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
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