As moments in musical history go, the events leading up to the formation of the Hilltoppers, Denison’s oldest male a cappella group, might seem inauspicious. They’re also somewhat vague. Accounts vary, and one of the group’s key instigators, Peter Frame ’82, is no longer available to answer questions, having lost a 20-year battle with a brain tumor in 2013, the same year the ensemble celebrated its 35th anniversary.
According to Laura Gray Frame ’83, her soon-to-be boyfriend and eventual husband was studying in his dorm room in Smith Hall on Halloween night in 1978 when Andy Zweig ’82 appeared outside his ground-floor window and began belting out Broadway show tunes. Frame went outside and began singing along, hoping eventually to quiet Zweig. The next day, the two decided to form a vocal group.
Zweig remembers things a bit differently. It was midnight on the West Quad and the song was the national anthem. When Frame begged him to stop, Zweig replied, “The only way I’m going to stop is if you sing with me.” Frame consented, joining Zweig in perfect harmony. It was, Zweig recalls, an aha moment. “I didn’t know what we had,” he says, “but I knew we had something.”
What they had turned out to be the nucleus of the Hilltoppers. Seeking like-minded harmonizers, Frame and Zweig went to William Osborne, founder of the Denison Singers and now distinguished professor of fine arts emeritus. Osborne, in turn, pointed them toward Teddy Pearre ’80, a junior who also had been trying to get a male a cappella group off the ground. Pearre showed up at rehearsal with five other singers in tow, and the Hilltoppers were born.
From the outset, the group’s emphasis on four-part harmony meant that most of its material consisted of barbershop quartet tunes (“Peg o’ My Heart,” “Strolling Through the Park One Day”), 1950s doo-wop hits (“Duke of Earl,” “Blue Moon”), African-American spirituals (“Ride in the Chariot”), and the occasional show tune, all of which were either acquired as written arrangements—some of them mooched from high school choir directors over winter break—or lifted by ear from recordings. The octet also managed to score prime evening rehearsal space: a basement lounge by a stairwell in what was then an all-female Shorney Hall that offered both excellent natural reverb and scores of curious nightgown-clad coeds. “That’s when I knew I wanted in,” recalls Rick Houpt ’81, a sophomore whose future wife, Patty Ripley ’81, was a frequent target of the group’s romantic serenades.
That first iteration of the Hilltoppers wasn’t short on musical talent—everyone had some singing experience, and Frame in particular was a gifted first tenor—but opportunities for performances were hard to come by, and sometimes a bit rough: Houpt persuaded his fraternity to let the Hilltoppers sing at a Parents Weekend cocktail party; Patty landed them a similar gig at her sorority; and the group butchered the national anthem at the annual Homecoming game. Their big break came in 1981, when a private performance for the board of trustees—a de facto audition that led to a multicity tour during which the group entertained alumni clubs from Boston to Pittsburgh. That same year, the group recorded its debut album in a basement studio in Pataskala, Ohio. To save money, the sessions began at 10 p.m., typically ending at 2 or 3 a.m.; and just to make things more interesting, Zweig and a couple of other Jewish members teased the engineer, who had never before recorded anything but Christian religious music, about “singing a couple in Hebrew.” (They didn’t.)
Bill Wexler ’79, another founding member, never imagined that the group would have such legs. Wexler himself was in the ensemble for only a year, and might never have joined at all if Teddy Pearre hadn’t heard him humming in an adjacent lane during an intermediate bowling class in the alley that once occupied the third floor of Slayter Hall. Yet today, Wexler hosts a monthly gathering at his home in Cincinnati that draws members of the Hilltopper Alumni Club (HAC) from Columbus to St. Louis. “I’m not sure if they come for the free food and beer, or for the harmony and camaraderie,” says Wexler, who considers his fellow participants—none of whom he knew at Denison—to be among his closest friends.
A plaque honoring the eight founding members now stands outside Higley Hall, and 20 or 30 members of the HAC gather on campus each spring, with even larger numbers coming together at five-year intervals to participate in “Generations” concerts that see clusters of former and current members performing together on stage. Something similar occurred at the memorial that was held for Frame in Swasey Chapel in August, when more than 50 alumni joined the current batch of Hilltoppers to sing “Abraham, Martin and John.” “It was very difficult for me to make it through that song, because I remembered singing it with Pete,” says Wexler.
Yet the presence of so many past and present Hilltoppers paid fitting tribute to a man whose timely musical intervention one Halloween night helped establish an institution that continues to play an outsize role in the lives of its members. “It was a testament not only to Pete,” says Houpt, who spoke at Swasey of Frame’s commitment to the ensemble, “but to the group.” And Frame’s legacy lives on, not only through the current Hilltoppers, but through his two daughters, Taylor and Campbell. Like Dad before her, Taylor, a senior at Denison, belts out tunes with one of the college’s all-female a cappella groups, Ladies’ Night Out.