In 1934, members of the Blackburn-Shaw Quartet, sponsored by a funeral home in Amarillo, TX, were paid a dollar each for singing at funerals or on the firm's Sunday radio program. Tenor Wendell Heiny joined the quartet in 1935 and was soon working full-time in the funeral business.
The quartet stayed together until World War II when three members went into the service. Heiny, along with lead Paul Ellis and bass Willard Grantham came home from the service in 1946 and started looking for a baritone. They found Dwight Elliott and in 1947 won a quartet contest sponsored by the American Legion. Two years later, Grantham dropped out of the group and was replaced by Jim Bob Nance.
A chapter of SPEBSQSA was started in Amarillo in 1948 and the Blackburn-Shaw Quartet became members. They entered international competition in Omaha in 1950 and began receiving invitations to be on chapter shows.
Because the name Blackburn-Shaw didn't mean anything outside of Amarillo, the four men began thinking about a name change. They incorporated a funeral director routine in their act and became the Four Hearsemen, walking on stage carrying an imaginary casket. Paul Ellis withdrew from the quartet in 1951 and Al Autrey replaced him as lead.
In 1952 the Four Hearsemen were semifinalists at the international contest in Kansas City, but more personnel changes were in store. Autrey moved to Austin, TX and Nance entered a new business that made it impossible for him to participate. Survivors Elliott and Heiny "dug up" a new lead, Deane Watson, and a new bass, Dick Gifford. Nance continued to write arrangements for the quartet; he knew their voice ranges and routines.
In 1953 the Hearsemen were second in international competition. They won the Southwestern District Championship in 1954 and the following year became international champions at the convention held in Miami, FL.
- Tenor: Wendell Heiny
- Lead: Deane Watson
- Bass: Dick Gifford
- Bari: Dwight Elliott
- Lead: Al Autrey
- Lead: Paul Ellis
- Bass: Jim Bob Nance
- Bass: Willard Grantham
Represented the Southwestern District.
written and researched by Grady Kerr
taken from Golden Memories - The History of the Southwestern District - pub 1996
In the early '30's Mr. Shaw, owner of the Blackburn-Shaw funeral home, made a trip to Dallas and heard a quartet sing for a funeral. He returned to Amarillo and organized his own. He sang lead and paid the others three dollars each for singing at funerals and on the firm's Sunday radio program singing spiritual and gospel songs. Tenor Wendell Heiny joined the quartet in 1935 and was soon working full time in the funeral business. The quartet sang together until the war sent three members into the service.
Heiny, along with Paul Ellis, lead, and bass Willard Grantham came home from the service in 1946 and started looking for a new baritone. They found Dwight Elliott in 1947 and soon afterwards won a quartet contest sponsored by the American Legion. The prize was a free trip to New York City. Two years later, Grantham dropped out of the group and was replaced by Jim Bob Nance.
A chapter of SPEBSQSA was started in Amarillo in December 1948 and the Blackburn-Shaw quartet became members. They entered a 1950 regional contest at the last minute to give the chapter an entry and were shocked to win. It was their first real barbershop competition. They entered the International competition in Omaha in 1950, placed 32nd, and began receiving invitations to appear on chapter shows around the country. Lubbock's veteran barbershopper Pat Cunningham insisted they change their name since Blackburn-Shaw meant nothing outside Amarillo. After much thought and no results, the idea came from singing on Tulsa's 1951 Parade of Quartets Show. Emcee Al Cashman got several laughs by introducing the quartet as: a funeral director, a life insurance salesman, a cemetery lot salesman, and a finance man (which was the truth at the time). Cashman also suggested they walk on stage carrying an imaginary casket". The stunt got so many laughs that the quartet soon added a complete "Digger O'Dell" routine and the new name came easy, The Four Hearsemen.
Always a Bridesmaid
Paul Ellis withdrew from the quartet in 1951 and Al Autrey replaced him on lead. They came in second at district to the Dallasaires but went on to qualify at the regional in early 1952 for the International contest.
In Kansas City, 1952, the Four Hearsemen were semi-finalists placing 18th, but more personnel changes were in store. Autrey moved to Austin and Nance entered a new business that made it impossible for him to participate. After a year off, survivors Elliott and Heiny "dug up" a new lead, Deane Watson and a new bass, Dick Gifford. Nance continued to write arrangements for the quartet. He knew their voice ranges and routines. Only a few weeks after Watson and Gifford joined the quartet, they entered the 1953 Southwestern District fall contest and again came in second.
The Four Hearsemen were very interested in what judges and coaches told them. They took notes and tried to incorporated ALL their suggestions. This might have had something to do with the results in 1954. The Hearsemen traveled to Washington, D.C. and historic Constitution Hall for the 1954 International Convention. They made the first cut (top 15) for the first time by singing I'm Always Chasing Rainbows and Charmaine. In the semi-finals they did Got No Time, a song the Garden State Quartet used in their win, and When You're A Long Long Way From Home (one of their most popular) and waited for the announcement of the top five.
Four names had already been announced as they listened backstage on a small speaker with other very interested quartetters. They were expecting to hear "The Four Chorders" (a perennial top five quartet) to fill out the top five. They heard "The Four . . ." but were elated to hear " Hearsemen!." The celebration was joyful but short as they had to get back to the room and select their last two songs. They really didn't plan on making it this far.
In the finals they did what's said to be one of their very best performances. They sang There's Always Room at our House and I'd Love to Live in Loveland (as done by the Chordettes). As well as they did, it just wasn't their year . . . they again were in second place. The Hearsemen, however, were thrilled with the position and happy for their friends, The Orphans, who won the contest. Breaking the habit of bridesmaids, they returned to the Southwestern District following the International and at the fall convention, they finally were crowned our District Champs. They sang Charmaine and When You're A Long Long Way From Home to edge out the other 20 entries. They were very well supported by quite a large group of fans who had been following them for many years and were thrilled to see them get the well deserved championship.
It was a special quartet clinic in Abilene May 1, 1955 following the regional that really helped the Hearsemen. They took notes and hung on every word the judges told them. The younger quartets were impressed. Here was the current International silver medalist quartet/District Champs, qualified to be teachers themselves, still learning.
Thanks to Johnny Means, judge's chairman, they learned how to "tell the story and sell a song." This had worked for the Schmidts when they saw them on a Wichita Falls show. The song became the "thing" for The Hearsemen. When they felt empathy with their audience it gave them great satisfaction.
The quartet and their many fans invaded Miami and like the previous contests, the Hearsemen did an outstanding job on stage and won the audience. This time, repeating three songs from the previous year, they added The Sunshine Of Your Smile to the first set and in the finals they won the judges singing, Georgia On My Mind and a ballad entitled Valley of the Moon.
Often described as having tremendously strong and smooth voices, The Hearsemen had the ability to sing 'em low with Gifford on bass. This helped set them apart in Miami. They were expected to win and they were ready to win. However, they were threatened by a young, up-and-coming quartet called the Confederates. In the end The Confederates placed 2nd and the Hearsemen finally won the gold medals. The medals were presented by their friends The Orphans.
Even the joy of singing around the Old Roney Plaza Hotel in the hospitality rooms was rather difficult. It seems that just before they showed up, someone put a stink bomb" in the air duct and the smell was overwhelming. They still sang and were very well received. Later that night Dwight ran into Al Shea, Buffalo Bills lead. Al requested to see the trophy which was in Dwight's room. They opened the door and the trophy was GONE! (as a joke, Dick had taken it into his adjoining room).
With few exceptions, the Hearsemen were "on the road" doing shows almost every weekend from September 1955 to May 1956. They had been active on the show circuit for many years before, but now they were traveling greater distances. Some of the highlights were the big show in Chicago with The Mississippi Misses (1954 Sweet Adeline quartet Champs) among many others. This December 1955 stop was on the way to New York City where they appeared on a TV game show, "Two For The Money" where they were scheduled to be contestants (and sing a song or two). As it turned out, they won the game and $1,600. They also suggested the producers book The Big Four (Sweet Adeline quartet champs). Their appearance led The Big Four to appear as semi-regulars on the Arthur Godfrey Show. The Hearsemen were probably the championship quartet from the smallest town. Amarillo, all alone in the Texas panhandle, makes for difficult travel. The Hearsemen found themselves having to charter small planes and experiencing heroic trips in ail kinds of weather.
One such trip was to Hartford, Connecticut. They left at 3 a.m. (planes were slower then) and got as far as New York before being stopped by a storm. So, they rented a car for the last 125 miles, had a minor accident and showed up backstage at 9 p.m. just in time to dress and sing. They did the afterglow, the after-afterglow and after being up 25 hours caught a few winks before having to drive back to New York City, catch a plane and be home around 10 p.m.. All in time for work the next morning. Quartet singing is so glamorous!
The end of the Hearsemen was probably the 1956 International. After that Dick Gifford accepted a fine offer to work in Fort Worth for KTVT -TV. The quartet still did a few shows a year and the International conventions but nothing like the heavy schedule from the previous years.
After the Hearsemen, Dwight and Wendell sang together in the Specticals quartet and the Re-Hearsemen placing in the top ten at district. Dwight also sang with the Fun-tearsmen. Gifford was later well known for singing in the Potentates and The Pitch Pirates, winning the Southwestern District quartet crown again in 1959.
To date The Four Hearsemen are not as well known as some. This is due to the fact that they never did a record. There just wasn't a place in Amarillo to make one so it went undone. Unfortunately, the only recordings available are a few songs released by the Society which has done little to perpetuate their legacy. However, you can still find some who are convinced that the Hearsemen were one of the best ever. And they're probably right.
The Hearsemen were reunited August 27, 1982. They all met at Deane Watson's cabin in Cuchara, Colorado. The long weekend near the little town surrounded by beautiful mountains and lakes included hours of reminiscing and singing. In spite of the age differences (each was about five years apart) they always got along like brothers. They considered themselves very lucky to have found such good friends through song and to have had the privilege to entertain so many people while they were also having fun.
Deane Watson was killed in an automobile accident and died 10/25/85 at the age of 63.
Dwight Elliot died 4/15/03 at the age of 86.
Dick Gifford is retired from KTVT-TV in Fort Worth as National Sales Manager in 1985 and is a long-time member of the local chorus.
Wendell Heiny is retired and living in Denver after many years as office manager for the Blackburn-Shaw Funeral Home and then running his own Piano Tuning business.