The Altairs of Pittsburgh©2006JCMarion



The Altairs were a group of Pittsburgh high school students that put together a vocal group in 1957. The original members were Tim Johnson, William Herndon, Nathaniel Nelson, Ralph Terry, and Richard Harris. They were heard by Porky Chedwick and another area dee-jay named Sir Walter and were on their way to performing and recording. The father of Richard Harris became the manager of the group and soon there was a replacement of Tim Johnson by guitarist and vocalist George Benson. One of the radio personalities that worked with Porky at WAMO was named Bill Powell, and it was he who persuaded the group to come into the studio and try some backup work for other performers. One of these was Anna Mae Jackson and the song was called "Lover's Prayer". This song was coupled with an earlier tune by Jackson called "Just A Lonely Girl" and released on the local Memo label. This first release by the group went nowhere as far as sales and airplay were concerned, but the group did gain valuable experience in the performing arts.

The Altairs made a good impression on the local music scene however, and they were rewarded with many gigs in the area in support of many of the headliners of the day. Billy Ford, a long time R & B performer who had gotten national recognition as part of the "Billy & Lillie" duo (thanks to Dick Clark) put the group in touch with Amy Records located in New York. By this time in 1959 Benson was the lead singer for the group and they recorded the songs "If You Love Me" and "Groovy Time" on Amy # 803. By the following year Benson had left the group and soon the group was put in touch with song writer Otis Blackwell. Blackwell had also been a recording artist in earlier years with R & B tunes such as "Daddy Rolling Stone" and "Let The Daddy Hold You". He was soon to gain world wide fame as a chief writer for Elvis Presley, and one of the tunes he had The Altairs sing as a song demo was "Return To Sender" and that arrangement was later used on the Presley single of the song.

The group next moved to a professional partnership with Dinah Washington. Dinah had observed the group performing in a night spot that she was a managing partner in, and was impressed. She soon had them on tour as accompanying performers and formed a vocal ensemble with some former members of The Dells and were known as The Gents. With the untimely death of Dinah Washington in 1963, the members of the Altairs went their seperate ways. Two of the members joined a revamped version of The Marcels and played the "oldies circuit" while George Benson became a major performer in the early seventies winning Grammy awards for "This Masquerade" for Record Of The Year, and a tremendous reworking of The Drifters hit "On Broadway" among many others.

The Altairs were part of the music scene in Pittsburgh for a number of years, and were an influential part of the history in that city. That they are virtually unknown outside of Pittsburgh is one of the harsh realities of the music scene.

to next page . . . . . . .

back to title page . . . . .