I never met Betty before she died 30 years ago, but what a blessing that she left her beautiful music for us

Betty could sing. I mean really sing. From what I’ve dug up since learning 17 years ago that she was the mother who relinquished me for adoption, singing seems to have come as naturally to Betty as hitting home runs did for Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron.  

From her school records in Huntington, West Virginia, that I obtained 10 years ago, I learned Betty made an A-plus in Sophomore Glee Club. As for her other grades over the years, let’s just say they were … not the best.

That was in the fall semester of 1937, after which Betty dropped out of school and went to work at Walgreens in the West Virginia Building downtown. It was three years after her mother, Olive, died tragically at age 32 from complications of a hysterectomy, and two years after her father, Ed Campbell, married his second wife, Essie Pauline, who was 19 years younger than Ed and just five years older than Betty.

I’ll always regret that Betty and I never met in this life before she died at 71 of lung cancer 30 years ago this week, on December 20, 1992. Someday, though, we will.

But this is about Betty’s music. Although I didn’t have the privilege of hearing her sing in person … in a manner of speaking, I did.

For several months in 1960 while she was pregnant with me at age 39, Betty fled Huntington with my three older siblings to escape our alcoholic father Bob, who didn’t know she was pregnant with their fourth child despite their having divorced over a year earlier. She and the kids — 16, 13 and 5 years old — moved into an upstairs apartment over a grocery warehouse in Ironton, Ohio, just across the Ohio River from Huntington.

And during those months, Betty used her vocal gifts to entertain patrons at the Sandbar, a go-to nightspot at an upscale hotel in town.

My friend John Zimmerman beautifully colorized this early-1940s photo of my birth parents Betty and Bob Workman standing outside the home they shared with Bob’s mother Kathryn in Huntington, West Virginia.

Betty sang vocals for Harry Ware’s three-piece dance band for almost six months while I was growing inside her, and it’s almost a certainty no one there knew her secret. Definitely not Jim Waller, the bartender/bouncer I got to know through phone visits over several years before his passing earlier this year at 93. He remembered Betty well despite her having been at the Sandbar for only a few months. She clearly made an impression.

From that point on, I apparently remained unknown to everyone except Betty’s Aunt Vic and Uncle Walter, with whom she and two of my siblings stayed after moving back to Huntington in late 1960. After giving me up at Cabell Huntington Hospital the following February, it’s obvious she never told a soul about me, including my two brothers and sister, who were thrilled to learn in June 2005 that they had a little brother after all.

Having talked to a handful of folks about the popular Sandbar and what it was like, I can envision Betty performing there. I can pick out some of the songs she probably sang, including her favorite, “It Had To Be You,” “Somebody Loves Me” and other standards. 

Before my dad Clark died in 2014, I asked him if he and my mother Olga ever drove up to the Sandbar, which was in the Marting Hotel, during the few years they lived in Huntington before we moved to Houston when I was about 10 months old. They sure did, he said. His memory after his major stroke in 2006 wasn’t always the best, but when I asked if he remembered seeing a woman sing there around the time Betty did, he said yes. He was tickled to know that singer was most assuredly the mother whose newborn son they would soon adopt.

John also colorized this photo of Betty, probably taken in the early 1940s as well.

From what I’ve learned, those nightly gigs at the Sandbar were far from Betty’s only performances. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, when she, Bob and my older brothers Crys and Robin — who were very young — were living in Logan south of Huntington, Betty and Bob (on standup bass) played some gigs with a band there.

About eight years ago, I talked to an old-time musician named Jack Nuckols (who’s now 96) in Ashland, Kentucky, who also remembered Betty from other performances in the Tri-State area. He was gracious enough to send me a copy of a 1963 newspaper photo showing Betty performing with a dance band at the pavilion at Dreamland Pool in the Huntington suburb of Kenova. An early-1970s fire destroyed the pavilion, where stars including Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey performed back in the day.

The band Betty sang with that night was led by a drummer named Hal Scott, nicknamed “Scotty,” and my sister Terry remembers when she was young how Betty would sometimes dress up in the evening, saying she was going to sing with “Scotty and the band.” After researching and talking to some old-timers, I finally figured out who Scotty was.

A fellow in Ashland, Kentucky, sent me this reproduction of a 1963 newspaper photo of Betty (at right) performing with a band at Dreamland Pool in Kenova, West Virginia. I also became friends by phone and email with the baritone sax player next to Betty (he was only 18 years old at the time of this photo). Sadly, he died of mesothelioma in 2013.

After I discovered my birth family, during a trip to Colorado three weeks later to meet Crys and Terry, I learned of and listened to a cherished cassette tape of Christmas music that Betty made of her singing late in life to give her children. Inside her home along the Ohio River in Huntington, she played LPs, scratches and all, and sang beautifully with them — including lots of Willie Nelson.

I’d already been told about Betty’s singing talents, but this was clear evidence of it, even as she was approaching 70. And, it was an emotional chance to hear her voice that I never thought I’d be graced with.

Little did I know there would be another opportunity for me to listen to my mother — and even more incredibly, to hear what a remarkable singer she was. When I found out about three very old reel-to-reel audiotapes around the time our brother Robin passed away in early 2009, I had my heart set on finding out what they held.

In late 2010, I contacted a man named Phil York, who, unknown to me before I met him, had three Grammys to his name from decades as a producer and sound engineer, including on the 1975 “Red Headed Stranger” album by Willie. We played the frail old tapes on the equipment at his Irving home.

I heard the name Betty Workman — uttered in various spots, I came to realize, by my own biological father Bob. Soon came a beautiful voice singing with a five-piece dance band in West Virginia in the early 1950s, like something out of the big-band era. That’s when I knew how accomplished a vocalist Betty truly was. 

These audiotapes that my birth father Bob recorded with the treasures of Betty’s music — not to mention his own voice — are over 60 years old.

She also did lots of singing at home, of course, and Terry has vivid memories of dancing around with our mother as a young girl while Betty sang. I’d give anything for one of those dances.

The quality of the old recordings, which Bob re-recorded in the later ’50s, isn’t good, but John Zimmerman, a fellow adoptee friend I’ve made on Facebook, has been kind enough recently to work some magic in trying to clean them up. He also has taken several of my old birth family photos and colorized them, and it’s a surreal treat to see Betty and Bob in living color in a couple of the photos that are from 80ish years ago (included in this post).

The old recordings feature Betty singing five songs, and I never tire of listening to them. Each Christmas, I listen to and sing along with the holiday songs she recorded for her children — including a telling message at the end in which she said, “I love you … I love all of you … very, very much. Have a merry, merry Christmas.”

A few days ago, as a similar gift that I texted to Terry and Crys, I recorded myself singing with Betty on one of her renditions, an a cappella version of “Blue Christmas.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt compelled to honor Betty and her music. While taking piano lessons in 2011, I accompanied two of her 60-year-old recordings during a recital, playing arrangements written by dear friend and instructor Alice Bishop. Earlier this year, I joined our church choir, in part as a way of paying tribute to Betty. Recording myself singing with her was something I just wanted — needed — to do. I hope to record more duets with her Christmas songs.

It’s not difficult to hear the sadness in Betty’s voice on “Blue Christmas,” there because she seldom spent the holiday with her children during their adult years. When I spoke in 2011 with one of her closest friends, longtime Stevens Drugstore colleague Shirley Booten — who I recently learned passed away earlier this year — Shirley told me Betty would be overcome with emotion whenever she heard “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”

I thought I’d share the recording here of Betty and me. I’m singing a lower octave and not very loud so as not to cover her voice, since there’s a lot of background noise on her audio.

https://recorder.google.com/share/f13fb88e-f642-4278-9724-a7a2b06ee203

Also, here’s a link to a site called Clyp, where I’ve downloaded most of the songs from the Christmas cassette, and several of the tracks from the dance band recordings with Betty and Bob. When you go to the page and scroll to the bottom, click on “Load More” for the rest of the recordings.

https://clyp.it/user/kjbqzyf0

I’m including one of the old pics of Betty that my friend John colorized — I’m guessing it’s from around 1940, so Betty would be about 19 — and a photo of me from elementary school to show the resemblance we share. It’s been obvious since we came together as a family how much my sister and I look alike, and folks also have marveled at how much I take after our mother, as does Terry.

This photo of Betty, colorized by my friend John, is likely from around 1940. The photo of me is from the late ’60s at St. Matthew Lutheran School in Houston, but I’m not sure what grade I was in.

Merry Christmas to my dear birth mother Betty, my late brother Robin, my sister Terry and brother Crys and their families, brother Isaac whom I grew up with and his family, and to all of my friends spread far and wide. May your holidays be all about love, togetherness, sharing, caring, gratitude … and, of course, music.  ❤


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