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Connellsville's favorite trombonist sees hopeful future for race relations

| Wednesday, March 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Harold Betters (right) with Dick Gregory, civil rights activist and comedian, in 1964 at the Apolllo in Harlem.
Harold Betters at the Apollo in Harlem in 1964.

Editor's Note: This is the third of a four-part series on Connellsville's own “Mr. Trombone,” Harold Betters. Today he recounts growing up in Connellsville and the racial barricades faced by African Americans in Pre-Civil Rights America.

Harold Betters — known nationally as “Mr. Trombone” to jazz fans — has fond memories of growing up in Connellsville.

As a small child walking to and from his Eighth Street home to Crawford Elementary School on the city's West Side, “There was a time when I was too young to know about racial prejudice.”

He would, however, grow up to encounter it in varying degrees.

Betters' father, George Betters, was a construction contractor who also owned Betters Grille and Hotel on Water Street. The bar / restaurant was managed by Harold's mother, Lela, assisted by his older brothers, Jim and George.

“We were lucky in many ways. Our family had more money than most of the black families in Connellsville,” said Betters, who was born in 1928 and turns 85 years old Thursday. “My dad was a smart businessman. We had everything that we wanted.”

Harold and his six siblings — four brothers and two sisters — grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, long before the civil rights movement. Although there wasn't official segregation in Southwestern Pennsylvania, there was obvious bigotry.

Remembering ‘Betters Grille'

One example is Betters Grille and Hotel. It was located next to the Blue Moon Bar, which still stands along the railroad tracks next to the Youghiogheny River on Water Street (before it closed a few years ago, it was called Revetta's).

“White people went to the Blue Moon to hear white musicians play. Sometimes the whites would come to Betters Grille to have a drink and listen to black jazz and rhythm and blues,” Betters explained.

“After hours, the white musicians from the Blue Moon would come next door to Betters and we'd all jam together,” he remembered. “Dad bought the grille because there wasn't any place in Connellsville for black people to go and have a beer. Black people going into white bars was a no-no back then.”

It was the same with the movies.

“The Orpheum and Paramount theaters in Connellsville had balconies. That's where we (black people) would sit. The whites sat downstairs,” Betters said. “It seems to me that the Soisson Theater on Main Street (Crawford Avenue) came along a bit later, or maybe I'm thinking of later years when I went there. I do remember sitting downstairs at the Soisson.”

Harold's trombone earned him first-seat with Connellsville High School Marching Band from his freshman to his senior year. “My band directors were Mr. Gingrich and Phil Prutzman,” said Betters. “They inspired me to go to college to be a band leader.”

After graduating from high school in 1947, Betters entered Ithaca College in New York, majoring in music education. He switched to Brooklyn Conservatory of Music after deciding he'd rather play music for a living.

Played with Army Band

Drafted by the military in 1950, Betters set his sights on the Army Band. “I found out that it was hard going for a black guy to get in,” he said. “Keep in mind, this was during the Korean War — and black men had already fought and died in World War II just a few years before.”

Army barracks were still segregated in 1950, he said, although President Harry S. Truman had said they would be integrated after World War II.

“I had to prove myself, but I made it into the 308th Army Band — and I was the only black guy in it for about eight months, until they finally allowed another black guy in,” Betters said.

Betters encountered aggressive segregation when he was an up-and-coming trombonist after his military service. Pittsburgh native Edges Willis, a member of the Ray Charles Band, told Charles about Betters' music and Charles was impressed. He invited Betters to tour with him — a gig that included Harlem's famous Apollo Theater — and Charles sent Betters a bus ticket to South Carolina.

“I got off the bus and sat in the nicer part of the bus station. I looked around and suddenly, there it was: two big signs. One said ‘WHITES ONLY' and the other, ‘BLACKS.'”

Shocked by segregation

The blunt message shook Betters. He was shocked “beyond belief” when Ray Charles — a big star at the time — stopped to gas up his tour bus and the musicians were denied use of the gas station's restrooms.

“Ray got really angry. He said, ‘No bathrooms, no gas. Let's go somewhere else, guys,'” Betters said.

Betters remembers playing in Southern clubs that had dance floors roped off down the middle.

“The whites danced on one side; the blacks on the other,” he recalled. “And you didn't dare cross the line, either.”

In the 1960s, civil rights activist / comedian Dick Gregory often spoke at colleges and clubs, telling jokes about racism. Having heard a recording by Betters, Gregory asked Betters' quartet to front him for shows in Washington and at the Apollo Theater.

“One night at the Apollo, (U.S. Attorney General) Bobby Kennedy came in,” Betters said, noting that Dick Gregory's wife — also a civil rights activist — had participated in a “sit-in” in the South and had been arrested.

“Bobby Kennedy came over and told Dick Gregory that he'd pulled some strings to get Dick's wife out of jail,” Betters remembered. “Dick told Bobby, ‘If you can't get everyone released, then my wife stays in jail with the others.'”

Racism has mellowed in the decades since, Betters said, although he admitted that it still simmers beneath the surface of everyday life.

“We sure have come a long, long way since I was young,” Betters said. “Things have mellowed, thank God. The younger generation will merge us together even more.”

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

THURSDAY : Harold Betters of Connellsville – Mr. Trombone Extraordinaire – celebrates his 85th birthday with memories of his longtime jazz career.

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