Greetings, friends of the Illinois District! Summer is here and hopefully you are enjoying some great outdoor activities! I have been using my “free” time away from school digging deeper into the archives, and the more I dig, the more treasures I am finding!
For this issue, we honor a man who had a profound impact on the early years of barbershopping in the Chicagoland area, and we examine a little known story about a POW camp in western Illinois that was visited on numerous occasions by local barbershoppers. We also remember a popular district quartet with one of their costume props, spotlight a 1950s district champ, as well as a 1970s youth quartet from downstate.
Beginning with this issue, a new feature called “Retro Recording” will be added. As I make my way through the archives, I am astonished at the depth and breadth of vintage recordings we have. A lot of old recordings have already been converted to CDs thanks to Historical Committee member Frank Fabian and catalogued by Former Archivist Bob Squires (Thanks Frank and Bob!). Over the past year, I purchased a machine that can convert vinyl, cassette, and CDs to a digital format. I am so excited to share these “gems” with you! Of course, each issue will continue to include rare recordings of past quartet champs, but I would also like to highlight those quartets/choruses who may not have competed or won but have made an impact on our district history.
Thanks to my predecessor Bob Squires (as always) as well as to Frank Fabian, Jim Stahly, and Bob Cearnal for their contributions to this issue.
ILL District Historian
(adapted from the QCA Archives)
If not for a fateful trip to California in 1948, and “Sweet, Sweet Roses of Morn” sung by an unknown quartet there, Tom Watts might not have become the moving force that helped develop barbershop singing in Illinois and the Society for over sixty years.
Thomas H. Watts was born in 1917 in Atlanta, GA, but grew up in various locations before his family settled in the Chicagoland area. He graduated from the University of Illinois in 1938 with a degree in industrial administration, and while there, was active in the Marching Illini marching band and the campus newspaper, The Daily Illini. A few years later, he joined the U.S. Army and became one of the first U.S. servicemen to learn about radar. During World War II, Tom served as a first lieutenant in the Pacific theater.
In peacetime, Tom began a career as a sales engineer for an insulation business. However, his life took a dramatic turn after he traveled to California to attend a friend’s wedding in 1948. While in Palo Alto, he went to a locale appropriately named, “The Barbershop Bar” where a vaudeville-style show included an unknown quartet. The group appeared multiple times, singing only one song: “Sweet, Sweet Roses of Morn.”
Returning to Chicago, Tom stopped in Denver to visit a friend who had just joined a local barbershop quartet. Tom was invited to a rehearsal and wound up filling in on bass. The quartet was singing “Sweet, Sweet Roses of Morn,” which Tom had just heard so many times that he knew it from memory!
That sealed it. Upon his return to the Chicago area, Tom joined The Q-Suburban Chapter in 1948 and the very next year was crowned Illinois District quartet champ as bass of the Barber Q Four. The other members included Emmett Bossing (tenor), Bill McKnight (lead), and Bob “Moose” Haeger (baritone). Over the next decade, the quartet was very active, and could be seen headlining numerous Chicagoland barbershop shows.
Singing was a part of Tom’s life, and he was rarely without a quartet. From the 1970s through the 1990s, he was the bass singer in various versions of a district quartet known as The Four Ragtimers. In the early 2000s, he teamed up with former Barber Q Four member Bill McKnight and veteran quartet man Jack Baird (See FTV – Fall 2021 Issue) to form a seniors quartet called Forever Four. No matter the group, Tom was dedicated to singing the traditional “old songs.”
Tom’s talents went beyond singing. His terms as chapter president of the Q-Suburban Chapter (1952-53) and Illinois District Secretary (1955-58) led to his election as District President in 1958 – a position he held until 1961. He later went on to serve on the Barbershop Society’s international board from 1959-61 and again from 1973-75. In 1957, Tom was certified as a Voice Expression judge and remained active until 1971. He was category specialist from 1962-64 and served on an international competition judging panel six times.
Tom helped shape the relationship between district and international levels of organization as the Society grew, bolstered by his experience in early organizing efforts in the Chicago area. Fellow barbershopper Frank Fabian, who sang with Tom in a version of The Four Ragtimers, remembers him as a “quiet, gentle man whose memory rivaled that of a computer.”
Tom was a proud 64-year member of the Society when he died in 2012 at age 95. One year later, he was posthumously named the recipient of the QCA’s “Music Man” Award, a fitting gesture to a true “music man” who served the barbershop world well, at the chapter, district, and international levels.
THE FOUR TISSIMOS
For this issue, we look back to a champion quartet from the golden years of barbershop in Illinois – our 1954 District Champions, The Four Tissimos.
The Four Tissimos story actually begins with a (very tall) youth quartet formed in late 1949 called The Six Foot Four from Lyons Township Junior College in La Grange, IL. Members included Bob “Squeak” Tilton, Bob Richards, Dale Allison, and Stan Busby. All four were also members of the “Q” Suburban Chapter of the district. They were coached by Warren “Buzz” Haeger (of Four Renegades fame), who also arranged a version of “An Irish Lullaby” that the group went on to win with in a collegiate contest.
Shortly after their performance, Bob Richards left the group and headed for California, and in June of 1950, Buzz was asked to join the quartet. Buzz sang tenor, Bob Tilton sang lead, Dale Allison took bari, and Stan Busby was on bass.
The quartet sang together until Bob Tilton was drafted and was sent to Korea in February of 1951. Then Dale and Stan went into the service and the quartet was dormant until Bob returned in March of 1953. At that time, Stan was unavailable and so Bob, Buzz, and Dale asked friend Harry Blume to join the group on bass. The quartet earned popularity and sang on several Chicagoland shows.
In 1954, Harry left due to work conflicts and Jim Bond (bass of the 1950 District Champions Villageaires) joined them. Then, as it turned out, Dale had to depart the quartet due to work and family conflicts, and a friend Rex Reeve joined as bari before the International qualifying contest in the spring of 1954. The group placed 5th, but just missed qualifying to go to the International contest in Washington D.C. that year due to a time penalty.
Shortly thereafter, Rex Reeve left the quartet to join the Four Teens (1952 International Champs), and so the group enlisted fellow barbershopper Bruce Johnson to join them. Working with famed coach Lyle Pilcher (see FTV – Spring 2022 Issue), the group qualified to go to Miami Beach in 1955. The group earned third place medals, singing an arrangement of “Sugarcane Jubilee” in one of their sets.
Despite their accomplishments, the quartet did not last long. After an appearance on the Peoria Chapter Show in early 1956, the foursome broke up. Shortly thereafter, Buzz went on to sing with the Four Renegades and Jim and “Squeak” went on to sing with the 1961 District Champions, Escapades.
Though relatively short-lived, it is evident that several men contributed to this quality quartet – one that made its mark at a time when Illinois was at the top of the pack – we salute our 1954 (once and always) District Quartet Champions – The Four Tissimos!
A rare live radio broadcast of The Four Tissimos singing “Sugarcane Jubilee” at the Miami Beach International contest in 1955
(adapted from an article by Jim Stahly for the Bloomington BarberPost)
Just about 25 miles from Macomb on almost 18,000 acres outside the towns of Ipava, Table Grove, and Bernadotte, Illinois, lies Camp Ellis. The Camp was constructed in a few months during World War II as an Army Service Forces Unit Training Center and prisoner-of-war camp. Construction began in September 1942 and it officially opened on January 31, 1943. The area was picked mainly because of its proximity to Galesburg, an important railroad center, as well as for its massive, sparsely populated flat terrain.
Named after Sergeant Michael B. Ellis, a World War I Medal of Honor recipient from East Saint Louis, Illinois, Camp Ellis was a city unto itself with 2,200 buildings, which at its peak, housed 25,000 troops. Among that “city” were libraries, gymnasiums, seven chapels, an outdoor amphitheater, a baseball diamond, a 200-acre “victory garden,” as well as a railroad and landing strip.
During the two-and-a-half years that Camp Ellis was in operation, 125,000 service men were trained there and, at its peak, Ellis housed almost 5,000 German prisoners of war. The camp officially closed in 1945, however it was later refurbished to serve the Illinois National Guard (1946-1950) and then for Air Force training in 1953. The facility is credited with creating the first MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit at its large hospital.
So, what is its connection to barbershop singing? Well, when the U.S. Army dedicated its new training facility in May, 1943, one of the first groups to entertain soldiers there was the Corn Belt Chorus led by John Hanson, Bloomington’s first director (see FTV – Summer 2022 Issue). The group included barbershoppers from Bloomington and Central Illinois communities. As time went on, there were more performances by groups such as the Lamoine Chorus of Macomb. On September 15, 1943, a special show featured the Corn Belt Chorus as well as The Barbarettes from Peoria, credited with being the only female barbershop quartet in existence at the time. The performance was later covered in the December, 1943 issue of The Harmonizer magazine.
80 years later, that legacy still stands as singers from Bloomington, Macomb, Peoria, and surrounding communities traveled to the new city in western Illinois to entertain troops and lift spirits through barbershop music during one of the most perilous times in American history.