PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — He still has the voice, and he can still play the guitar.
George Benson still loves coming home to the town that shaped his life.
“Nobody could love Pittsburgh more,” said Benson. “I’ve seen what a town like this can produce. I saw the masters come through here when I was a little boy.”
He grew up poor but in a cradle of jazz. Pittsburgh was a mecca for both for homegrown musicians and those passing through on their way to New York.
“They did their jamming right here in the Hill District,” Benson said. “They had the Stanley Bar, right across the street was the Blue Note, and they had Goode’s Drug Store. That’s where I played my ukulele right in front of there.”
It was outside Goode’s that as a 7-year-old prodigy, Benson got his start in music. It’s when a customer asked him if he could play the ukulele he was carrying.
“I just turned around and start singing and playing,” Benson said. “And a crowd formed around, and they all started going in their pockets. Then, my cousin went around with his baseball cap, and boy, did we have money. We were rich. It was my first paying gig.”
Sneaking into places like the Crawford Grill and the Hurricane Club, Benson heard the likes of Earl Fatha Hines, Lena Horne and Art Blakey.
Soon he’d play those places himself and earn his own spot on that exclusive list.
“When you say Pittsburgh, and they bring up those names and ask where to you stand, I say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m going back home to practice a little bit,’” said Benson.
KDKA’s Andy Sheehan: “You’re in that royalty.”
Benson: “Yes, thank you.”
But as he was coming of age, the clubs and his neighborhood would fall victim to the wrecking ball as the Lower Hill was razed to make way for the Civic Arena.
“Our lives became fragmented. We became project people. Nicer dwelling yes, but no real character,” Benson said.
Leave he must, and in New York, he became a star. Then, a megastar in 1975 with the release of his breakthrough album “Breezin’,” which combined virtuoso jazz guitar with his soulful voice.
“It changed my life and it changed the world of jazz and pop music,” Benson said. “It really was a landmark album.”
The achievements that followed are laid out in this new autobiography – 10 Grammy Awards, platinum and gold records. Promoter Rich Engler added one more honor Saturday night.
“The city of Pittsburgh and myself got together and declared today George Benson Day,” said Engler at the concert.
“I see the progress Pittsburgh is making and I like what I see,” Benson said.
Much of the Hill that Benson knew is now the Civic Arena parking lot, but soon they’ll be new homes there. He sees a new Pittsburgh rising, hopeful it will produce new stars like himself.