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The Black Pittsburgh artists who have changed music

Jazz guitarist George Benson performs at the Universal Amphitheatre, Universal City, Calif., July 6, 1978.
G. Paul Burnett
/
AP
Jazz guitarist George Benson performs at the Universal Amphitheatre, Universal City, Calif., July 6, 1978.

Pittsburgh has an iconic history of Black musicians who've made a major impact on the music world. WYEP host Joey Spehar spoke with WESA Morning Edition host Priyanka Tewari about WYEP's "50 Black Artists Who Changed Music" and the role of artists from our city.

Priyanka Tewari: You're here to talk about black Pittsburgh artists who have had a big impact on the music world. So where do we even start? That's a big list.

A man in a tuxedo plays the drums
G. Paul Burnett
/
AP
Drummer Art Blakey performs on opening night of the Kool Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall Friday, June 27, 1981 with The Jazz Messengers.

Joey Spehar: It really is. And I don't think that you can talk about the history of Pittsburgh without talking about the history of jazz, and you can't talk about the history of jazz without talking about Pittsburgh. One jazz artist that immediately comes to mind is the legend Art Blakey. Blakey was a drummer and bandleader, born and raised in the Hill District in the beginning of the 20th century. By seventh grade, he was playing the piano to help pay the bills at home, and in that process he also learned how to lead a band in one of those early bands. As the legend goes, a club owner forced Blakey at gunpoint to switch from piano to drums so that another legendary Pittsburgh player, Erroll Garner, could take over on the ivories. Blakey would go on to work with other jazz greats including Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie before forming the Jazz Messengers in the 1950s. And what I love about the Jazz Messengers is that with an always changing lineup, the band helped to give lots of up and comers the opportunity to shine.

All right, so we're going to hear a little from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and this is their recording of "Hipsippy Blues" from the album "Just Coolin." Now, Joey, as you said, jazz and Pittsburgh, they have a pretty symbiotic relationship since the early days of the genre. But in the 1970s, is it true that there was a guy on the scene who brought not only jazz, but Pittsburgh music into the general public's consciousness?

Right. Of course, we're talking about George Benson. He was the definition of a child prodigy and got his first taste of getting paid to perform, playing his ukulele at a local drugstore, before graduating to playing at unlicensed nightclubs on Friday and Saturday nights. And he cut his first record at the age of nine. Now, he graduated from Schenley High School, and by the time he was 21, he'd recorded his first album as a bandleader. In the mid 60s, he worked for a while with Miles Davis and continued releasing albums, including a jazz version of The Beatles "Abbey Road." In the mid 1970s, George Benson really took off and even put out a kind of disco song called "Give Me the Night," which was again very popular while remaining very, very jazzy.

A man in a fur coat sings into a microphone
Fred Vuich
/
AP
Entertainer and Pittsburgh native Wiz Khalifa performs on the field before an NFL football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Denver Broncos Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015, in Pittsburgh.

We could all do with a little disco in the morning. So, Joey, jazz can't be the only genre that Pittsburgh artists are known for, right?

Well, of course not. We played a role in the development of doo-wop music. We've produced pop stars like Christina Aguilera, hair metal musicians like Bret Michaels, roots rock legends like Rusted Roots, and of course, hip hop stars like Mac Miller. And the next guy we're going to be talking about is Wiz Khalifa. Now, Wiz wasn't born here, but he did go to high school here, where he began writing music. Now, you probably know the song "Black and Yellow" from his album "Rolling Papers." It peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and now when you go to a Steelers game, you hear it there. That's how you know that you've really, truly made it.

Since releasing "Black and Yellow," he has sold tons of records, he's recorded and toured with a who's who of popular rappers like Common and Snoop Dogg. Even Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker. And, it's not uncommon for rappers to get involved in other kind of non-musical ventures and Wiz even has his own weed brand, Khalifa Kush, which for him makes financial sense because he has said in the past, he spends over 10 grand a month on his medication. So now I guess he just goes to the shop and, you know, they see him and it's all taken care of.

Find WYEP's list of 50 Black artists who changed music at wyep.org.

Priyanka Tewari is a native of New Delhi, India. She moved to the United States with her family in the late 1990s, after living in Russia and the United Kingdom. She is a graduate of Cornell University with a master’s from Hunter College, CUNY.
Doug Shugarts is a 23-year veteran of broadcast news. Doug began his career at WBUR in Boston, where he worked on the nationally-syndicated programs “The Connection” and “Here and Now.” He won awards for best use of sound, coverage of the 2003 war in Iraq, and helped launch the station’s local news program, “Radio Boston.” In 2014 Doug moved across town to GBH and helped reboot morning news programming and launch other broadcast and web projects. Doug studied Composition at Berklee College of Music and Computer Science and Mathematics at the University of California. A resident of Pittsburgh’s Southside, Doug enjoys feasting on arepas and yucca fries at Cilantro and Ajo and meeting his canine neighbors at Big Dog Coffee.