Jazz Institute of Chicago

Al Benson—the Godfather of Black Radio in Chicago

by Charles Walton

The year is 1950—the time 4:00 pm...

Most radios in Bronzville are tuned to station WGES, where the voice of the most popular Black radio personality of the time entered the homes and cars of Black Chicago. The record "9 O'clock Beer" performed by the Barney Bigard Quintet begins. This was the musical sound that introduced the Godfather of Chicago Black Radio, Al Benson.

Over the music you would hear Al Benson saying, "Good Afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, this is your old Swingmaster Al Benson bringing you 60 minutes of red hot, beat me down, swing tunes of the day, and that's for sure." That familiar voice flooded the homes of Black Chicago many times a day, in the morning, the afternoon, and the evening.

Comedian George Kirby recalled his first impression of hearing Benson's radio voice, "I couldn't understand a word he was saying. He sounded like someone from the islands."

There were several Black people broadcasting in radio before Al Benson. The most notable was Jack L. Cooper, the first Black Radio personality, broadcasting over WSBC in Cicero and later WHFC in Chicago for a period of over thirty years.

GERTRUD COOPER, widow of Jack L. Cooper:

"In the early radio years, records were not played. Jack started on station WSBC in 1928 and it was not long after he got on the air that he started playing records on a home type phonograph. There has been a debate about whether he or Al Jarvis, in California, started playing records first. It was almost simultaneous. He was the first to start it here in Chicago."

Another early Black Radio personality was Eddie Honesty at WJOB in Hammond, Indiana who started in 1935. But it really wasn't until Al Benson came along in 1944 that there was an explosion in Black ethnic radio.

LUCKY CORDELL, radio personality:

"Jack L. Cooper was the first pioneer in Chicago Black Radio. He held the fort on radio from 1929 to 1961. It was because of the success of Jack L. Cooper that Al Benson came on the scene. Jack was very much respected in the Black community especially among middle class Blacks.

There was this giant void for people who migrated from the south, who had no one in radio playing the music that they were accustomed to hearing in the south. That created Al Benson's success. The fact that he came on the scene and played the music that they were accustomed to hearing and that music could not be found anywhere else on the radio. Nobody was playing the blues. The blues that was played might be Dinah Washington or Jazz.

Al Benson came on and played Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, and so forth and started to satisfy the people. If I had to hazard a guess, his audience included about seventy percent of the Black population. I don't know how fast his recognition came, as far as sponsors, but as soon as the word got around that there was a guy on radio playing those records, and the word was passed along in the Black community, Benson was made."

SID MCCOY, former Chicago DJ:

"Al Benson excited the imagination of the people in Chicago, the likes of which I have never known anybody to do. When I first went to work under Benson, I was a member of that class that put him down. I was of that attitude and opinion and I said this is old, ignorant Al splitting his infinitives and going through all of these ignorant changes. I was young and intelligent and I was going to put him in my pocket like that. The most profound education I ever got in my life, was from Al Benson. He was strong, so nervy."

ERNIE LEANER, Benson's nephew and Chicago's first Black record distributor:

"Al was my father's brother. Al's real name was Arthur Leaner. The Leaners all came from Jackson, Mississippi. At an early age, Al did things down there, like running on the railroads, working on boats, and doing some work on shows at fairgrounds. My first memory of Al was in the 1920s. I was a little guy. We came to Chicago in 1923. Al lived with my father off and on. He was attempting to establish a residence here.

During the Depression it was a little rough in Chicago, so we went back to Jackson. Al went back too. He used to produce shows at the Alamo Theater, a Black theater in Jackson. At that time, there were separate theaters. My father, his brother, and their father were all musicians. They had a band called the Leaners' Band. Al used to sing with the band as a youngster. He was also doing shows in Jackson, and like all of us, was trying to make it. He left Jackson to return to Chicago around the time of the World's Fair, in 1933 and was here ever since then.

Al did assorted things. He was a probation/parole officer; he did political things and later he was a reverend. Being a reverend helped him to become a disc jockey, because of the things he was doing on the air, such as preaching and spiritual readings. Al and the station owner got together because he had such a knack of selling commercial time on his church program. This is what interested the radio people, and they put Al on WGES in 1945–46, right at the end of World War Two. The rest is history. Al won a Chicago Tribune poll as the top DJ in the city. This included both sides of the market, Black and white. He also had a weekly TV program and a live radio broadcast, called the Battle of the Bands.

Al did not march in a parade with Martin Luther King, but he did his own thing. He put a lot Black people to work in places where they never worked before. He created jobs for bookkeepers, secretaries and clerical staff. Top record companies treated him royally, and top stars considered an invitation to be on his radio show as a command performance."

NELSON GEORGE, from his book, The Death of Rhythm & Blues:

"In December 1947, Ebony found only 16 Blacks employed as DJs out of an estimated three thousand around the country. Ebony made it a point to note that few Blacks could be identified as Negro on the air. They were even getting anti-Negro notes assuming them to be white. Discovering that a voice had no color opened new vistas to Negroes in radio. Following the model of Jack L. Cooper, these announcers, passing for whites, tended to be conservative in their programming choices, leaning as heavily on Count Basie and Sarah Vaughn as on their vowels.

One man, Ebony mentioned, but only in passing, would become one of the most influential Black DJs of all time. But it should not be surprising that Ebony made little note of Al Benson's style, since he was just the sort of character any self-respecting upwardly mobile Black would view as a discredit to the race. His distressing grappling with words over two syllables once brought laughs of derision from many, but they could not laugh away his ability to reach out across the air and win vast audiences of Blacks

At his peak, Benson hosted five shows and twenty hours of programing a week, earning as much as $100,000 a year in the process. (In 1950, that was a considerable amount of money.) Eddie O'Jay, a young DJ in the early fifties, in Milwaukee, recalls, "Benson killed the king's English and I don't know if he did it on purpose or not. Everybody had to see Al if they wanted to sell to the Black market in Chicago, what ever it was. He wasn't pretending to be white. He sounded Black. They knew he was and most of us were proud of that fact."

AL BENSON:

"Radio was a field that was very difficult for Black people to get into in the 1940s. However, there was one man in radio at the time. His name was Jack L. Cooper and for some reason, unwilling or not, Jack L. Cooper's racial identity was not known. I don't think he wanted to be white, but on the other hand, he did not identify himself as being Black either.

When I got into radio it was my very ambition and intention to let people know who I was. However I did not identify myself by being degrading, being uncouth or using bad English. But I used certain terms that we Black folks are accustomed to using. Slang usage—and that alone picked up my identity.

My approach to the people was down to earth. I did not talk down to them. I was on their level. I made them feel that 'he is one of us.'"

ERNIE LEANER:

"At one time, Al was broadcasting for three radio stations from his house, at 5638 South Maryland Avenue. He had three sets of engineers coming in there, bringing in their equipment, one station after another."

AL BENSON:

"I was live every day. We had a thing at the station that was known as a wire machine. You could not take a chance doing a show on a wire machine because it could break down in the middle of your show and there goes your show. So it had to be done live.

I was one determined Black man. I was in radio from 1943 to 1974. I was on WGES until the station was sold to the McClendon Corporation from Texas. They wanted to bring Black people into Chicago from other places and I resented that. They had me over there at their station and didn't know exactly what to do with me. They offered me a ficticous job of being a program director at $250.00 a week. I had been making $300,000 to $400,000 a year. They could not believe Black people could make that amount of money.

Was I going to give up all of the money I had been making for a title? I was not looking for a title. I was looking for money. Money was the prestige.

The call letters were changed to WYNR and I left and took all of the business. I defied Coke, Camel Cigarettes, Milnot, Creamettes. I defied every national company in the country to continue with WYNR. I said they are rubbish, nigger haters and if you don't leave with me I can hurt you as I have helped you. You stay on that station and you will find out. So they all pulled out every last one of them and there was no business because of that. The station WYNR suffered; they never did get off of the ground because of that incident. I went over to WOPA and Leonard Chess soon after bought that station and changed it to WVON."

Al Benson:

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