A coda for the prince of Buffalo Bills parody music
Mark Bradford recalls his heyday of silly Buffalo sports songs
Illustration by Josh Flanigan
It’s been years since Mark Bradford contemplated the daffy parody songs he wrote about the Buffalo Bills.
His “heyday” as a professional send-up artist corresponded with the team’s glory years a generation ago.
But, with what he considers his dying breaths—a fairly safe assessment, given the terminal tumors metastasizing in his body—he takes his tenor voice through the choral melodies of a Beach Boys parody on the Bills, starting with: “Buff-Buff-Buff / Buff-Buff-ah-lo …”
Bradford, sixty-two, chuckles after the lines. Laughs at the memory of those songs and their ability to give him a weird but satisfying life in the music business as a specialist in sports and news musical satire. He laughs, too, divinely thankful for these final months spent on new creative endeavors, like the cancer blog that has reached hundreds, and the teen music mentoring that connects with a select but important few.
“If you lose your sense of humor, you might as well curl up and die,” he says.
Rewind the tape
Mark Bradford’s “Buffalo Bills Boogies” ran on Oldies 104.1 WHTT from 1988 until the mid-1990s. Sixteen songs played per season, each one played prior to that week’s game, then sold on cassette later in the season, sometimes in conjunction with a charity.
Bradford’s name didn’t appear on the tape J-card, nor more than once in the songs, though the radio station call letters and name made it into almost every one. Given the station’s format at the time, Bradford sized up his Bills songs in conjunction with a playlist of fifties roots rock, sixties British Invasion and R&B, some seventies monster rock, and other AM gold. And the songs, no matter how goofy, were heard by tens of thousands of radio listeners and fans during an epic era in the team’s history.
“I actually became a Bills fan during those years,” says Bradford, who has lived in the Denver suburbs for most of his career, and considers himself at heart a Broncos fan. “When they went to the Super Bowl those four years in a row, I had my Buffalo Bills shirt on and I was cheering them on.”
In case you don’t recall Bradford’s tunes or haven’t found one of the “Bills Boogies” cassettes at a West Seneca garage sale, these aren’t the faux-raunchy hair-metal songs that Larry “Snortin’” Norton and company played on 97 Rock during the same era. Bradford’s catalog is strictly dad-joke turns-of-a-phrase, with the occasional lyric killing off Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. Snicker at the way Bradford wedged predictions on a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers into B.T.O.’s “Takin’ Care of Business.” Groan at lines like “Kelly throws to Lofton / score early and often.” Wonder how the chorus to “Wild Thing” had not been turned into “Green Bay” before this point in musical history. Marvel at the invention of the slang verb “Super Bowlin’.” Musically, Bradford’s harmonies are sweetly up front and the covers never lose sight of the original, though the recordings suffer from an efficient coldness common to a lot of songs from the early 1990s.
At the time, the songs were easily earworms, particularly for a kid listening the week before the game. Listen now, and you primarily hear a witty guy who sounds like he feels lucky enough to goof off for anyone who’ll listen.
Fundamentally, the Bills songs were light and fun, but they were also a business. Along with the Bills, Bradford had radio station clients across the country that, at varying times, aired parody songs for the Broncos, Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons, and others. On top of that, he wrote and recorded various albums of Christian music, some for a puppet show. Increasingly into the early 2000s, Bradford wrote weekly ripped-from-the-headlines satirical tunes. These were picked up by stations around the world and featured fleeting topical tunes like the Steve Miller/White House Chief of Staff mash-up, “Fly Like Sununu.”
Bradford’s was a business that cranked out hundreds of songs, on football or anything else. All of them are rooted, he explains, in the same desire to make people smile; it was the reason he joined Illinois rock bands as a kid and became a home recording tinkerer over Christmas parodies in the mid-1980s.
“I was always the guy at the party who had a tape he wanted to play. It was always some goofy joke recording. I always mixed music and comedy, for fun,” Bradford remembers.
Parodies in general only work as long as they’re funny, Bradford admits. Between the news, the weekly games, and the shelf life of a joke, the parodist must be intently focused on the present. Temporary obligations with a dose of fun, soon to be throttled by the big forever.
“Looking forward to eternity”
In August 2015, a blood test during a regular check-up led doctors to diagnose Bradford with prostate cancer. Next, there were experimental and aggressive treatments. All things considered, he felt fine. One doctor suspected a cancer may have been growing along his spine for a decade. By September 2016, a bone metastasis was discovered. Doctors followed that with a terminal diagnosis.
A few months ago, the parodist retired from song writing and sold all his equipment, so he’d be able to draw from Social Security and health care coverage. Bradford, who lives in the Denver suburbs with his wife, Sharon, and their dogs, says by late fall doctors expect him to have to move into hospice care.
Already profoundly religious, Bradford says the terminal diagnosis made “God incredibly real to me.” He also jokes that it’s part of “an appointment that every one of us keeps.”
Faith and humor have flowed into his new blog, which posts regular updates on his medical and personal journey each month. A new audience—hundreds of hurting, recovering, and empathetic people—have found him here. Bradford, in turn, has shared the depths and peaks of his unexpected twilight, in posts with titles like “The Least Depressed Terminally Ill Person You Know.”
“I don’t think it’s the end,” he says. “I’m looking forward to what’s next. I’m not looking forward to being the guy in the hospice bed. But I am looking forward to eternity.”
Well before Bradford’s illness, shifts in the radio industry have led to consolidations, budget cuts, and vanilla syndication schedules—with no market for novelty. Add to that the decline of teams like the Bills, and contractors like Bradford were left out.
Danny Neaverth was a DJ at Oldies 104.1 when the “Buffalo Bills Boogies” were originally aired, and even had his voice dubbed into one of Bradford’s tracks. Neaverth, the distinct feel-good radio voice of an era in Western New York, says Bradford’s songs gave WHTT a gameday connection to the popular team whose games they didn’t air. At the games, they were fun songs to play for fans, though they may not have always been big hits on-air. Then, one season, without conflict, they were just gone, recalls Neaverth, who has since returned to the radio waves with 1230 AM WECK.
“Like so many neat things, they just faded quietly away,” he says.
Joe Siragusa, the current program director and an on-air voice at the now Classic Hits 104.1, didn’t know the name of the person who made the Bills parodies. However, it wasn’t the first time he’d been asked about the songs.
“I’ve been here sixteen years now and I can’t count how many times over the years someone asked, ‘Do you have those Bills tapes?’ Unfortunately, no, I don’t have a single one of those tapes left,” Siragusa says.
There is no online home for the Bills songs. Bradford never really had physical copies and doesn’t remember where the master tapes were or why they weren’t online like they were with a few other teams’ tunes. Officially, the songs weren’t connected with the Buffalo Bills, who didn’t respond to emails for comment. Even the cassette format’s recent blip of nostalgic interest did little to shake an eBay bid for the 1988 edition “Buffalo Bills Boogie” above an $11.95 initial bid with me as its lone bidder. (I originally bid $20, expecting a Cornelius Bennett-like blitz on the tape that never came.)
Never meant to be taken seriously, parody songs rarely persist, a few Weird Al oddities aside. Music has rarely been a kind conduit to actually sing about sports (sorry to say, “Shout!” wasn’t initially made for touchdown celebrations) or feature performances by athletes (anyone jam the Butch Rolle and Andre Reed funk/rap single lately?). So, the clock runs out quickly on sports parodies.
But Bills fans painfully, sometimes philosophically, clutch onto very particular memories. It turns out a few fans remember Bradford’s “Boogies.”
TwoBillsDrive, a diehard fan message board, pops up requests for the songs now and then. Del Reid, one of the lead wranglers of the Bills Mafia fan posse, says he remembered bits of Bradford’s send-up of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and another tune calling out Warren Moon. Reid sees humor and music in an ongoing union for Bills fans, like Nick Mendola’s weekly Bills-themed rap videos, which Reid calls “freaking awesome.”
“The Bills are an integral part of the community fabric in [Western New York], so people are always trying to do what they can to show off the love they have for them,” Reid says. “Probably the easiest way for someone to use their creative juices to express that love for something is through a parody.”
Over the summer, Mark Bradford and Sharon celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary, spending a joyous time with family and friends. During Labor Day weekend, the couple went to Tennessee to see a favorite performer, Christian progressive rocker Neal Morse. The trip was in part covered by a crowdfunding effort from fellow fans who have met Bradford through music or his blog.
Outside of daily fatigue, Bradford says he feels healthy. There’s an irony in being pain- and symptom-free, yet counting time in months. In a post on September 27 entitled “Welcome to Hospice,” he writes: “There is a sudden finality to things now that this step has been taken. But all it does is motivate me to keep doing what I can while I can. I still feel fine and as long as that’s true, I’ll keep going. I’ll probably keep going when it isn’t true, too. Cancer will stop me one day, but not today.”
It hasn’t stopped his creativity. Although he’s no longer spending his energy twisting lines from “Ruby Tuesday” into the ways Bills Hall of Famer Bruce Smith could inflict pain on the Indianapolis Colts, Bradford is arranging a compilation of his blog posts for a potential book on cancer that amuses and hopefully inspires others. He’s also begun tutoring young musicians at the Littleton Conservatory of Rock. It’s a serious mentorship with youth—including one female singer “who will be famous one day”—in guidance by Bradford that conservatory director Todd Labo calls “irreplaceable.”
Through the eternity he feels from his faith, to the reverberating love he’s shared over the years—yes, even through parody songs—Bradford has conveyed a wish that it all could be joined like a melody, into a “unified memory of who I was.”
“To so many people, I’m just the parody guy. For so many other people, I’m just the cancer guy. For others, I’m the church music director,” he says. “Somehow, maybe, people will realize that this same guy did that and that and that. It’s a selfish goal maybe. To be known and remembered.”
Justin Kern wrote and edited daily news for years in Dunkirk and Milwaukee (where he currently lives), and has written nonfiction and fiction regularly for a decade. He's also a Buffalo State graduate and the co-president of Wisconsin's only Bills Backers chapter. Learn more at justinallankern.com.