be primarily a studio orchestra. Vaughn contributed significantly to the label’s chart success. His orchestra recorded dozens of internationally known instrumental hits and was voted the most programmed orchestra in 1955 and again in 1958. Dot Records and Vaughn moved to Paramount Recording Studios in Hollywood, California, when Paramount bought Dot in 1958. Vaughn and his orchestra continued to work with big names like Johnny Mercer.
Between 1954 and 1968 Vaughn recorded more than twenty-five albums of cover instrumentá is for Dot. His recording of “Melody of Love” was number two on the charts for twenty-seven weeks in 1954; “The Shifting, Whispering Sands (Parts 1 & 2)” was number five for fifteen weeks in 1955; and “Sail Along Silvery Moon” was number five for twenty-six weeks in 1957. In 1960 “Theme from A Summer Place” reached number one on Billboard magazine’s pop album chart. In fact, several of his hits even outsold the originals, among them “The Shifting, Whispering Sands” (first done by Rusty Draper) and “Melody of Love” (a cover of a French hit, “Melodie d’Amour”). He also released an EP (extended play disc) featuring a version of “Shifting, Whispering Sands” with narration by television commercial voice-over specialist Ken Nordine. He had more pop hits than any other orchestra leader during the rock-and-roll era. Reviews in Billboard typically ran: “There’s no stopping Billy Vaughn. Each album is an automatic chart-winner and this is no exception.”
Vaughn’s popularity spread to other countries as well, especially Germany and Japan, where he took his orchestra on tours several times. “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” sold over 1 million records in both Germany and Holland, as did “La Paloma” in Germany. In March 1959 he flew to Europe for the award of three gold records, the first American recording artist to be awarded a gold record in Europe. He also won the first platinum record ever awarded for a record that sold over 3 million copies (“Sail Along, Silvery Moon”). Over his forty-year career Vaughn sold more than 200 million records worldwide. He earned eleven gold and two platinum records as well as trophies and awards from Brazil, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Peru, Sweden, and Switzerland.
After a lengthy battle with cancer Vaughn died on 26 September 1991 at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido.
As an arranger, Vaughn tended to have a consistent, predictable sound. He was most famous for his “twin sax” sound, in which the orchestration usually featured an alto sax for the melody, with a second alto sax a third away; supporting instruments typically included a little heavier orchestration on the sax section, with four tenor saxes for the section. Through this formula Vaughn made his most distinctive contribution to the music industry, adapting the youth-oriented pop hits of the 1950s and 1960s in a way that appealed to the tastes of what was then a mainstream, older audience.
Limited items of correspondence and sheet music are in the University Archives at Western Kentucky University, in Bowling Green. There is no full-length biography of Vaughn. Biographical entries are in Irwin Stambler, Encyclopedia of Popular Music (1965); Colin Larkin, ed., The Encyclopedia of Popular Music (1998), which offers selected discography with ratings; and Reuben Musiker and Naomi Musiker, Conductors and Composers of Popular Orchestral Music (1998), which also provides a selected discography. Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (27 Sept. 1991), New York Times (28 Sept. 1991), and Variety (7 Oct. 1991).