Orchestra leader / arranger / multi-instrumentalist

Born Richard Smith Vaughn, 12 April 1919, Glasgow, Kentucky
Died 26 September 1991, Escondido, California

In terms of chart success, Billy Vaughn was the most popular orchestra leader of the rock era. This is only partially reflected by his 28 entries into the US singles charts (1954-66). Vaughn also had 36 charting albums (1958-1970, 5 of them Top Ten) and scored number one hits in countries all over the world, especially Germany, Japan and Brazil.

Vaughn decided early that he wanted to make music his career, but his father preferred him to opt for the relative security of the family business, a barbershop in Glasgow, Kentucky. For a while he worked as a barber by day while writing music at night. He attended Western Kentucky State College, majoring in music composition. After serving in World War II he played in a variety of combos and developed a fervent interest in both arranging and songwriting. His first recorded composition was “Trying”, which he cut with the Hilltoppers in 1952 ( a # 7 hit). The Hilltoppers were a pop vocal quartet that sang barbershop harmony, with Jimmy Sacca as their lead singer. From 1952 to 1957 the group had 16 Top 40 hit singles on Dot. While Vaughn was still singing with the Hilltoppers, Randy Wood (the owner of Dot Records) wanted to record him with his own orchestra as an instrumental act. Billy was hesitant and insisted that there would be no touring or personal appearances involved. Wood agreed and the first record by the Billy Vaughn Orchestra became “Melody of Love”. Entering the Billboard charts in December 1954, it stayed there for 27 weeks (and that was Top 30 ; the Top 100 didn’t start until November 1955). Peak position # 2. A million seller. Then, with the addition of Pat Boone and other new artists to the Dot roster, Wood needed a musical director. Vaughn was perfect for the job and left the Hilltoppers. He proved especially adept at providing cleaned-up, inoffensive arrangements for covers of R&B records, such as “Hearts Of Stone” by the Fontane Sisters (# 1), “Ain’t That A Shame” by Pat Boone (# 1) and “I Hear You Knocking” by Gale Storm (# 2). This has given Vaughn a bad name among rock n roll purists, but it cannot be denied that those Dot covers helped to introduce “real” rock and roll to a new white teenage audience.

Aside from his own instrumental recordings, Vaughn’s most commercially impressive work for Dot involved providing the charts for Pat Boone’s incredible string of hit records. He was responsible for arranging most of Dot’s biggest hits of the 1950s. Until 1957, the sound of his orchestra differed little from countless other dance bands. But in October of 1957, Billy Vaughn recorded the performance that would change his style and his life.

Randy Wood wanted Vaughn to cover Bill Justis’s “Raunchy”, thinking it was going to be a big hit. Wood was right : the Vaughn version peaked at # 10, but was still outsold by the versions of Bill Justis (# 2) and Ernie Freeman (# 4). The choice of the number for the flip side was Vaughn’s own idea. He came up with the song “Sail Along Silvery Moon” (from 1937) and wanted to record it with two alto saxophones, both played by Justin Gordon, who had built up a reputation as one of the best sax players in Los Angeles. “Sail Along Silvery Moon” introduced the twin alto sax harmony that would become Vaughn’s trademark for the next couple of years. It sounds like two saxes, but it is always Justin Gordon overdubbing his own sax. The rhythm section was also brought up to date with a subtle rock and roll beat. “Sail Along” was an even bigger hit than “Raunchy”, peaking at # 5 in the USA. In several other countries it was a number one and it sold a million in Germany alone (as would later “La Paloma” and “Wheels”). Other successful examples of the new sound were “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, “La Paloma”, “The Singing Hills”, “Cimarron”, “Blue Hawaii” and “Morgen” (all 1958-59). The hits, mostly in the easy listening category, continued until 1962, with “A Swingin’ Safari” as the last Top 20 hit (# 13) and a cover of the Beatles’ “Michelle” as the final entry into the singles charts (# 77, 1966). Many songs that were not US hits or even singles releases there, were major hits in other countries.

The line-up of the Billy Vaughn orchestra differed from session to session, but apart from Justin Gordon, there were several other almost permanent members, like Milt Rogers (piano, co-arranger, contractor), Babe Russin (sax), Larry Breen (bass) and Dick Shanahan (drums). The latter would lead the orchestra after Vaughn’s death in 1991 (of cancer, at the age of 72). Since 2009 the Billy Vaughn Orchestra has been under the direction of Richard Vaughn, Billy’s oldest son. Extensive tours of Japan were undertaken in 2013 and 2014.

More info :

Discography / sessionography :

CD’s :
- For fans of the twin sax sound, the best choice is probably “50 Golden Greats” on Legacy (2012).
- There is a Bear Family 6-CD box-set of the 1954-1958 recordings (“Sail Along Silvery Moon”, BCD 15970, 1997). Liner notes by Joseph F. Laredo.

Acknowledgements : Joseph F. Laredo, Joel Whitburn, Wikipedia.

YouTube :
Trying (Hilltoppers) :
Sail Along Silvery Moon :
Raunchy :
La Paloma :
Moon Over Miami :
Juke * :
Blue Hawaii :
Morgen :
Orange Blossom Special :
A Swingin’ Safari :

* “Juke” (recorded August 15, 1958) was first released on the Bear Family box-set in 1997. Line-up includes Jackie Kelso, Rene Hall and Ernie Freeman.

Dik, May 2015

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
Yahoo Group "Shakin' All Over". For comments or information
please contact Dik de Heer at

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