A famous musician and the birth of the 202nd Army Band

By John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard

Soldiers of the Regimental Band, 149th Infantry, 38th Infantry Division in Camp Shelby, Miss., 1941. Pvt. Billy Vaughn (3rd row on left) served as a musician playing the saxophone with the unit during World War II. (Courtesy photo)

April 12, 2019, marks the centennial of the birth of Richard Smith “Billy” Vaughn; singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, arranger, conductor, choral and orchestral leader, and Kentucky Guardsman.  Billy was born in Glasgow, Kentucky, the only son of four children of Alvis and Sally Vaughn.

At a very early age Billy showed an interest in music, learning to play his father ukulele while he laid up in bed suffering from measles at the age of five.   He was a self-taught musician, he sang, played, and wrote music.   He mastered the flute, piano, ukulele, and saxophone.  He would later become famous for his “twin” saxophones—he was able to play two at the same time.

As a young man he expressed an interest in making music his career.  His father, a barber, advised him to find a career that would make him money.  Billy became a part-time barber, having attended a cosmetic school and receiving a hairdressing license.  A skill he used when money was short.

Following his graduation from high school Billy joined his local Kentucky National Guard unit at 17. He joined the 123rd Cavalry Regiment Band, at Glasgow, Feb. 21, 1936. This band was destined to be the last mounted band in the U.S. Army.

From the beginning of the U.S. Military, music has been an inspiring and moving force.  The mission of the military band is to support our military and civilian population in times of war and peace in ceremonies, parades, concerts, dances and other performances.

The U.S. Army’s first mounted musicians were company trumpeters serving in Revolutionary War units.  From then until the beginning of World War II there is a rich history of Army National Guard mounted bands, especially during the 1920s and 1930s.

The mounted bandsmen were soldiers first, with the same training and duties as any soldier in their regiment.  As bandsmen, they also spent many hours practicing and training their horses to provide music for both the military and civilian communities.

Of all the regimental cavalry bands, perhaps the one musician who attained the highest level of musical fame was Billy Vaughn.

On his initial enlistment papers Billy lists his occupation as musician, with 3 years of experience.  During this time the band was in demand at ceremonies and events across the state.  With the beginning of the one year federalization and reorganization of National Guard units in 1940, the 123rd Cavalry Regiment was disbanded Oct. 31.  Private First Class Billy Vaughn and his band mates were discharged from the military, his service record states his character was excellent and his service had been, honest and faithful.

A month later on December 8, 1940, Billy and most of the members of the disbanded 123rd Cavalry Band, joined Kentucky’s 149th Infantry Band at Bowling Green, Kentucky, under the direction of Warrant Office Joe H. Rust.  The band was inducted into federal service Jan. 17, 1941.  By Jan. 26, 1941, the band was located at Camp Shelby, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for training.  The band participated in military maneuvers at Cooper and Sabine area in Louisiana, as well as the Louisiana Maneuvers in 1942.  While stationed at Camp Shelby, Billy met and fell in love with his future bride, Marion Olive Smith “Smitty,” of Hazelhurst, Mississippi.  In late November 1942 and early January 1943, the band was assigned to Camp Gordon Johnston, located near Carabelle, Florida, returning back to Camp Shelby the first week of January 1943.

The 149th Band was permanently transferred to Camp Livingston, located near Alexandria, Louisiana Jan. 15, 1943.  The band was later reorganized and redesigned the 202nd Army Band Jan. 19, 1944, a designation they had until May 27, 1944, when they were again reorganized and designated as the 202nd Army Ground Forces Band.  On October 25, 1944 the band was again transferred, this time to Camp Maxey, located north of Paris, Texas.  While stationed at these various Camps the band performed at military functions, parades, USO and Red Cross dances.

As World War II came to a close, Soldiers of the band made their final move Oct. 1, 1945, this time to Camp Bowie, near Brownwood, Texas, where Technician Fifth Grade Richard S. Vaughn and the members of the 202nd Band were discharged from military service. The unit was inactivated Nov. 23, 1945.  At the time of his discharge Billy was qualified Expert with the M1 Rifle, his awards and decorations included: Army Good Conduct Ribbon, American Defense Ribbon, American Theater Ribbon and World War II Victory Medal.

As with Billy’s life, this was not the end of the story of the 202nd Army Band.  In an article appearing in the June 20, 1946, edition of the Cincinnati Inquirer, speaking of the reorganization and expansion of the Kentucky National Guard after the war, it was stated by Adjutant General Gustavus H. May, that the 202nd Army Ground Forces Band, a 22-piece unit, would probably be headquartered at Covington.  It was stated that the 202nd would replace the pre-war 149th Infantry Band which had been located in Bowling Green.  On May 17, 1947, the 202nd Army Ground Forces Band was redesignated as the 202nd Army Band and allotted to the State of Kentucky National Guard, with a retroactive date of May 13, 1946.  On July 24, 1947, the 202nd Army Band was organized at Ashland, Kentucky and federally recognized as a part of the Kentucky National Guard.  Today, the proud heritage and tradition of Kentucky’s National Guard Regimental Bands is carried on by the 202nd Army Band currently stationed at Frankfort.

Billy Vaughn’s musical career was far from over following his service in the Kentucky Guard and Second World War.  Using the GI Bill, Billy enrolled at Western Kentucky State Teachers College (now Western Kentucky University).  He attend college for one year in 1947.  While at WKU Billy would entertain his fellow students after class at the Goal Post, a restaurant located across from campus.  On Friday and Saturday nights he performed with the Ace Denning orchestra at Bowling Green’s Boots and Saddle Club, where he earned $10.00 per evening playing piano.

Billy Vaughn with his two saxophones in a 1950s promotional print. (Courtesy photo)

In early 1952, Billy and four students from WKU formed the singing group The Hilltoppers with Jimmy Sacca, Don McQuire, Seymour Spiegelman and Billy singing baritone and playing piano.  In April 1952, at Van Meter Auditorium on the campus of Western Kentucky University, the Hilltoppers cut their first demo of Billy Vaughn’s song, “Trying.”  The song was taken to local disc jockey, Bill Stamps of WLBJ, for airplay.  After receiving a favorable response, from local listeners Stamps took the recording to Randall Wood at Dot Records, in Gallatin, Tennessee.  The song took off nationally and landed in the top ten.  Their big break came with their appearance on the Ed Sullivan program, “Toast of the Town,” Oct. 26, 1952.  Other hits would follow.  In 1953, Cash Box magazine named the Hilltoppers the top vocal group of the year with their hits, “Trying” and “P. S. I Love You.”  “P. S. I Love You” became the group’s first Gold Record, selling over a million copies.  In an 11-month period, the Hilltoppers had ascended from being an unknown group to national stardom, they would go on to attain worldwide fame.

Billy left the Hilltoppers in 1954 to pursue a career in the record industry becoming the chief arranger and musical director for Dot Records.  That same year he formed his own orchestra which subsequently had a hit single with the song, “Melody of Love.”  It sold more than a million copies, and was awarded a gold record. Billy never forgot the Hilltoppers, continuing to write songs for and encourage the group to greater heights.

When Dot moved its headquarters to California, Billy went with them.  Billy formed what would become the Billy Vaughn Orchestra during this time.  By December 1954, Billy and his orchestra were high on the music charts with the album, Melody of Love.  The following year the album Silver Moon was released.  The orchestra provided backing for numerous vocal artists during the 1950s and 60s, also releasing a number of recordings of their own.  When Dot was sold to MGM, Billy was part of the deal, and he soon became the head of the MGM studio orchestra.

Governor Bert Combs nominated Vaughn as the Musician of Kentucky during the Barren County Fair and homecoming for Billy held at Glasgow July 20, 1962.

In the mid-1960s Billy took his orchestra on tour including concerts in the U.S., Germany, Brazil, Korea and Japan.  He would become the most popular orchestra leader of the Rock and Roll era, noted for playing his two saxophones at one time.  Billy Vaughn and His Orchestra charted a total of 42 singles on the Billboard charts and 36 albums on the Billboard 200, earning 11 Gold and two Platinum records.  His music was loved world-wide and still has a strong following in many foreign countries.

In 1965, Vaughn was nominated for an Academy Award for his song, “Louisville, My Hometown” which he had written and his orchestra performed for the documentary, Wonders of Kentucky.  In 1972 the original members of the Hilltoppers were honored as Grand Marshals of the 43rd Homecoming parade.

In 1977, Billy and his wife, Marion “Smitty” left California and returned to live in Bowling Green, to be near family in the area.  Although semiretired he formed a Dixieland Jazz band, playing several nights a month at the Golden Branding Iron in Bowling Green.  In 1987, the Vaughn’s returned to Encino, California, to be near their children and grandchildren.

In 1991, Billy became ill with cancer and died Sept. 26.  Billy and Smitty who died March 24, 2009, are buried in the Oak Hill Memorial Park in Escondido.

At Billy’s funeral, his friend and fellow Hilltopper, Don McGuire, in eulogy stated that Billy’s talent was “like a tidal wave in the music world.”  Here was a man who could play at least nine different musical instruments and had never taken a music lesson in his life.  McGuire went on the say, “he was the most talented mortal I’ve ever known.”

Another close friend, David “Doc” Livingston, noted that no matter how famous Billy had become he remained humble and reachable.

Over the years Billy and his music has been remembered and honored by his hometown and his native state.  In 1992, Billy was inducted into the Hall of Distinguished Alumni at WKU.  In 1998, Glasgow remember her native son with a memorial monument located in the Beulah C. Nunn Park in downtown Glasgow.  WKU established the Billy Vaughn scholarship in 1999.  Billy Vaughn has been inducted twice into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, first in 2004, and in 2013 as a member of the Hilltoppers.

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