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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.