In Celebration of the Human Voice - The Essential Musical Instrument
In 1947, baritone Hershel Smith, a corporate executive, and lead singer Al Shea, a policeman, got together at Smith's home in Buffalo New York with the idea of forming a barbershop quartet. Tenor Vern Reed, an executive for a boy's club, and bass Bill Spangenberg, a truck driver for a steel company were added. The quartet competed at various competitions with modest success. Shortly afterward, Smith was promoted and transferred to Madison Wisconsin, and the quartet was disbanded. Had they not reorganized, the entire face of barbershop harmony may have been vastly different than it is today.
However, Shea and Reed insisted on continuing, and they found baritone Dick Grapes. The quartet blossomed quickly, winning a national competition in 1950, and developing quite a fan club. Over the next few years, they booked many engagements and cut some records.
In 1956, composer Meredith Willson was looking for a quartet to appear in his new musical "The Music Man". The Bills won the audition and were cast in the play, which was to open on Broadway. This required the quartet to give up their jobs and move to New York. Grapes decided to say in Buffalo at his job. He was replaced by veteran barbershop baritone Wayne "Scotty" Ward. The four of them; Reed, Shea, Ward, and Spangenberg, performed eight shows per week for a total of 1,375 performances and five Tony awards. During this time, the Bills also appeared on several television shows (most shows originated in New York in the 1950s), including the Perry Como Show and Arthur Godfrey Show. In addition, the group made more records.
In 1962 the musical was adapted for the screen, with the same four Bills appearing. Shortly after the movie was finished, Spangenberg became ill and was forced to leave the quartet. He was replaced by bass Jim Jones. Spangenberg died in 1963.
The Bills continued to appear at nightclubs, state fairs, and other shows, as well as make other recordings. Internal issues and some health problems caused the quartet to be disbanded; they made their last appearance in May of 1967. Shea died a year later in 1968, Ward in 1988, Reed in 1992, and Smith in 2007. Dick Grapes and Jim Jones are, as of this writing, still with us.
Overall, the Buffalo Bills made an estimated 6,000 appearances. They are widely considered to be the greatest barbershop quartet of all time. Their unique style set the standard for other quartets. Their popularity will probably never be duplicated by another barbershop quartet.
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I Want A Girl
Review: The Bills bubbled to the top of the public consciousness during their star turn in the "Music Man," as the members of the River City School Board who sing "Lida Rose" (a moment in barbershop history that would introduce many of us novices to the style). In fact, though, they continued to live long and prosper way beyond that. As Columbia recording artists, they produced many albums (some with accompaniment), the highlights of which are compiled on these two CD's produced by Brian Beck. Digitally re-mastered to bring the quality to modern standards (though several tracks from their very earliest recording efforts couldn't be repaired 100%, but heck, it's part of the charm), the Bills' sound is startlingly robust for a group that won 50 years ago! Significant credit for this must be given to the arrangements of Walter Latzko, who began an eight-album association with the quartet in 1951; his impact on barbershop singing in general can hardly be overstated. The Bills brought those arrangements to life, embodying yearning and romance ("I'd Love To Live In Loveland," "Your Eyes Have Told Me So," "If You Were The Only Girl"), as well as broad tomfoolery and brisk cheer, during romps such as "Toot Toot Tootsie," "Dardanella" and "With Plenty Of Money And You." The longevity of their success may also be due in part to the smooth musicality of their approach and the warmth of their tone; though not breaking any sound barriers technically by today's standards, they don't need to. Released as part of the AIC Masterworks series to coincide with the 50th Annual Society Convention in Kansas City, this CD set is a great value.