Buffalo Bills (quartet)

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The Buffalo Bills
OriginBuffalo, New York, United States
Years active1947–67
LabelsDecca, Columbia, RCA Victor
Past membersVern Reed (1947–67)
Al Shea (1947–67)
Herschel Smith (1947–50)
Dick Grapes (1950–57)
Wayne "Scotty" Ward (1957–67)
Bill Spangenberg (1947–62)
Jim Jones (1962–67)

The Buffalo Bills were a barbershop quartet formed in Buffalo, New York, on September 20, 1947.[1] The quartet won the 1950 International Championship and is well known for appearing in the 1957 Broadway production and the 1962 film version of The Music Man.


The quartet started out as an unnamed foursome, singing for community groups around Buffalo. The original members were tenor Vern Reed, an executive for the Tonawanda Boys' Club;[2] 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. During an appearance at the Buffalo Quarterback Club, the nameless quartet was introduced as the "Buffalo Bills", which was meant to be just for the occasion, but the name stuck from that day on.[2] Coincidentally, a football team known formerly as the Buffalo Bisons also changed its name to the Bills around the same time; the name proved popular enough that the current Buffalo Bills team also picked up the name when they debuted thirteen years later.

Phil Embury traveled with the quartet around the world. The Bills competed in the 1948 and 1949 SPEBSQSA International Quartet Contests, placing sixteenth and sixth, respectively.[2]


Baritone Herschel Smith left the quartet after he received a job promotion and was transferred to Madison, Wisconsin. Unable to find a replacement, the Bills temporarily broke up. They soon found baritone Dick Grapes and success quickly followed. In 1950, the Bills 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 program We The People and were honored by the Manhattan and Buffalo chapters on their return trip to their hometown.[2] Their first national television appearance was on The Faye Emerson Pepsi-Cola Show broadcast on CBS in April 1951.[2] The Bills also performed at military bases in France, Germany, Austria, Japan, and Korea. That same year of 1951, the Bills released an eight-song LP album for Decca titled Barbershop Gems which was also issued on 45 and 78 RPM records.


In the early 1950s, Meredith Willson, a famous composer, arranger, and bandleader, hosted a radio program called Music Today with his wife, Rini. Hearing the Bills records, he began to admire their work, and he and his wife travelled to Buffalo three years later to meet them. Afterwards, he began featuring the quartet regularly on his radio show.[3]

In February 1957, the Buffalo 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.[3] Later that year, Willson finished his new musical, The Music Man, which featured a barbershop quartet in the plot. Willson suggested the Bills come to New York City and audition for the show. They were immediately accepted, but joining the musical meant they would all have to quit their jobs in Buffalo and relocate to New York City.

Broadway and film[edit]

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.[4] The quartet took one-year leaves from their jobs (which later became permanent) and moved with their families to New York City.[5] 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 in The Music Man on Broadway, that they were cast in the film adaptation of the musical in 1962. Shortly after the film 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.

Final years[edit]

For the next five years, the Bills continued to perform on the Arthur Godfrey Show, appeared as a nightclub act, performed in regional and amateur productions of The Music Man and were headline entertainers on barbershop shows, as well as at state and county fairs around the US and Canada. Their total career consisted of 1,510 performances on Broadway, 728 concerts, 675 radio shows, 672 night club and hotel appearances, 626 conventions, 218 television shows, 137 state fair performances, and 1 film. Their final official performance was on May 24, 1967 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.[6]

The only surviving member of the Buffalo Bills is Jim Jones, who lives in Orlando, Florida.[7] Only Reed and Shea were with the Bills throughout their entire 20-year existence. Internal issues and some health problems caused the quartet to disband in 1967. Shea died in 1968, Ward in 1988, Reed in 1992, Smith in 2007, and Grapes in 2015.[4][8]


  1. ^ BarberShopBoy2007 (September 19, 2008). "Great Quartets Radio Show - Buffalo Bills PART 1". Retrieved November 6, 2017 – via YouTube.
  2. ^ a b c d e p.148 Averill, Gage Four parts, no waiting: a social history of American barbershop harmony 2003 Oxford University Press
  3. ^ a b p.149 Averill, Gage Four parts, no waiting: a social history of American barbershop harmony. 2003, Oxford University Press
  4. ^ a b "Buffalo Bills". Primarily A Cappella. Retrieved November 6, 2017.
  5. ^ p.151 Averill, Gage Four parts, no waiting: a social history of American barbershop harmony 2003 Oxford University Press
  6. ^ "1950 – The Buffalo Bills". aicgold.com. The Association of International Champions. Retrieved November 6, 2017.
  7. ^ BarberShopBoy2007 (September 19, 2008). "Great Quartets Radio Show - Buffalo Bills PART 3". Retrieved November 6, 2017 – via YouTube.
  8. ^ "In Memorium - Richard E. 'Dick' Grapes". Buffalo Music Hall of Fame. February 17, 2015. Retrieved November 6, 2017.

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Mid States Four
SPEBSQSA International Quartet Champions
Succeeded by
Schmitt Brothers