At 85, Connellsville's Harold Betters 'sentimental' of long, successful jazz career
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the final of a four-part series on Connellsville's own “Mr. Trombone,” Harold Betters. Today, he celebrates his 85th birthday and shares memories of his longtime jazz career.
Rambunctious means “uncontrollable exuberance,” which neatly defines the personality of Connellsville trombonist Harold Betters, who is feeling rambunctious today on his 85th birthday.
Coincidentally, among the songs that Betters will play at Seton Hill Performing Arts Center in Greensburg tonight will be his signature song “Rambunctious,” a rhythm and blues/blues-jazz fusion that never fails to “Get ‘em up and dancin,' ” according to Betters, whose horn has wowed audiences for more than half a century.
The man's humble surroundings belie the major honors he has racked up:
• Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce named him Man of the Year in Music in 1967.
• He is a member of the Steel City's Jazz Hall of Fame.
• Downbeat Magazine tagged him as “Mr. Versatility” after his 1964 hit, “Do Anything You Wanna,” which cracked the Top 100, peaking at No. 74.
• In 2007, Betters received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Pennsylvania's lieutenant governor.
• He was named “Pittsburgh Jazz Legend” in 2008 by Manchester Craftsmen Guild.
• The Playboy Jazz Poll has recognized him as “One of the Finest Trombone Stylists.”
Ask Betters how he managed to attain national music status while living in a small town as Connellsville. He'll merely smile and exclaim one word: “Luck!”
Recalling early days
Born in 1928, Betters grew up on Eighth Street on Connellsville's West Side, one of seven musical kids. His family owned Betters Grille and Hotel on Water Street along the tracks, across from the B&O Railroad station. It was “the” place where Fay-West area blacks ate, drank and became merry — dancing the hours away to jazz and rhythm-and-blues.
At Betters Grille, Betters cut his musical teeth, jamming with brothers Jim, George, Edgar and Jerry. He also listened in awe to the music of Big Bands, especially the one led by trombonist Tommy Dorsey, whom Harold idolized while growing up in the 1930s and 1940s.
When he was drafted by the military in 1950, Betters overcame racial barriers: He was one of only two black musicians to play with the 308th Army Band.
“I really learned to play the jazz trombone while I was in the service,” Betters said. “It was then that I felt that I might like to play music for a living.”
His two years in the Army provided him with another precious essential.
While stationed in Massachusetts, Betters met and married his wife, Marjorie, “but everybody called her Bunny.” They lived briefly in Brooklyn, where earlier Betters had attended the music conservatory.
Harold + Bunny
Homesick for Southwestern Pennsylvania, he decided to bring Bunny back to Connellsville. She and Harold were married for more than 50 years, during which she accepted his career — one that kept him out late most nights and often away for weeks at a time when he was on tour.
“Bunny was a wonderful woman,” Betters said. “She had a lot to handle, what with raising the kids and all.” The couple had three children: Curtis, Kevin and Cheryl (Kelly). Cheryl lives next to her father on Francis Avenue. Several grandchildren followed before Bunny's death five years ago. Today, Harold is a great-grandfather — with more great-grandchildren on the way.
Betters' career slowly climbed from the 1950s into the 1960s and 1970s. Local gigs gave way to regional shows.
“Sometimes you just have to be at the right place at the right time,” he said.
For more than 16 years, during the 1950s and 1960s, Betters played with his quartet at Wil Shiner's Shadyside Encore Club in Pittsburgh, traveling back and forth from Connellsville six nights a week, plus a Saturday noon jam session.
“We could really pack them in,” he recalled.
So popular was his quartet that the Encore was nicknamed “The House That Betters Built.”
‘Encore' yielded encores
The Encore gave Betters exposure. He went on to play jazz on several television shows, including “The Merv Griffin Show.” He did the “Mike Douglas Show” four times, including one appearance with “Satchmo” himself, Louis Armstrong.
“What a wonderful guy he was!” Betters exclaimed. “God bless him, he gave me a compliment I will never forget. He told me: ‘Son, you play so honest!' ”
Armstrong also advised Betters that if he wanted to go “big time,” Betters should start singing. Betters heeded the advice, but only a little.
“I sing only five songs,” he sighed.
Those tunes are Satchmo's “It's a Wonderful World”; “Fly Me to the Moon,” recorded first by Kaye Ballard and then many others, including Frank Sinatra; Wilbert Harrison's “Kansas City”; Irving Berlin's “Alone Alone,” popularized by Frank Sinatra; and “Georgia,” which was made famous by blind pianist Ray Charles.
Charles heard Betters play the trombone and asked the Connellsville native to tour with Charles' band.
Betters called Charles a musical genius.
“At first, Ray tried to imitate the style of Nat King Cole. That was OK, but he really found himself when he reached into his own soul and tapped into his spiritual roots,” Betters said.
A dozen albums
During the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, comedian-activist Dick Gregory asked the Betters Quartet to front his act after hearing one of Betters' albums (he recorded more than a dozen). The tour included the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem.
“It was a great experience, that's for sure. It was a lot better than the first time I played there,” Betters laughed.
He initially blew his horn at The Apollo in a 1950s talent show, picking “Getting Sentimental Over You” — a Tommy Dorsey classic — as his song to play.
“I was terrified. I started out shaky and the audience booed me,” Betters said.
He knew The Apollo's reputation for tough crowds; they can make or break a musician.
“I was afraid they'd get that big hook that they had and yank me right off the stage. They'd do that to you!”
Betters, though, gained confidence and in the end took first prize. As for “Getting Sentimental Over You,” he has faithfully played the Dorsey song to start the dance segments of his own shows ever since — not only because he loves the tune but also to honor Dorsey, the mentor whose music coaxed him to pick up his first trombone.
In his heyday, Betters played with some famous jazz trombonists, including Jeannette native “Slide” Hampton, now 80; and Bill Watrous, now 74. Betters met Carl Fontana, Frank Rosolino and even J.J. Johnson, whom Betters described called “the best jazz trombonist I ever heard play.”
Betters saw Johnson, who died in 2001, many years ago at Melody Roller Rink (on Connellsville Street in Uniontown). At the time, Johnson was on tour with saxophonist Jean-Baptiste “Illinois” Jacquet.
Bucs, Pens, Steelers:
He's played ‘em all!
As a Pittsburgh sports fan, Betters said he is honored to have played for all three pro teams — the Pirates, Penguins and Steelers. During one Steelers game, he and Al Hirt teamed up on the trombone.
“I've had a really nice career. I am one lucky man,” said Betters, who describes his music as jazz fused with rhythm and blues.
His secret to musical success is simple: Play from the heart, not the head.
“Anyone can learn the technical notes. To be really good, you gotta feel it,” he emphasized. “What makes you a hit is your style.”
He was quick to point out that he never dismisses any type of music, including rap.
“It's all about personal taste. What do YOU like? That's why there are so many forms of jazz — and so many kinds of music.”
On being 85...
At 85, Betters has slowed down but chooses not to be down and out. He likes to keep company at home with his four cats and his dog, Maggie, a laid-back Boxer.
“Sometimes I worry about health issues,” he admitted.
He and his sister, Vera, 88, are the last of the surviving Betters “kids” from the West Side. “I try to think young and act young.”
He remembered meeting 8-year-old Michael Jackson and the rest of the Jackson Five when they were first getting started at Motown in the 1960s.
“Michael was just a cute little thing. The guy who introduced us told Michael that I had been in the music business for more than 10 years. Michael looked at me and said: ‘Gee, Mr. Betters. Aren't you tired?' ”
More than 50 years later, Betters still isn't tired. Physically there are some aches and pains, but is he tired of music? Not!
Betters played at State Theatre in Uniontown in late February. Tonight, the Westmoreland Jazz Society will host him at the Seton Hill Performing Arts Center in Greensburg. On March 29, he will travel with his trombone to the Double Tree by Hilton Hotel, Meadowlands in Washington County. His agent, Helen Arndt, continues to book shows for “Mr. Trombone.”
“I'll keep it that way, thank you. I've decided I'm playing until they stop calling,” Betters declared.
Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.