May 19, 2024

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Pittsburgh Jazz Legends 22: Harold Betters at 90: Videos

Trombone great Harold Betters, another Pittsburgh jazz icon, was born 90 years ago today, on 1928 in the Fayette County river city of Connellsville, Betters’ family was musical and Harold’s desire to play trumpet (already claimed by his brother Jim) gave way to trombone His youngest brother Jerry (who died in 2007) sang and became an ace drummer for decades.

A fan of Tommy Dorsey’s smooth melodic trombone and Jack Teagarden’s hot swing improvisations, Harold later embraced bebop and the modern trombone of J. J. Johnson.

His mother worked to get him to Ithaca College in New York , where he studied music education (he never had interest in teaching). He spent another year in Brooklyn at the Conservatory of Music. Racial prejudice was present in Connellsville, though it never hit him hard until he joined the Army. Wanting to play in the 308th Army band at Camp Edwards in Massachusetts, a bigoted commander resisted until Betters’ mother arrived and in person, forcefully argued his case.

After insisting he take a test, Betters was voted into the band. Following his discharge, he spent time in New York before setting up shop in Connellsville around 1953. He worked locally and later toured in a band with topical comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory. He later spent time in the Ray Charles Orchestra, sickened by the segregation he saw in the South.

While close to many of other trombone greats like Johnson, Jeannette native Slide Hampton and Kai Winding, traveling never agreed with Betters, who returned to the area and began a regional career in local clubs like the Pitt Pot, the Pink Cloud and the Encore. His jazz approach, aggressive but pragmatic, stressed melody to please the less jazz-minded audience members, unleashing the improvisation on the hotter tunes. That idea enhanced his status as an entertainer able to dazzle jazz fans and reach the mainstream. In the 60’s, Merv Griffin visited the Encore, heard Betters, and booked him on his variety show. The trombonist later guested on Mike Douglas’s syndicated daytime show when it was based in Cleveland.

1962: At The Encore. The Encore Cocktail Lounge was located in Shadyside. Accompanying Betters were pianist John Hughes, drummer Joe Ashliman and bass player Al O’Brian.

“Moanin'” HB’s take on the Art Blakey standard,

“Hold It”

1963: “Ram-Bunk-Shush” HB’s take on a 1952 instrumental by R&B bandleader Lucky Millinder, later revived by saxophonist Bill Doggett. Betters re-recorded it in 1965.

1964: “Do Anything You Wanna” It reached # 74 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

A 1964 Gateway Records advertisement for “Do Anything.”

betters do anything 1964

“Girl From Ipanema” from the Do Anything You Wanna LP

1965: “Railroad”

1966: Betters landed a contract with Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label, though his Gateway recordings were still being issued. His Reprise producer was Jimmy Bowen, who produced everyone from Sinatra and Dean Martin. 30 years later, at Capitol Records, Bowen produced some of Garth Brooks’s biggest albums.

“Cool Dr. D” From the LP Out of Sight & Sound.

2011: “Ram-Bunk-Shush” live at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art.

June 13, 2012: At the Jazz Workshop’s “Jazz On The Steps” in Homewood

2014: Interviewed in Connellsville at the Connellsville Canteen. In lively form, HB disucsses his early life, family, music, his music, famous musicians he’s known and race issues at the new historical center, a tribute to the World War II Connellsville Canteen.

Happy birthday, Harold. And thank you.

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