Legendary DJ Pioneer - Al Benson

DJ Al Benson

Black Radio Pioneer


 

 

 

 


Black Waves - A Tribute to DJ Al Benson

Written by:  ExiledOne


 

 

"Individuals made great strides to make sure that the thoughts and music forms of the people were shared and received some kind of dignity...But one person was a veritable genius. This professional grasped community economics, national economics, cultural and political trends, and traded elbow thrusts with the more organized and better funded Whites in order for his people to get a piece of the pie."

Dealing On The Inside: DJ Al Benson

Written By:  ExiledOne

 

 


Unknown Radio Giant: DJ Al Benson and Bronzeville
 by ExiledOne

Black Waves

In these days of cable and satellite television lightning fast internet, cell phones, and hand held units that can hold 10,000 downloaded songs, many people speak of circuits, bytes and bits, when it comes to communications.

Yet only a few decades back, when you heard a human voice, whether on the other end of a telephone, and usually on the radio or the television, there was actually a live person speaking.

  In the US, there have historically been obstacles to African people gaining access to broadcast technology. Commercial radio had been around since the early 1920s. But it was not until 1929 that a Chicago station allowed the "All Negro Hour", hosted by Jack L. Cooper, who had been trying to break in to regular programming since 1924, when he had a few chances in Washington DC. The WSBC Chicago hour turned into 10 hours weekly, as 120,000 refugees from the US South poured into the South Side. Jack spoke "good" English on the multilingual station aimed at southern and eastern Europeans and Africans from below the Mason Dixon line, all crowding into falling down housing stock. Jack had little to do with the funding or advertising of the operation, owned by a Mr. Silverstein.

It would be 20 more years before large changes came about. In 1949, Atlanta University professor and accountant Jesse Blayton bought WERD from Whites, and became the first African in America to own a station. White staff were replaced by Africans. The 1,000 watt unit beamed out religious, disc jockey/music and public affairs programming until 1969, when it was sold back to Whites again. While this is a trend that would be typical of "black owned radio" across the US in the 20th century, it began an explosion of networking not seen since.

Individuals made great strides to make sure that the thoughts and music forms of the people were shared and received some kind of dignity. But of course, the easy way out was the 'Rochester' (Jack Benny's negro pal), joking, 'Yass Boss!!' minstrelsy, which was popular with racists and beat down people

But one person was a veritable genius. This professional grasped community economics, national economics, cultural and political trends, and traded elbow thrusts with the more organized and better funded Whites in order for his people to get a piece of the pie.

 

Dealing On The Inside: DJ Al Benson


At the end of the imperialist war era of US government airplanes dropping atomic bombs in Japan, killing millions, and the overseeing of European rebuilding, the technology of television was made available to the American public. What better way for capitalism to push products and ideas in America than with a device that could alter reality?  Radio had had it's day, and then began a decades long slide in popularity compared to the new box, which quickly became available in the late 1940s. Partly because the radio industry could not handle corporate advertisement accounts dashing away to the new medium, in the North and South, African oriented radio programs began to appear.

 

A man born in 1908 in Mississippi's capital of Jackson journeyed, one of the droves of impoverished Africans, in the great passage to Chicago in 1923. By the 30s and 40s, he was a Christian preacher, concert promoter and learned how to do various professional music related tasks.

 

In 1945, Arthur Leaner, known on South Side Chicago's WGES as Al Benson, began to break some rules. He spoke street slang, the same as the people he  ate, danced and talked daily, on the airwaves. It was his language too. The Chicago Tribune, by 1948 noted that Al Benson was the number one disk jockey-DJ and even White announcers at high power signal stations did not grab the public the way that he did. Al rapped in the Southern Black dialect and was pioneering a style of rapid patter on air. This was not unlike the Bronzeville "cats and chicks" who hung out on "The Stroll".

 

Black capitalists, since before the boom in Southern refugees, had built up Black banks, insurance companies, churches, music halls, hotels, variety stores, cosmetic businesses (including skin lighteners) and nearly any service that the racists would deny Africans outside of the crowded zone. Seven miles from "the Loop" or downtown core, this area, was named Bronzeville, in the 1930s. It is bounded by what is today the Near South Side extending south of Cermak (22nd Street) between the railroad tracks along the Dan Ryan freeway on the west and Lake Shore Drive, and centering on the historic crossroads of State Street and 35th.

 

Over time, the heart of Bronzeville was this intersection, and the area's financial institutions and entertainment venues stretched north and south along State Street ("The Stroll"). Like Harlem, it was a cultural oasis and folklore morphed and began on its pavements. In its dancehalls and tenement hallways and on its avenues, the people of Mississippi Delta hoodoo met "The Hawk", the slicing wind off of the huge Lake Michigan. Here "rent parties" and "the numbers" made and broke tomorrow's Cadillac drivers, used to be cotton pickers, kept or freed the former maids from decades on their knees in White kitchens. "Get a dream book!" That was the poor said.  Combinations of numbers and events in dreams meant a fantastical way out of life's troubles. This is where some impassively saw the murder by knives on the corners and in taverns.  Armour Meats slaughterhouse laborers could be victims, and they tragically made their wages in pools of blood. 

 

Music's future's legends in America, such as Sam Cooke or Dinah Washington, played tag in the street. Both had been born in the South, raised in a Promised Land of deathly tuberculosis epidemics and whole families packed into kitchenettes. This was a tenement chopped into smaller units by slumlords. Kitchens (a living space also) and one bathroom might be shared by dozens of people in various families.

 

  Al Benson had the bought time at the stations and scrambled to fill his ads on WJJD and WGES, and later even more stations. Rice companies, flour, hair pomade and beer firms-not to mention Black church, funeral and insurance companies, who never figured that millions of Africans mattered before, lined up to have Al pitch their goods. Al knew plenty of musicians - at the racially segregated union, just in town and needing a way to record, or itching to find gigs. The days of Louis Armstrong's long term showcases were over. From boxing legend Jack Johnson to the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, celebrity held clubs and restaurants had been founded, flourished and been closed down. Flagging businesses were under the knuckle of White mobsters, underworld characters, police and politicians intent on keeping Chicago prostitution and drug sales booming in African neighborhoods. Afterwards, vilifying the crime and degradation in newspapers rationalized why Africans shouldn't be allowed to live outside of 'the ghetto'.

 

What Al Benson did next was to push records on the air, promote the artists and tell people to go down to the clubs, such as Club De Lisa or Savoy. The sound causing excitement rolled in with some more newcomers. A stream of new refugees-including Africans refusing to accept the violence of the Dixie Whites, and who fought back with guns, began to settle in, and produce a gutsy new sound. A man who knew Muddy Waters when he could pick "nary a note on the guitar", Robert Nighthawk, was not unusual in his rambling from his native Arkansas, up and through St. Louis and Memphis, following the first Blues singers. He was recorded in 1937 and inspired his old swimming hole friend, Muddy, to go North too. A friend, his mentor Houston Stackhouse, remarks on Nighthawk's travels:
 
"I heard he got in trouble in Louisiana once and had to take off and go up north or somewhere awhile. ...It was somethin' about a pistol, but they didn't say where he killed nobody. ...That's the reason he skipped cities, I think: to keep 'em from gettin' him and puttin' him in the pen."
 
Al Benson had the touch. He related to the experience of the impoverished people arriving and at the same time he could deal with the commercial standpoint of marketing the different musics flowing from the cultural kettle. Al had his promotional materials printed to say what he wanted, and had grassroots appeal in Bronzeville. Before long, the newspaper the Chicago Defender's Mayor of Bronzeville contest title went to Al Benson, for several years running, 1946-54. Numerous DJs of note such as Holmes 'Daddy O Daylie' worked the mic in radio competition, and Al made his mark for all time.
 
The "Negro" Market
 

Richard Wright, who lived and worked in Bronsville

As America moved to the mid-century, the colonial resistance against the West also reverberated inside of it. Instead of complying with the new UN guidelines against Forced Assimilation, the US operated with a program of the former, but called it Integration. Economically driven, and with no moral grounding, the ruling class made corporate hay, while destabilizing and eliminating the racist segregated system it had manufactured just a hundred years earlier. In the 1860-1960 period, Africans had only been freed to become subject to further repression.

 
As the sixties neared, the Black strata of middle and upper classes made sure that they were seen and heard as a frontline of the fight for equal rights in America. The reality was, however, that many people in the streets, working people and the unemployed,  wanted their Human Rights. Health care, a safe home, schools that were well staffed and which offered knowledge and skills, employment that did not mean that they were at the mercy of sadistic management were issues. And some wanted a completely new and different system all together.
 
  The integration of music halls and clubs had begun in places like Bronzeville, decades prior to the US government accepting that it had to have racially mixed venues. Sometimes called 'black and tan' clubs, the Whites would travel, after nightfall, to 'slum'. Years before, Blues legend Alberta Hunter had White singer Sophie Tucker trying to steal her ideas, in essence, her culture. When the 'star' who was in town playing the splashy, lucrative downtown Chicago theaters and halls, she sent her maid and piano player to take notes on Alberta's performance. Too embarrassed to go to the area, she summoned Alberta to her dressing room. Alberta didn't bite, refusing to give culture away. Swimming pools, hotels, children's circuses and buses and trains were separate, by US custom and law. But also, hospitals, universities, blood banks, schools for the blind and, of course, water fountains, were labelled 'colored' or 'white'. This was just like the Republic of South Africa and with the same deadly threats. State ordered racism persisted into the early 1970s.
 
But the technology of radio, along with record players-and not to forget the flood of 1950s automobiles in which consumers could drive to the stores, clubs, and concerts-made the florid African styles recognized for what they were: true original art. Though the popularity grew, control of production and business was by Whites-in Chicago, very soon this meant Jewish immigrants from Poland, who had Chess or the Decca label run by the Kapp brothers. Leonard and Phil Chess were reported to have had Muddy Waters and their elite stars enter the building by back stairs. Special permission was needed to gain access to the Chess offices. Willie Dixon, composer and bass playing performer, was one of few people to start their own companies, publishing and retaining rights to their songs. Savoy records had to go to court to, in theory, force White record labels and their artists from 'covering' Black music in 1955. There was little to stop the bleeding, though. In general,  besides the folding of small labels, African musicians in the limelight on premier labels had found only a new plantation on which to labor. Carl Jones, of the famous vocal quartet Delta Rhythm Boys details Ella Fitzgerald's situation:

 

 "...Then after that, we ran into her every now and then. We saw her in Paris when she came over with Jazz at the Philharmonic and in a couple of other places. Sometimes we'd see her at the offices at Decca when we'd go to pick up our checks twice a year. She was saying that she should get more money. They took stuff out her check- managers deducting this and that. She wasn't aware that they were taking more money than they should have been taking from her. We told her what she should do, to stand up, because nobody else would do it."

 

Louis Jordan and Nat King Cole (who along with his Bronzeville musical sister, Dinah Washington, literally built Capitol records) were some of the few Africans coming out with some wealth. Louis made the unfortunate decision to have his wife write tunes and she didn't get credit for this. She sued him for royalties on their breakup, and collected much of the earnings. Louis fought it to the supreme court, only to lose.

 

Musicians now toured the expanses of the US to play for large crowds, or to stage long term dates in Philadelphia, Detroit or Macon, Georgia, where a diminutive muscular dynamo named James Brown had sprung from. At the end of the 1940s, a 15 million strong market, the 'negro' demographic was 'discovered'. The days of 'race records' a category that was geared to African people only, was being sunk, methodically. The White youth of America had been through the Sinatra phenomenon and wanted that which Frank admitted he emulated, the Black source.
 
Cusp of New Time
 
  DJ Al Benson was sitting on the cusp of this new time. Developing his own business, becoming the A & R man, administrator, the distributor and producer of his own label, Parrot, he knew the ropes. Beginning in the 50s, he recorded then current and the future line of stars, some having been brewed in the cultural kettle of Chicago, others were  lured to his side by the success. Mr. Five by Five, Jimmy Rushing recorded, as did Mabel Scott, well known and world traveling singer of "Every Little Doggie Has Its Day". Sax legend Coleman Hawkins laid down tracks on Parrot, as did JB  Lenoir and, briefly in '53, Albert King, two titans of the Blues guitar. Ahmad Jamal, then just a young piano man about to burst onto the international scene with "At The Pershing (But Not For Me)" got the nod, after hitting town from Pittsburgh. 

Soulful Lorez Alexandria was on wax, as was a future bright mainstay, Von Freeman, the saxophonist. Bass master Wilbur Ware, Leo Parker, Johnny Griffin all put in session work at Parrot and Al's other outfits, and saw their profiles rise. A South Side youth, toiling on the fringes before he met Benson, created a sustained excitement with a tune called "Everyday I Have The Blues". Joe Williams, famed for that track, eventually had it sold to Chess.  Joe had been recorded in his early years by a brilliant composer in Chicago by the name of Sun Ra. Groups of Gospel, Doo Wop and others interested in Al Benson's abilities came forward to the president of Parrot.

 
Al Benson went on for a decade after his peak of the early fifties. Parrot, like Vee Jay, King and Chance were labels that had sprang from Chicago's Cottage Grove and other locales on the lakeside city's South Side. But even Chess, which rose to national prominence, was gobbled up by larger companies on Michigan Avenue, after moving to the commercial corridor in the Loop. Al Benson sold the Parrot rights (and Blue Lake, Old Swingmaster and other labels he controlled) and masters to various firms in the late 50s.
 
Al Benson, said to be the neglected genius of Black music in Chicago, in radio, on stage and studio, had charted a way to empower the the people's music. His final mid 60s output was to produce a few artists, finishing up a career, in the often cutthroat music business. By then he had spent time as a political activist for US voting rights. His name lives on, though not always appreciated because he was adamant and serious!
 
Future Shock
 
Curtis Mayfield was a Chicago youth who went on to fervently and soulfully present the culture and politics of a people in battle in the 60s and 70s. His tune's title Future Shock has resonance when the example of Al Benson is seen in the light of 2004.
 
It is as if the lessons were never there for the learning.
 
Few radio stations today in the US are owned by African people, possibly only 220 out of thousands.

 

One chain of 66 stations, owned by multimillionaire Cathy Hughes, steadfastly keeps no newsroom-in 4 radio studios- in Washington DC!  Mindless degrading of the people flows on for untold hours and into the minds of  African people all across America-you are a thug, you are a whore, you are something freaky, and that is negative. It is big business, and now it is global. Hardly music, and in no way culture.
 
This is entirely opposed to the work of former owners like singer James Brown, who had two stations in Augusta Georgia, and made them a force in mobilizing against racism. Chicago's successful 1983 election of Harold Washington to be its first African in the mayor's seat was augmented by radio. He was a former lawyer involved in major court victories to break up housing restrictions keeping Black people in Bronzeville's poor conditions, and busting up White-only housing across a city known even today to be 92% racially segregated.  Radio was a communication and education tool. Ideas, healthy debate, that could inspire people in America's Bronzevilles, such as those put out by excellent broadcaster  Mumia Abu Jamal, have been jailed, just as he has.
 
Fast talking, jiving DJs in the 21st century radio scene, even globally, may not know it, but a way was paved for them all. Ironically, most have been replaced by computers, programmed to churn out computerized music. And for the African people in America, it's plain to see how much remains to be gained from Al Benson's life lessons. Economic control of the art forms distinctly theirs-Blues, Soul and Jazz is essential.
 
The man who had pioneered the microphone's capacity to engage the woman and man in the street, passed away on 6 September, 1978 in coastal Berrien Springs, Michigan.
 
Al Benson was 70.
 

Written by:  ExiledOne
for Vibrations Magazine
The on-line magazine for The Soulful Expression
12 March 2004

Glasgow, Scotland

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