In the heyday of Chicago blues, no one had more say about which records became hits or which products and businesses got advertised to the Windy City’s huge African-American population than the powerful disc jockey, promoter, and music entrepreneur Al Benson. A college-educated Jackson, Mississippi, native, Benson delighted his target radio audience, especially those who had also migrated from the Deep South, with his blues playlist and down-home patter, famed for his blatant and sometimes intentional disregard for schoolbook English and proper pronunciation. He worked with a label named after his on-air moniker, Old Swingmaster, and owned several others, including Parrot, Blue Lake, Crash, Mica, and The Blues.
Benson, whose legal name was Arthur Leaner, was born June 30, 1908. He sang with the Leaner family band as a youngster and held an assortment of jobs, from working on the railroad to presenting shows at the Alamo Theater in Jackson, his nephew Ernie Leaner recalled. In Chicago he was a probation officer, political worker, and pastor of his own church. His radio career started on WGES with a religious program, but blues, R&B, and jazz became his forte. He became so popular that in 1948 he was elected “Mayor of Bronzeville,” an honorary title bestowed upon South Side community leaders by vote of readers of the Chicago Defender newspaper and others. Brokering his position at the station, he built a lucrative business among advertisers, record labels, and distributors, all of whom paid him to put their products on the air during an era of lax radio regulations. He expanded his empire to include a broadcasting studio in his home, a television show, record shops, a nightclub, concert promotion, and record labels, while nephews George and Ernie Leaner founded United Record Distributors, further strengthening the family’s hold on the black music industry in Chicago. Complaints ensued from competing record shops, DJs, and labels, along with allegations of illegal activities, but Benson prevailed and ruled the roost for years with a less than beneficent hand. His loyal listeners supported him, however, as did the crowds for the big blues and R&B shows he promoted at the Regal Theater, and his success led WGES to transform into a black-oriented station with several Benson protégés hosting shows. Among the records named in tribute to him were Duke Ellington’s “Bensonality” (1952) and Lionel Hampton’s “Benson’s Boogie” (1949). On his labels Benson released 78s or 45s by Albert King, Snooky Pryor, Willie Mabon, J.B. Lenoir, Sunnyland Slim, Jody Williams, Magic Sam, and many more. Benson’s influence declined after WGES was sold in 1962 and payola came under fire, but he stayed in the radio and record business for several years. In 1974 he was saluted both by a three-day tribute from the record industry and by a resolution in the Illinois House of Representatives. He died in Three Oaks, Michigan, on September 6, 1978.