11 years ago, the parents I never knew came back to life on three worn reel-to-reel audiotapes

Here’s a post I wrote for Facebook six years ago today, updated and tweaked for sharing here. In addition to reading this, I hope you’ll take a couple of minutes to listen to the three attached recordings of my birth mother Betty’s beautiful singing voice. As it always happens, when I listened today, they gave me chills. Though I regrettably never met Betty, hearing her voice on the handful of recordings we’re blessed to have always has that effect on me. She had such a gift, in addition to being a gracious, compassionate soul.

*****

“Well, you dirty son of a bitch.”

Listen closely and you’ll hear it, 14 seconds into this first recording dating back over six decades.

From what I’ve learned of him from brother Crys, the oldest of my three full-blooded birth family siblings, our father Bob Workman wasn’t really given to colorful language – but he could cuss it up when he drank. And that was far too often, the primary reason our mother Betty finally divorced him in April 1959, a few months short of 20 years of marriage in Huntington, West Virginia.

So who knows if Bob had been boozing at home when he recorded this audio memory in, best guess, early 1960. I laughed, teared up and sat in stunned silence the first time I heard it and a few other priceless recordings of Bob and my birth mother Betty 11 years ago this week. We don’t know why Bob and Betty were even together at this moment, since their divorce decree included an injunction explicitly forbidding him, at least temporarily, from “further bothering or molesting” (legalese, I’m sure) Betty.

Late December 2010 was when I found a man in Irving – a recording engineer/producer and three-time Grammy winner, no less – who had the audio equipment needed to play the three old reel-to-reel audiotapes that had lingered, unheard, in the family for decades. (Sadly, Phil York died of prostate cancer in August 2012, a year and a half after he brought Betty and Bob back to life for me.)

The treasured tapes.

I still marvel that these are truly the voices of the people who conceived me out of wedlock, after having been married since October 1939 before she divorced him. Shortly after my conception and without Bob knowing about me – we don’t even know that Betty was aware of her condition at that point – they parted ways for good and for the best after an ugly domestic incident in about June 1960. Bob would wind up homeless in Tampa on the way to his drowning death in July 1962 at age 45.

In early 1961, making the choice she had to as she approached 40, a single mother of three, Betty would give me to a new family when I was born Feb. 28 of that year.

Bob passionately loved Betty, her beauty and her silky singing voice. It’s a tragedy that his devotion to her and his craving for alcohol seemed to run neck-and-neck and that, at the 20-year mark, their marriage ultimately came in second.

Closing my eyes, I drift back to re-create the scene in that first recording: Bob and Betty sitting in the living room of a cramped 2-story rented duplex where Betty was living with her children at 2206 Eighth Ave. in Huntington.

2206 Eighth Ave., on the right side of this duplex, is where my birth family lived in the late 1950s until not long after Betty became pregnant with me in May 1960 and fled Huntington with my three older siblings. They ended up just across the Ohio River in Ironton, Ohio, where she spent several months singing with a small band at the Sandbar at the upscale Marting Hotel before moving back to Huntington about six months into the pregnancy.

Bob must only have been there because they still loved each other, and because Betty knew only forgiveness. They also shared an enduring love for music and had performed big band and jazz standards a decade earlier with a small band in Logan, West Virginia, a coal-mining town about 70 miles southeast of Huntington.

In the late ’50s, Bob often used his tabletop recorder to pull music off the radio for later listening, and Betty would sing along, sometimes in harmony if she could swing it.

So when an instrumental arrangement of “It Had To Be You,” her favorite, came on, Bob quickly slurred out, “There’s your song.” Betty, with a broad smile, eased in smoothly and gracefully. It doesn’t take much for my imagination to see Betty standing in that small space, swaying as she sang.

I can see Bob’s smile and adoration as he gazed at her beauty, lost in the reverie of longing and happier times – until the DJ interrupted while the song played on, prompting Bob’s “dirty SOB” outburst. And yet Betty kept right on crooning over both voices.

Bob didn’t say another word, and when the mini-medley shifted into “There’s a Small Hotel,” Betty added her polished vocal accompaniment all the way through. She had such a remarkable gift.

We have only a couple of photos of Betty and Bob together, and here’s one of them, from the early 1940s, early in their marriage before they had children. They were living with Bob’s mother Kathryn on 32nd Street in far east Huntington, across from the floodwall (at left) built after the Great Ohio River Flood in January 1937.

Every time I hear the few recordings we have of Betty singing – including with the band in Logan in the late ’40s-early ’50s – it’s so clear that, dealt a better hand in life, she could’ve made it big. She had the kind of talent that could’ve taken her anywhere fate would let her go. When Phil York and I were listening to the tapes at his home 11 years ago, he said the same – and he would know.

A recording made by Bob in the late 1950s introducing a song Betty recorded years earlier when they were living and playing with a band in Logan, West Virginia. When he says she’s being accompanied by Frankie Carle, that’s just embellishment — it’s really the Logan musicians they performed with on piano and guitar.

But Betty had a marriage that should’ve ended long before it did, three children to raise and protect from Bob, and no chance of going anywhere. And when, whether out of love or loneliness, she and Bob connected what must’ve been one last passionate time a couple of months before her 39th birthday, any chance at vocal acclaim vanished with a fourth pregnancy that should’ve never happened. Then again, Betty probably never really wanted fame.

There are so many questions I’ll never find answers to. But for now, I choose to cherish the three full siblings I found 16 years ago (one of whom, brother Robin, passed away in 2009), and to appreciate and accept the memories they and others have shared with me of our parents.

And to never tire of listening to Betty on these and the other recordings as she beautifully and unknowingly left her mesmerizing voice for her children and others to cherish.

Betty singing “I’m Confessin’ That I Love You” at a March of Dimes benefit in 1950 or ’51 in Logan.

8 thoughts on “11 years ago, the parents I never knew came back to life on three worn reel-to-reel audiotapes

  1. I have a digital recording of my dad that my brother made and gave me and just like the box of dads and a box of moms stuff, I can’t bear to open or listen to them. I don’t know why. It’s all there is too. I’m leaving behind a multitude of musical legacy my kids can listen to after I’m gone if they wish. But I don’t know why, but I just don’t want to look or hear my dad, and I love him so dearly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Karl, I can understand — it would bring up such an overflow of emotions for you because you love them so very much. But seeing/hearing those old photos/recordings also can bring back wonderful memories that you haven’t thought of in years — memories that can be incredibly uplifting and make you smile, laugh and, yes, cry. Not to be a psychologist, but we shouldn’t be afraid of our emotions, especially when it comes to the people we care deeply about and when they come from a place of love.

      So was your dad also a musician like you? If so, I don’t think I knew that. You’ll have to tell me more. 🙂

      Like

    1. Thanks, Holly — that’s a great way of describing Betty’s talent! So, I do have a music background, but most of it is instrumental. I grew up playing the clarinet in band (and even played the baritone sax one year in a junior college stage band before I transferred to Texas A&M). In 2008 when I was 47 and we got my grandparents’ old upright piano, I started taking lessons and did that for about 4 years. I haven’t played much in a while, though. But as far as vocal talent, I’ve always felt like I sing fairly well, and since finding my birth family and learning about Betty’s beautiful voice, I’ve thought about trying to honor her in some way, like joining a church choir. We’ve not gone to church in a while, but Kay and I just started attending a very small one 5 minutes from our house in Arlington a few weeks ago — and one of the choir members asked if I’d like to join. So I think that will be my way of honoring Betty. It’s a small group (about 10-12 members) and everyone’s over 65 (I’m 60), but they’re very good. All I have to do is rearrange my work sked at The Dallas Morning News so I can break away for rehearsals on Thurs evenings. How’s that for a long answer to your short question, lol?! 🙂

      Like

  2. Aww, thanks! I’ll bet you can sing better than you give yourself credit for. And you know what they say about everyone’s a good singer in the shower and driving down the highway with the car stereo on full blast, right? 🙂

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s