Sunday, March 2, 2008

the altairs

The Altairs on Pittsburgh's Greatest Hits Volume V from
Itzy Records

The Altairs were one of Pittsburgh's premier vocal groups of the late 1950s and early 1960s. They never managed to chart a record, although they tried. But they spread their reputation far and wide by playing live at the many local hops, dances, and clubs, and had a pretty impressive cast of players.

They were all students at Herron Junior High in the Hill, practicing their harmonies in the rest rooms. (Songs always sound better in bathrooms, nature's perfect acoustic stage.) A sympathetic teacher got them to perform in several school district assemblies at different buildings, helping them get some low pressure experience and spreading their rep in the 'hood.

They put together the Altairs in 1957 (the name is courtesy of the old Birdland Records owner. If you know the story, give me a yell.) The original members were Tim Johnson (lead), Bill Herndon (first tenor), Nathaniel Benson (second tenor), Ralph Terry (baritone), and Richard Harris (bass).

WAMO DJs Porky Chedwick and Sir Walter liked what they heard from the Altairs and got them gigs at the local hops. Richard Harris' dad Ray became the manager of the group, and later Ray Jr. would take on the job.

Johnson left the Altairs early on, and he was replaced by a pretty fair soul man - George Benson, who was Nelson's cousin. Benson didn’t begin playing guitar seriously until his teen years (he was 14 when he joined the act), and then only from necessity. The man he was replacing, Tim Johnson, was not only the Altair's lead singer, but guitarist.

Bill Powell, another WAMO jock, brought the group into the studio to do some backup vocal work for Penn Hill's singer Anne Keith (Anna Mae Jackson was her given name. She was formerly the soprano voice of the El Venos and was embarking on a solo career managed by Powell.) The song was called "Lover's Prayer". The B side was called "Just A Lonely Girl", a Keith solo, and it was released on the local Memo label.

The record bombed, but the Altair's sound became popular in the 'Burgh and with area industry pros, and no local bill was complete without them performing on it. They warmed up the crowd for R&B acts from the Miracles to Frankie Lyman. It's sort of perverse, but the failed disk was the big break that really launched their local club career.

Billy Ford, a long time R&B singer who was the Billy of the "Billy & Lillie" duet that charted a top ten hit in 1958 with "La Dee Dah," hooked the group up with New York label Amy Records. They recorded "If You Love Me" (on the Itzy cover above, #14) and "Groovy Time" for them. But the records again failed to sell, and it was back to singing in clubs to earn their supper.

In 1960 Benson left the group to join the Four Counts and blaze his trail to superstardom. The Altairs meanwhile cut demos of "Return to Sender" and "Great Balls of Fire" for writers Otis Blackwell (who would become one of Elvis Presley's top songsmiths) and Winfield Scott. The titles went to on to become huge hits for Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Who knows how their future may have gone if they had released those songs instead of just cutting the demos for the writers to shop around to other singers? The King even used the Altair's arrangement for "Return To Sender." We can only speculate if it would have gotten them in the national spotlight.

Though that door closed, another opened when Dinah Washington saw the group knock the socks off the audience in her Lodi, NJ, night spot. She signed the Altairs and soon had them on tour with her and acts like Chubby Checker and the Shirelles.

Washington then used the Altairs as the backbone of a new group, along with former members of the Dells and Coasters, called D's Gents. But when Dinah Washington died in 1963, the Altairs had used up all nine of their lives.

Harris and Herndon hung on, forming a new group, "These Gents" in 1964, and cut a record in 1973 on the local Western World label called "Yesterday Standing By," a ballad. It didn't fare any better than their old Altair platters had.

They would occasionally share the billing with the Marcels on the club circuit and sometimes filled in for missing members of the group. For all intents and purposes the pair sang for both acts, and in 1980 they finally joined Walt Maddox's version of the Marcels full time. They're still riding the oldies circuit now, without Herndon, who left the group in the early 1990s.

The Altairs were another Pittsburgh coulda been, shoulda been act. But as long as George Benson is around, they'll be remembered.

Altairs - "If You Love Me"

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