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Known as “Mr. Trombone,” Western Pennsylvania native Harold Betters succeeded on the world stage, but he always called Connellsville home.
It was in Connellsville where Betters died peacefully Sunday, surrounded by family, according to his daughter. He was 92.
Betters, well known for his command of the trombone, was for decades a household name in the region.
During a long career that began with gigs with his brothers at a family-owned bar and gr..., he played with musical greats including Ray Charles, Al Hirt, Louis Armstrong, “Slide” Hampton and Ramsey Lewis. He performed on “The Merv Griffin Show,” “The Tonight Show” and “The Mike Douglas Show.”
His daughter, Cheryl Betters Kelly of Connellsville, said her father was a homebody. People always quizzed him about why he didn’t take his enormous talent on the road, she said, but Betters never regretted staying home.
“It was very important to dad to have a family life,” Kelly said. “We ate dinner together, had our holidays together, and that’s what he enjoyed and the way he wanted it.”
“I can personally tell you he was the greatest dad ever,” she said.
After formal music training at Ithaca College and the Brooklyn Conservatory, Betters was drafted in 1950.
He played in the 308th Army Band for two years, and that’s where Betters refined his playing.
“You don’t really get to know it until you get out in the streets. I can tell a guy that’s knowledgeable about music, but he doesn’t feel it. When you hear stuff like that, you should feel it, and know how to move,” he said in a 2005 Tribune-Review article.
Betters recorded more than two dozen albums and CDs and marked more than half a century of entertaining audiences with his jazz.
“I can tell you he was a true gentleman and a true innovator. He was a great ambassador of music and an ambassador for this region his entire life,” said Rod Booker, a retired Westmoreland County Community College music professor who was music director at Hempfield Area School District for more than 25 years.
Booker sat in with Betters on a few occasions, playing percussion, “and it was an honor.”
“He will definitely be missed,” Booker said.
Connellsville Mayor Greg Lincoln said the city honored Betters by naming the East Park band shell in his honor.
“Here was a world-renowned musician who always called Connellsville home. He loved it here,” Lincoln said.
Betters was born March 21, 1928, the son of the late George R. and Lela Bell Betters.
He was preceded in death by his wife, Marjorie Bunny Timm Betters. They were married for 54 years.
He is survived by two sons, Kevin, of Connellsville, and Curtis of West Mifflin; his daughter, Cheryl; a sister, Vera Miner of Atlanta, Ga.; two granddaughters and four grandsons; and a niece, Jennifer Redman of Dickerson Run.
The family announced their father’s death on Facebook Monday.
“He had a very happy and loving life, and we were blessed to have him 92½ years. He will now be at peace with my mom Bunny Timm Betters. … He was my rock, my friend and my hero … and I loved him more than life,” wrote Cheryl Betters Kelly.
Due to covid-19, there will be no viewing/funeral service. Arrangements are being handled by the Vito Martucci Funeral Home in Connellsville. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Kevin Betters, 407 E. Francis Avenue, Connellsville, Pa., 15425.harold betters paul pierce tribune review pittsburgh jazz network music trombone
Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-850-2860, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .
No I didn’t know. I’m so sad to hear. His family have my deepest condolence. He was a great trombone player.
A Personal Tribute to the “Boss,” Harold Betters
By Dr. Nelson Harrison
Harold Betters, Mr. Trombone, was one of only a few Pittsburgh-based musicians whose 75+ year entertainment career afforded him a successful living without ever having a day job.
Harold created a sound on the regular tenor trombone that was not only larger than life but transformed the trombone into a romantic object. He literally could hypnotize his audience as I have been fortunate to witness. He opened the door for those of us who followed him onto the scene to be acceptable as feature trombone leaders of jazz combos to a degree similar to what Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller had done for others during the big band era.
I first met Harold when I was a 15 year-old classical trombone student of the great Matty Shiner who suggested I check out his former student Harold Betters who was playing at the Midway Lounge on Penn Avenue downtown (where the Heinz Hall stage door is today). I was waiting for my streetcar on a Saturday afternoon in front of the Barry Theater when I spotted a man carrying a trombone case with Harold J. Betters written on the side. I approached him and asked him if he had studied with Matty and told him I was also. Long story short, he invited me into the club where he and his brother Jerry and quartet were playing the 2-5pm matinee. Jerry smiled and bought me a .50 cent Coca-Cola (they were .05 cents in the store). Then I witnessed a life-changing set of jazz played by the Jerry Betters Quartet featuring Harold, Chuck Ramsey-bass and Bernie Crenshaw-piano and Jerry on drums. Afterwards Harold invited me to come back the next Saturday and bring my horn which I did. I already had been playing 2 years in my teen-aged band so I wasn’t exactly a novice. I remember every song we played. [Bag’s Groove, How High the Moon, Move and I Wanna Blow Now ] I was nervous but functional. They were all smiling so It must have been ok. From then on whenever Harold played a matinee, I would show up and sit in. That’s how I first got into the Crawford Grill #2 in 1956… sitting in with Harold. I was an undergrad at Pitt when Harold first called me to sub for him at the Pink Cloud in Oakland (1961) and that continued for over 10 years at the Encore I where he began to hire me to sub for him every Thursday (he was playing 6 nights there every week to standing room only crowds). People would stand outside in the snow waiting to get in for the next set when he was there. His fans were very particular and would say to me, “You’re good but you don’t have Harold’s sound. I didn’t mind responding, “Nobody has Harold’s sound!” Thanks “Boss” for 65 years of friendship and memories.
In 1966 Harold Betters was bigger and more popular than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Bill Day of the Rooney organization hired Harold to play at the Steeler games (at Pitt Stadium then) because “We couldn’t give a Steeler ticket away.” I joined him there in 1967 both playing and writing arrangements for the band for about 10 years. When I went on the road in 1978 with Count Basie and wherever I toured since then around the country and even overseas for festivals with various bands, people would find out I was a native Pittsburgher and the first thing they would ask is “Do you know Harold Betters?” “Why yes, he’s a good friend of mine.” I would answer. Without fail they each would say, “When you see him please thank him for all the great music he gave us to enjoy when we lived in Pittsburgh.” The great trombonist Kai Winding even copied Harold’s solos and arrangements on “Do Anything You Want” and “Rambunctious” which Harold heard him on TV play at an NFL half-time show. Rambunctious became so popular nationally the Harold thought he wrote it, called me and asked if he should be getting royalties. I reminded him that organist Bill Doggett wrote it. I don’t doubt that Doggett’s royalties got quite a boost from Harold’s treatment. When the Legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band played at MCG about 10 years go, the great New Orleans trombonist Freddie Lonzo, made a special request for Harold to be at the concert so he could meet his idol in person.
As a personality Harold was a barrel of fun on and off the stage not only musically but also a joy watch and see him make love to his horn. He sang well also with a genuine, unpretentious voice that went right into your heart. He was a masterful storyteller, always truthful to a fault, and so funny your sides would split and your cheeks would hurt from laughing. It didn’t matter whether he was the butt of the story or not. He had the ability to laugh at himself just as hard as anyone. He truly enjoyed his life to the fullest degree and spread his joy freely into the world like Johnny spread apple seeds.
One thing is true of good music: it has no shelf life. Once good it is always good despite the passage of time. I firmly believe that just as Mozart, Bach and Beethoven remain just as valuable after 300 years, Harold’s music will be thrilling and energizing future listeners. His unique musical style and personal class remains in his wake in sufficient volume to continue to delight the living and the unborn for many generations to come. I can imagine it in my mind’s eye, thus:
Harold to Gabriel: “I wanna blow now!”
Gabriel: Go ‘head! Blow!
Harold Betters passed away peacefully October 11, 2020 at home surrounded by his loving family. He was born on March 21, 1928 in Connellsville, a son of the late George R. and Lela Bell Betters. In addition to his parents, Harold was predeceased by his loving wife of 54 years Marjorie "Bunny" Timm Betters, a sister Lela Mae Campbell, and brothers; James Betters, George Betters, Doyle Edgar Betters, and Jerome "Jerry" Betters. He is survived by a sister Vera Miner of Atlanta, GA. Harold will be missed by children Kevin Betters of Connellsville, Cheryl Betters Kelly of Connellsville and Curtis Betters of West Mifflin, also special niece Jennifer Redman of Dickerson Run, daughter-in-law Marilyn "Meme" Betters of West Mifflin and son-in-law Glenn Kelly of Connellsville, grandchildren; Justin Harold Kelly, Patrick Kelly, and Shawn Kelly, Marissa Fenwick and Harold Joseph "Joe" Betters, and Janae Kopek, great-grandchildren; Connor, Cameron, and Kieran Kelly and Johanna Kelly. Maylanna and AJ Fenwick, Carter Rosendale, Kinley and Xaview Kopek, Justice and Will Redman, as well as many nieces and nephews. Harold graduated from Connellsville High School and later attended Ithlica College in NY., then Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. His plans changed as the Korean Was was upon us and he enlisted in the Army. Harold was stationed in Massachusetts where he met his loving wife Bunny. They married and moved back to Connellsville where they would raise three children. Upon his honorable discharge from the Army, Harold played with his brother Jerry Betters at their parents establishment "Betters Bar and Grill" in Connellsville. The two brothers soon formed bands of their own and Harold played with such jazz greats as: Louis Armstrong, Ramsey Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. Harold also toured with Ray Charles in the 50's. He opened for comic Dick Gregory at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. Harold made television appearances on the Merv Griffin Show, the Mike Douglas Show and The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Along the way Harold recorded 18 Albums and 11 CD's with the Gateway and Reprise record labels. Harold performed at many venues such as the Suburban Room, The Pink Cloud, Sheraton Station Square, Rivers Casino and the Holiday House. His band was a fixture for many years for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Harold played regularly at the Encore in Shadyside, known as "The house that Betters Built". Later he would be known as "Mr. Trombone". Even tho he played many venues...his home was always in Connellsville. You can visit the Connellsville Canteen where they have a beautiful tribute to Harold. Several years ago, family friend Roxanne Mongelluzzo organized "Harold Betters Day" and later they would name in his honor and dedicate "The Harold Betters Band Shell" in East Park, Connellsville. He was also honored with the "Harold Betters Recording Studio" at Connellsville Senior High School. Ha had a very happy and loving life, enjoyed football and loved spending time with his family. Due to COVID-19 and per Mr. Betters request, there will be no viewing/funeral service. Arrangements are being handled by the VITO C. MARTUCCI FUNERAL HOME, Connellsville, PA. Harold may be gone from our lives, but will forever remain in the hearts of those who knew and loved him. There are no words....our father was our rock, our friend and our hero, and we loved him more than life. His legacy and music will live on. Sleep well dad....you are now with mom. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to: Kevin Betters, 407 E. Francis Avenue, Connellsville, PA 15425.
Oh Brother what a giant. Class and talent. He was the greatest!
---Bob Gabig (Blues Orphans)