Jo Jo Benson, a Phenix City native whose meteoric rise and fall in the music industry made him a local legend, was found dead early Tuesday morning at a Motel 6 on Victory Drive.
Benson, named Joseph Hewell at birth, died of natural causes, according to the Muscogee County Coroner’s Office. He was 76.
Benson was an American R&B artist who sang background for the legendary Chuck Willis, and associated with other acclaimed artists such as B.B. King and Smokey Robinson. He is most known for his work with Peggy Scott, who became his partner in the industry. The duo released three hit singles. The first was “Lover’s Holiday,” released in 1968. It was followed by “Pickin’ Wild Mountain Berries” and “Soulshake.” They received a Grammy nomination for “Pickin’ Wild Mountain Berries” in 1969.
Benson and Scott went their separate ways in 1971. They reunited for an album in the mid-1980s, but the reunion was temporary.
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In an article published by the Ledger-Enquirer in 1983, Benson was interviewed by then-Associate Editor Richard Hyatt and reflected on the duo’s unlikely rise to fame.
“We weren’t supposed to be together,” Benson said of the musical union. “It was a freaky accident. We had both set up sessions in Jackson, Miss. After we finished, this guy said he had a song that would be natural for a duo. We jumped on it and got the mike. It was the first take and it was a hit record, a million-seller.”
But the fame was short-lived and Benson eventually returned to his life in the Chattahoochee Valley. Over the years, he owned several nightclubs in the area. And his brother, Gene Hewell, owned a men’s fashion store on Broadway called the Movin’ Man.
Many in the Columbus entertainment arena were saddened Tuesday by Benson’s death.
State Sen. Ed. Harbison said he and Benson became friends when Harbison moved to Columbus as a young news reporter for WOKS radio. Benson operated a nightclub called “Lover’s Holiday” on 4th Avenue, now Veteran’s Parkway. He brought in celebrities, and radio station employees frequented the club.
Harbison described Benson as a man who brought himself up by his bootstraps and sang his way to fame.
“He had made such a contribution to Rock ‘n Roll, and I think people like that, they’re rare,” he said. “He is part of the legacy of Columbus, Ga.”
Harbison said he saw Benson about 5 p.m. Monday, and may have been one of the last persons to speak to him. Benson had called and asked a favor, and the two met at the Occasions event center behind the Huddle House on Victory Drive.
Harbison said Benson looked under the weather and Harbison suggested he go to the hospital. “He said he had called the paramedics already and that they had they told him something about how his oxygen level was and it sounded pretty good,” he said. “But he didn’t look good. I was concerned about his health. I was concerned about the way he looked and how he was breathing.”
Harbison said he was sad to hear Tuesday that Benson had passed.
“It’s just really sad. He was a great figure in the history of Rock ‘n Roll in this country,” Harbison said. “And I greatly admired him. He was a good artist and a really good guy.
Mike Blackwell, a local concert promoter, has known Benson for about 45 years.
“I promote concerts so I had Jo Jo play some shows back in the day when I’d bring in the Isley Brothers or the O’Jays and other music that would appeal to older people,” Blackwell said.
He said he was a regular at a club that Benson owned on N. Lumpkin Road called New Visions. It was a Country Western club that the singer had turned into an African-American venue. It attracted people from all over the region.
Blackwell said he had lunch with Benson last week at the Royal Cafe. Benson complained of complications with diabetes, and said the doctors were considering amputating one of his legs, Blackwell said.
“I’m very sad about it, because we’re in a similar business, and you don’t want to lose anybody you’ve known that long,” he said of his friend’s death.
Jim Martin, a managing partner at PMB Broadcasting, said he and Benson go way back. They met while both selling cars in the 1960s, and remained friends. “He taught me how to play a particular card game one time back in the olden days,” Martin said with a chuckle.The game, called “skin”, bonded the two men, along with a love for music. Martin was a regular at Benson’s nightclub. He also played golf with him, and described Benson as a tremendous golfer.
“He would come in from time to time and we would sit down and talk 20, 30 minutes about the old days, this, that and the other,” Martin said Tuesday. “He was a lot of fun. Always had something fun to talk about, and always had an angle. I enjoyed him, and he was always welcome.”
Robert Anderson, one of Benson’s golfing partners, is executive director of the Liberty Theater. He said he first met him on a golf course, and he organized several tournaments.
“That was Jo Jo’s main thing, putting a deal together, putting on a show,” he said. “He was a showman from day one.
Benson lived an eventful life marked by many twists and turns.
In 1979, he was seriously wounded in a Phenix City shooting at an apartment at 1523 A 12th Ave. Heavily armed, ski-masked gunmen killed Cliff Anderson, 63, and wounded Benson and Benjamin Jordan, 49, while trying to rob a high stakes card game. About 40 people were crammed into the three-room, cinderblock duplex when the shooting occurred, according to the Ledger-Enquirer.
In 1999, Benson released an album titled “Reminiscing in the Jam Zone,” which was “among the finest soul albums of the year - indeed the decade,” according to Living Blues magazine. In 2001, he released another album titled “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha.”
Anderson said Benson recently fell on hard financial times, and would often ask for help. He last saw him this summer at the Oxbow Meadows Golf Course.
“He gave me one of his CDs that he had made, something that he’d done new,” he said. “We talked a little while, and he asked me did I want him to come to the Liberty and do a show for me. And, of course, I always say ‘yes.’ But we never put the deal on paper, so we never did it.”
In a book titled “The Big Eddy Club,” Benson reflected on his life in Columbus.
“A lot of people ask me why I stay,” he said. “Well, I was raised in Phenix City, and more than that, I don’t want to go in for that big-city stuff, gangs and s---. At the end of the day, Columbus is a place to sleep, lay down and rest. Most of the time I don’t get no trouble.”