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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, email@example.com or via Twitter .
Obituary: Harold Betters, known as ‘Mr. Trombone,’ dies at 92
March 21, 1928-Oct. 11, 2020
OCT 12, 2020
Most of Pittsburgh’s jazz legends got a taste of the national spotlight and decided to move on to bigger cities, bigger scenes.
Harold Betters, who died Sunday at 92, got his taste and made the choice to keep people entertained closer to home.
The trombonist, who was an institution in the Pittsburgh jazz clubs for decades, grew up one of seven children in a musical family in Connellsville. His parents owned the nightspot Betters’ Grill and Hotel, his older brother Jim was a trumpeter and his younger brother Jerry sang and played drums.
Harold picked up the trombone in grade school, and during his days at Connellsville High School he played dances emulating the great Tommy Dorsey.
“Then I met Jack Teagarden in Pittsburgh and began imitating him,” Mr. Betters told the Post-Gazette in 1964, though his biggest influences became J.J. Johnson and Bennie Green.
He spent two years at Ithaca College in New York and two at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music before being drafted into the Army, where he performed in the 308th Army band at Camp Edwards in Massachusetts.
After his discharge in 1952, he landed in Boston, where he met his wife Marjorie, with whom he started a family.
During that decade, he toured in a band with comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory and then the Ray Charles Orchestra. Touring in the South, they would play separate shows for black and white audiences.
“I told a cop at the front door, ‘I play with Ray Charles,’” he told the Post-Gazette in 1985. “He said, ‘I don’t give a damn who you are. You go in the back door.’ And I was shocked.”
Because touring didn’t suit him, Mr. Betters settled back in the Pittsburgh area, where he came to be known as “Mr. Trombone.”
He played in combos that included his brother Jerry — they would jokingly emphasize their sibling rivalry — and recorded dozens of albums, starting in 1962 with “At The Encore.” His discography would include the 1964 hit “Do Anything You Wanna” on Gateway along with three albums for Reprise Records. Among the legends who would jam with the Betters brothers, at venues like the Crawford Grill, were Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Stanley Turrentine, Roy Eldridge and Sonny Rollins. (Jerry was struck and killed by a truck in Connellsville in 2007.)
While playing in Shadyside at The Encore — sometimes known as “The House that Betters Built” — in the ’60s, Harold was spotted by Merv Griffin, who booked him on his variety show. He also did multiple appearances on “The Mike Douglas Show” when it was based in Cleveland.
Back at home, he was a fixture at Three Rivers Stadium for Steelers games, and even made Super Bowl trips with the team.
In that ’64 interview with the Post-Gazette, Mr. Betters said, “Jazzmen starve, because they pay for musicians. And the kids buy rock ’n’ roll records plugged, promoted and exposed by the disc jockeys.”
He advocated for seminars on jazz so the public could better understand it. Mr. Betters’ own approach was to focus on melody and play music that would appeal to broad audiences, including putting a jazz twist on pop tunes. He sometimes called himself a “rhythm and blues jazz trombonist.”
Mr. Betters would lament the decline of jazz’s popularity after the ‘60s and sometimes question his own choice to play it.
As he told the Post-Gazette in 1985, “the greatest consolation is when people say, ‘Mr. Betters, you made my day.’ ”
He would make a lot of people’s days, performing from his teens right into his 90s, even as he suffered from Bell’s palsy.
“Harold Betters was such a great player with a big sound and the ability to play the blues,” said Pittsburgh trombonist Reggie Watkins. “While touring sometimes, I’d get the chance to hang out with other trombone players in other parts of the world and they’d always ask about Harold! The only thing bigger than his sound was his heart.”
“In addition to being a world-class musician he was a true gentleman,” said Pittsburgh jazz promoter and Bridge Music Hall president Rich Dieter. “I had the honor to have booked him in several venues. It was a very special night at Wallace's when Harold joined Slide Hampton, Al Dowe and Peter Lin for the best trombone quartet you have ever heard.”
His son Harold announced his father’s death on Facebook Monday, writing, “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.”
Due to COVID 19, there will be no viewing/funeral service. Arrangements are being handled by the Vito Martucci Funeral home. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Kevin Betters, 407 E. Francis Avenue, Connellsville, PA 15425.
First Published October 12, 2020, 3:59pm
I am thankful to have been inspired by Harold's sound, music and style of playing. Shortly after my beginning to play the trombone as a Clairton teenager, his vibrant sound caught my ear. What a pleasure it was to have met him and spoken with him!
Born in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, Betters was raised in Pittsburgh. While growing up, Betters' parents owned the Betters’ Grill and Hotel. Betters studied music education at Ithaca College for two years before being drafted into the United States Army during World War II. After the war ended, Betters studied at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music for a year.
In 1952, Betters moved to Boston, where he met his wife, Marjorie. He toured with Dick Gregory and with the Ray Charles big band, playing at the Apollo Theatre. Thereafter, he led his own quartet which included pianist John Thomas and Jerry Betters on drums.
In the early 1960s, Betters returned to Pittsburgh with his family, where he worked as a session musician and performed at the Crawford Grill with Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Stanley Turrentine, Roy Eldridge, and Sonny Rollins. Betters also performed in a group with his two brothers.