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George Benson

Hill District Child Prodigy

George Benson is a renowned jazz guitarist who has won ten Grammys, recorded a certified triple platinum album, and worked with the likes of Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, and Quincy Jones over the course of his career. He is also the child of a poor, single mother from Pittsburgh, who got his start in music at seven years old, playing ukulele at a corner drugstore in the Hill. 

Born in the Hill in 1943, George Benson grew up “in the heart of the ghetto,” as he would later describe it, with his mother at a hotel on Gilmore Way. The hotel was demolished during the building of the Civic Arena less than a decade later. Records from the 1950 census indicate that George’s mother worked in night service, likely at the hotel where they lived. The small family was happy but poor, and as a child Benson had a job selling newspapers at a stand right across from Stanley’s Bar, where jazz legends like Art Blakey, Charlie Parker, and Billy Eckstine played.

When he began school at Letsche Elementary, his music teachers quickly discovered his natural talent as a singer - they would often ask “Little Georgie” to sing for his classmates. He experimented with teaching himself any instrument that was available, including the hotel lobby piano and an old violin, but it wasn’t until his stepfather Tom Collier took an interest in his music and gave him a ukulele that his talent really exploded. It was with this instrument that he began to attract attention. After earning three dollars with an impromptu performance at Goode’s Drug Store on Wylie Ave, his stepfather assisted his budding career by booking gigs for him at clubs like the Little Paris and would even join him on stage occasionally.

Benson soon graduated from ukulele to playing whatever guitars he could get his hands on—his first electric guitar was made out of “his mother’s hope chest with a used tape recorder for an amplifier”—and he cut his first record in New York with RCA Victor at the tender young age of nine. For his recording name, he used the same nickname his elementary music teachers gave him: Little George.

As he grew older, he would go on to play and tour with organist Jack McDuff in clubs like the famous Hurricane Bar. Benson signed with a few labels in his early 20s, and played with jazz greats like Miles Davis and Stanley Turrentine because of the connections he made there.  He was mainly known as an instrumentalist until the recording of his smash hit album 1976 Breezin’, where he sang on “This Masquerade”, for which he won Record of the Year at the 1976 Grammys.

Nobody could love Pittsburgh more…I’ve seen what a town like this can produce.
-George Benson

Benson is a dynamic and passionate guitarist. While those well-versed in jazz guitar canon will certainly be able to hear inspiration from players like Wes Montgomery or Grant Green in his stylings, Benson built on the ideas of jazz greats before him to create something unique and personal. Folks who played with him said he possessed an extraordinary sense of “swing” when he was playing jazz standards, and he was a sought after player for any band because of his speed and agility on the guitar. His most famous technique was his ability to “play in unison”, or play a melody line on his instrument while he sang the same melody. This style can be heard on tracks like 1980’s “Give Me the Night” or “This Masquerade”, and made Benson stand out as both a guitarist and singer.

He was also known for incorporating jazz into popular music. This drew criticism from many jazz purists, but Benson, as well contemporaries like Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, and Ramsey Lewis, saw a shift to more popular stylings as necessary to preserve an interest in jazz, which was beginning to die out by the time the late 70s and 80s rolled around. “I’m aware of the limited audience for real jazz music,” he once told The Pittsburgh Courier. “I play something my audience wants to hear first, and I play jazz in-between.”

Benson rarely misses an opportunity to express his love for the city which began his career. “Nobody could love Pittsburgh more,” he once told CBS Pittsburgh. “I've seen what a town like this can produce.” He often returns to the city to play, as he sees Pittsburgh as a crossroads for jazz innovation that fostered him and many others in their playing. Through his immense talent and passion for his music, George Benson, a child prodigy turned jazz legend, showed the whole world that even a poor kid from the Hill had something to sing about.

Images

Playing Ukulele at a Nightclub "Little Georgie" performing with his ukulele, likely with his stepfather. George learned the ukulele before the guitar, and would play nightclubs with his stepfather around the Hill. Source: georgebenson.com/gallery Date: c. 1951
A young George Benson smiles with his guitar. Benson recorded his first single with RCA Victor when he was only 9 years old. It is unknown who is standing beside him. Source: georgebenson.com/gallery Date: c. 1951
George Benson at the 1986 Montreux Jazz Festival George has played many festivals across the world, including in Maylaysia, Brazil, Morocco, and Turkey. He remains a popular performer who can draw a crowd to this day. Source: Wikimedia Commons Creator: Dr. Jean Fortunet Date: July 18, 1986
George Benson playing at Escenario Puerta del Ángel in Madrid, Veranos de la Villa 2009. George's ability to "play in unison", or sing in harmony with his instrument, is in large part what garnered him an international audience. Source: Wikimedia Commons Creator: Raúl Ranz Date: June 7, 2009
Joni Mitchell's 1978 Ibanez GB10NT George Benson Signature Not only did George Benson inspire other musicians with his playing, he also inspired them with his instruments. His work with Ibanez produced this guitar, the company's first hollow body artist signature, as well as a 30th anniversary edition. When Ibanez first reached out to George, he told them he wanted a no-frills, "workhorse guitar that sounded amazing." This instrument, played by Joni Mitchell, now hangs in the Met. Source: Wikimedia Commons Date: May 13, 2019

Location

Location is approximate; building was destroyed during 1950s urban renewal.

Metadata

Nolan Cowan, “George Benson,” Hill District Digital History, accessed May 29, 2024, https://hillhistory.org/items/show/60.