In 1945 a quartet called the Barber Shop Four had a radio program that aired every Sunday at 12:45 in Buffalo, NY. Al Shea sang lead; the other quartet members were Bill Delfield, tenor; Ross Davis, bari; and Ralph Bone, bass. The group made many appearances at USO shows and war bond drives in the area. Two years later, Shea and baritone Hershel Smith were ready to start a new quartet. They invited tenor Vern Reed and bass Bill Spangenberg to Smith's house to do some singing. Reed and Spangenberg were not members of the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS) at the time.
As an unnamed foursome they began singing for community groups. During an appearance at the Buffalo Quarterback Club they were introduced as the Buffalo Bills and the name stuck.
The quartet had an inauspicious beginning in international competition, placing 16th at Oklahoma City in 1948. However, they became district champions that fall and moved up to sixth place the following year. At that point Smith left the quartet and was replaced by Dick Grapes.
In Omaha in 1950 the gold medals were hung around their necks and a new era of barbershop harmony began. There was something different about the Buffalo Bills; their big sound, combined with the work of Phil Embry and other talented arrangers, kept them busy singing on barbershop shows and gave them a popularity no other Society quartet had achieved.
The Society's Armed Forces Collaboration Program brought requests for them to sing before military audiences. Soon they were touring military posts in Germany, France, Austria, Japan, Korea, and other far-flung places.
In 1957 a famous conductor and radio personality, Meredith Willson, wrote a stage musical about his home town of Mason City, Iowa. His plot included a quartet. 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 leaving their jobs and moving to New York City. Dick Grapes decided to stay behind and Wayne "Scotty" Ward, former tenor of the international finalist Great Scots quartet of Steubenville, Ohio joined them for the adventure. The move to New York brought them television and radio appearances, including the Arthur Godfrey show, where they met Walter Latzko, a CBS staff music arranger. Latzko, who later became well-known throughout the BHS, provided much of the quartet's show material during the next ten years.
The Music Man was a great success and ran for many years on Broadway. A motion picture was made, featuring the Bills in the same roles. In 1962, after filming was completed, illness forced Bill Spangenberg to leave the quartet. He died the following year. Spangenberg was replaced by another Ohioan, Jim Jones, bass of the Sta-Laters, Johnny Appleseed District champs. The quartet made personal appearances for another five years and were featured on almost every kind of stage. They continued to sing on the Arthur Godfrey radio program.
When the final curtain rang down on the Buffalo Bills, they left behind a record that may never be topped in the world of barbershop harmony: 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 a major motion picture. Their fifteen record albums are another permanent record of their great singing.
The Buffalo Bills sang their last show at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York on May 24, 1967.