Just what inspired Harold Betters to pick up that jazzy trombone?
EDITOR'S NOTE: On Thursday, feisty trombone legend Harold Betters of Connellsville will celebrate his 85th birthday doing what he does best: playing his own special jazz fused with rhythm and blues — “Just hopin' to get ‘em up to dance.” Harold's got his love for music naturally: from his musical family.
When Harold Betters was a kid growing up on Connellsville's West Side, he faced a musical dilemma: which instrument would he pick?
“It was never a question of whether or not I would play music,” Betters said during a recent interview at his Francis Avenue home. “It was simply expected.”
Betters' Eighth Street childhood home was steeped in music, led by his father, George, who played the violin.
Lela, Betters' oldest sibling, was a pianist. His other sister, Vera, enjoyed singing. His two older brothers played instruments: Jim on trumpet and George on saxophone. Younger brother Edgar also embraced the sax and Jerome, or Jerry, was a drummer who sang.
Harold was born fifth in a family of seven. He idolized his oldest brother Jim. “I really wanted to play the trumpet, but I didn't want to compete with Jimmy,” Betters said. “My Lord, could he play!”
Influenced by Dorsey
Betters, growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, had another idol — Tommy Dorsey, whose big band swing sound Betters admired.
“I finally got to see Tommy Dorsey,” Betters remembered. “Man, I was spellbound!”
Betters enjoyed watching his brothers play in Connellsville High School's marching band. Jim was its drum major.
“I remember being at parades and Mom would say, ‘Harold, look! Here comes Jimmy!' Jim would be out in front of the band, prancing in that fancy drum major uniform and throwing the baton way up high.”
Recalling Jim & Jerry
Betters lost his big brother Jim, who died in 2002. Jim lives on in the memory of his family and older Connellsville residents who will never forget his mournful trumpet playing “Taps” at the city's Memorial Day services each May. He performed for decades with Connellsville's Molinaro Marching Band, which celebrates its centennial this year.
Harold Betters has enjoyed a thriving trombone career; his “baby brother” Jerry also did well with the Jerry Betters Band. Harold and Jerry often played together. Their first public gig was at the Betters Grille and Hotel. Owned by their family, it was located on Water Street near the old B&O Railroad station and was managed by their mother, Lela (Bell) Betters and later by his older brothers, Jim and George.
“Jerry was a real character. He was a lot of fun to be around,” said Betters, who lost Jerry in a 2007 tragedy that came out of nowhere. The two brothers had planned to have breakfast together when Harold received an abrupt telephone call from his younger brother, Edgar. “He was in a panic. He said, ‘Harold, you gotta get over here fast. Jerry just got hit by a truck.'”
It's ‘Harold & Vera'
Jerry Betters was struck as he tried to cross Eighth Street (Route 119), and died at age 74.
“It was such a shock,” said Harold, whose wife Marjorie (“Bunny”) and brother Edgar passed away a couple years later. “Now it's only me and (sister) Vera, who lives in Atlanta, Ga. But we have our memories.”
On Thursday, the feisty trombone legend will celebrate his 85th birthday doing what he does best: playing his own special jazz fused with rhythm and blues — “Just hopin' to get ‘em up to dance.”
Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.
Wednesday: Harold Betters recounts growing up in Connellsville and the racial barricades faced by African Americans in Pre-Civil Rights America.