An Atlanta businessman who admired the legendary Jo Jo Benson as a teenager has launched an online fundraising campaign to ensure the R&B entertainer receives a proper funeral.
Ricky Steele Jr., 62, started the fundraiser on Saturday after contacting Benson’s daughter, Josette McCoy, and learning that the family was trying to raise funds for the funeral and burial.
Benson, named Joseph Hewell at birth, died at a Motel 6 on Victory Drive a week ago. He was 76 and died of natural causes, according to the Muscogee County Coroner’s Office.
He left behind five grown children and a “host of grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” according to McCoy, his youngest daughter.
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Steele said the online account, at www.gofundme.com/Jo-Jo-Benson, had raised $900 dollars by Monday evening. Mayor Teresa Tomlinson was one of the first to donate, giving $100.
The family needs “roughly $10,000 for the plot, the casket, the whole nine yards, to do a reasonable ceremony for Mr. Benson,” said Steele, chief development officer at Hunter Technical Resources in Atlanta. “We’re not talking a lot of money in my opinion. If you break it down, it’s 100 people giving $100, or 400 folks giving $25, and enough money is raised and we can have a proper homecoming for Mr. Benson. That seems to me to be very reasonable, but it’s a numbers game and we have to make a lot of people aware.”
Benson, a Phenix City native, was an American R&B artist who sang background for the legendary Chuck Willis, and associated with such musical greats 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.” The duo received a Grammy nomination for “Pickin’ Wild Mountain Berries” in 1969.
In an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, McCoy said her father was a good man who didn’t deserve to die the way he did. She said he had been on a pacemaker for about two years, and died from heart failure.
“He had 30 percent use of his heart left and he just basically passed away Tuesday morning,” said McCoy, a police officer in Atlanta. “What hurts me most is how my dad was found. He was staying in the hotel because of his pride. He didn’t want to stay with anybody else. He wanted to handle it on his own. Ever since his heart failure, he hadn’t been able to do what he had been doing like being an entrepreneur and stuff, because he was sickly. So, ever since then his finances went down hill.”
She said relatives begged to help him, but he wanted to be self-reliant, and always thought he was going to make a comeback. She said the family hasn’t been able to find any insurance for her father. Prior to the GoFundMe account, they had already opened a Wells Fargo account to raise money.
“Our whole thing is just trying to do him the right way because he gave a lot to Columbus,” she said. “We’re going to try to give him the best homecoming service that we can, and we’re trying to raise at least $10,000 for his funeral so we can cover everything.”
She said her father is at Battle and Battle Funeral Home, and funeral arrangements are still being made. She appreciates what Steele is doing to help the family.
“I’m very thankful,” she said. “I’m overwhelmed because I didn’t know which way to go, and he basically gave my dad a foundation for his funeral. Because I didn’t know anything about fundraising on the Internet. His Internet fundraiser has brought the majority of the money that we have now.”
Steele is the son of a prominent Columbus businessman, Richard “Dick” Steele Sr., who died in 2002. His younger brother, Robert Steele, played football at Hardaway High School and with the Dallas Cowboys, before becoming a Georgia state legislator in the 1980s.
Steele said he first met Benson in 1969 as a teenager working at the Shell Gas Station next to the Ralston Hotel on 12th Street. He washed Benson’s Cadillac on a regular basis, and one day Benson provided him with the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I asked him, ‘Who’s playing at your club tonight, Mr. Benson?’ and he said ‘Archie Bell and the Drells from Houston, Texas,” Steele recalled Monday. “I said ‘Oh my gracious. I love Archie Bell and the Drells.’ He said, ‘You want to come?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Steele said he accepted the invitation and he and his friends began visiting Benson’s club regularly.
“I was 17-years-old not 21, and it wasn’t the kind of club that 17-year-old white kids from the Clubview district went to late at night hardly,” he said. “But he was that kind of guy. Just a very friendly, very kind person. He had no reason to be kind to me. He just was a nice person.”
Steele said he also spent time with Benson in the late 1970s after Steele started a limousine business with his brother and another partner. “Jo Jo did shows back in those days and we’d always do limousines for him,” he said.
Steele said he was saddened by news of Benson’s death last week, and decided to reach out to the family.
“I love music and I think most of the rhythm and blues artists of the 60s and 70s really were not treated very fairly by the promoters and record labels,” he said. “I just wanted to help.”