Tommy Palamone had been in quartets and trios throughout the 1930s and '40s. One evening in 1946, he threw together a quartet and went to a meeting of the Society's Pittsburgh Chapter. The foursome-Harry Conte on tenor, Tommy at lead, his cousin Fred as baritone, and "Turp" Marcanello at bass-caught the attention of Pittsburgh's premiere barbershopper, Molly Reagan. Reagan decided to coach the group, dubbed the Allen Club Four. The group dubbed the Allen Club Four. The group went to the Society's 1946 convention, where it placed a respectable sixth, but soon afterwards, "Turp" left to sing with a band and was replaced by Bill Conway on bass. Then cousin Fred left the group, and they had to find a new baritone. But the new guy backed out of a New Years' engagement at the last minute. Desperate for yet another baritone, they called Jiggs Ward. Did he have a tux ... and a maroon tie?
The newly formed quartet started 1947 with a new name, The Pittsburghers. The foursome stayed out of competition in the early part of the year, but entered the Johnny Appleseed District contest in October, where it placed second. The following spring, it took first place at the regional prelims. By the time the group left for the 1948 international convention in Oklahoma City, however, lead Tommy Palamone could barely talk, let alone sing. The quartet had rehearsed for 84 straight days, and his voice was shot. On his doctor's advice, Tommy didn't speak for three days. Following the advice of their coach and arranger, the quartet didn't reveal its songs till it was on the contest stage. Then the members let rip with "Good Little, Bad Little You," "Give Me A Night In June," "I Wish That I Could Hide Inside This Letter," and "Dream, Dream, Dream." The gold was theirs.
The Pittsburghers returned home to a gala celebration. The quartet received a special commendation from the mayor, and the chapter presented the members with a set of matched luggage. But winning the championship was a mixed blessing for tenor Harry Conte. He revealed that he was afraid to fly. The quartet stuck to trains until they were cornered by a particularly tight schedule one weekend. They finally convinced Conte he had to get on a plane if they were going to make the dates-and he fell in love with flying. The quartet was in such popular demand that by the end of its championship year it had traveled some 12,000 miles by air, 8,000 miles by rail, and 6,000 miles by car. One of the highlights of its year was a week-long train excursion sponsored by the Pennsylvania Railroad. A new train was loaded with celebrities and sent off on a 14-stop tour of the state. The quartet rubbed shoulders with the governor of Pennsylvania, state senators, mayors, Miss Pittsburgh 1948, and actor Jimmy Stewart, who was so enthralled that he sang tenor with the quartet between stops.
The Pittsburghers had been fortunate to catch the attention of Molly Reagan, one of the Society's premiere arrangers during the 1940s and '50s, when the quartet was first starting out, and he continued to arrange for the group for many years. The members were not passive partners, however. Their usual approach was to select and work up a song to a certain point through woodshedding. Then, when they were satisfied with the effect, they brought it to Molly to be "Reaganized." Jiggs Ward (bari) composed the patter choruses for the quartet's gold-medal winning "Give Me A Night In June" and the following year's "Down Our Way." In his spare time, he wrote articles about the quartet for The Harmonizer. Bill Conway (bass) devised the Pittsburghers' stage presence routines and costumes, and also handled the travel arrangements. Tommy Palamone (lead) remained the quartet's spark plug and driving force throughout its long and eventful career.
The Pittsburghers went on to become one of the Society's longest-running quartets. In 1953, Harry Conte left to devote more time to his family and teaching career. Tommy Palamone moved up to tenor and Tom O'Malley of JAD champion Four-Maldehydes joined as lead. A few years later, Dutch Miller, also a Four-Maldehyde, replaced Bill Conway at bass. In 1959, the Pittsburghers were part of the File 7 television show's special episode on barbershop harmony. Entitled "Four For The Show," it was sponsored by the Dundalk Md., Chapter and produced by Johns Hopkins University, and aired over ABC on Sunday morning, May 10th. Jiggs Ward retired from the group in 1965, leaving Tommy Palamone as the only member from the original gold-winning group. Jack Elder of the Society's champion Town & Country Four joined as baritone, and the quartet changed its name to the Pittsburgh Four. The members continued singing together until Tom O'Malley's death in 1983. Even after their departure from the quartet, the original Pittsburghers still kept in touch with each other over the years. They held occasional reunions, and all remained active in barbershopping for as long as they could, keeping alive the advice they followed as champions: "Always take the time to give younger quartets a word of encouragement, and do nothing to lessen their respect for you or the Society."
Jiggs Ward, future bari of the Pittsburghers, sang in a quartet while in the Marine Corps in 1945. The lead? None other than Bob Holbrook, member of the 1941 champion quartet Chord Busters. Bill Conway, future bass of the Pittsburghers, got hooked on the barbershop sound one night at his club while listening to the evening's entertainment, a quartet called the Four Muggs. The bari of the Four Muggs? Jiggs Ward. Tommy Palamone, future lead of the Pittsburghers, took a community-sponsored ceramics course during junior high school. His teacher? Idress Cash, sister of Society founder O.C. Cash.
It's a really small world.