The Buffalo Bills Barbershop Quartet
The Buffalo Bills Barbershop Quartet
BMHOF Class of 2009
The Buffalo Bills were a barbershop quartet formed in Buffalo,New York, on September 20, 1947. The original members were tenor Vern Reed, an executive for the Tonawanda Boys' Club, lead Al Shea, who was a city of Buffalo policeman, baritone Herschel Smith, a corporate executive, and bass Bill Spangenberg, a truck driver for a steel company. They started out as an unnamed foursome, singing for community groups. During an appearance at the Buffalo Quarterback Club, they were introduced as the "Buffalo Bills", which was meant to be just for that day, but the name stuck from that point on. Coincidentally, a football team known formerly as the Buffalo Bisons also changed its name to the Bills at about the same time; the name proved popular enough that the current Buffalo Bills also picked up the name when they debuted thirteen years later.
There was something different about the Buffalo Bills; their big sound, combined with the work of Phil Embury and other talented arrangers, kept them busy singing on barbershop shows and gave them a popularity no other Society quartet had achieved. Phil Embury traveled with the Quartet around the world. The Bills competed in the 1948 and 1949 SPEBSQSA International Quartet Contest, placing sixteenth and sixth.
However, Herschel Smith was promoted and transferred to Madison, Wisconsin, and had to leave the quartet. Unable to find a replacement, the Bills broke up. Fortunately, they found baritone Dick Grapes and blossomed quickly. In 1950, they won the Barbershop Harmony Society International Quartet Contest, earning them the title of International Quartet Champions. Soon after their victory, they appeared on the National Radio Show We The People and were honored by the Manhattan and Buffalo chapters on their return trip to their hometown. Their first national television appearance was on The Faye Emerson Pepsi-Cola Show in a television movie in April 1951. The Bills also performed at military bases in France, Germany, Austria, Japan, and Korea. That same year, the Bills released an album of four records for Decca. Meredith Willson, a famous arranger, composer, and orchestra director, hosted a radio show called Music Today with his wife, heard the album and began to admire the Buffalo Bills' work. He travelled to Buffalo with his wife in 1954 to meet them, and began featuring the quartet on his radio show.
In February 1957, the Bills competed on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, won first honors, and received the essential invitation to perform on Godfrey's morning show for the rest of the week. Later that year, Meredith Willson had written and composed The Music Man, a musical set in his hometown of Mason City, Iowa. He included a barbershop quartet in this plot. Willson had heard the Bills' records and suggested they come to New York and audition for the role of the Iowa quartet. They were immediately accepted, but joining the musical meant there were serious changes to be made. They would all have to quit their jobs and move to New York City.
In the end, Dick Grapes decided to stay behind with his job and family life and was replaced by veteran barbershop baritone Wayne "Scotty" Ward of the Great Scots quartet of Steubenville, Ohio. The quartet took one-year leaves from their jobs (which later became permanent) and moved with their families to New York. They continued to make television and radio appearances, including the Arthur Godfrey show, where they met Walter Latzko, a CBS staff music arranger. They were such a hit on Broadway that they were cast in the film adaptation of the musical in 1962. Shortly after filming was completed, Bill Spangenberg became ill and had to leave the quartet. He died the following year. Spangenberg was replaced by Jim Jones, bass of the Sta-Laters quartet.
For the next five years, the Bills performed on the Arthur Godfrey Show as a nightclub act, as guest performers in productions of The Music Man and as headline entertainers on barbershop shows as well as county and state fairs around North America. Their total career consisted of 1,510 performances on Broadway, 728 concerts, 675 radio shows, 672 night club and hotel appearances, 626 conventions, 216 television shows, 137 state fair performances, and 1 film. Their final performance was on May 24, 1967 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.
Members of the Quartet:
Vern Reed (1947-1967)
Al Shea (1947-1967)
Herschel Smith (1947-1950)
Dick Grapes (1950-1957)
Wayne "Scotty" Ward (1957-1967)
Bill Spangenberg (1947-1962)
Jim Jones (1962-1967)
Back - 2009
The Empire State Quartet singing "Lida Rose" at the 2009 Induction Gala