Passed away March 6, 2018
Up until a few months ago, he was still playing Ellington’s composition “Come Sunday” and the hymn “How Firm a Foundation.” Someone else will play those songs at his funeral Friday. Mr. Spaulding died Feb. 22 of congestive heart failure at age 95. The Wilkinsburg man was known for his seriousness at the keyboard. “Smiling ain’t what you’re paying for,” he would say. Yet the joy he created at the keyboard sounded from his heart, and it never left him. Harry Clark, president of the African American Jazz Society, recalled how Mr. Spaulding would close out every reunion of Local 471 of Black Musicians of the American Federation of Musicians “He needed assistance to move, but when he sat down at the piano, all that went away. He played magnificently.” Mr. Spaulding was equally proud of his “real” job. For more than 40 years, he was a technician for Baldwin Piano Co., and the only African-American one. “In the 1950s, for an African American man to go into a white home — especially if the man was not home — was unheard of,” said his daughter, Simone Spaulding Cephas. “He had to tread very lightly.” A longstanding member of the American Guild of Organists — where again he was the only African American — Mr. Spaulding was famous for his humility and strong belief in passing on what he knew to successive generations. All six of his children took piano lessons and so did many of his grandchildren. “I played piano because of Pap-Pap,” said granddaughter Tara Burnham Smith of Middletown, Del. “Watching him play, you can’t resist that fever catching you.” Her mother, Georgette Burnham of Valley Forge, recalled using the marble hearth of the living room fireplace as a stage when she would sing along with her father at the baby grand piano. Since he tuned pianos for the likes of Liberace and The Temptations, he got the girls tickets and sometimes backstage passes for their Pittsburgh concerts. “Most African-Americans didn’t have that opportunity in the 1970s,” Ms. Cephas said. George H. Spaulding was born Nov. 22, 1922, in Asheville, N.C., and played the organ in his father’s church at age 10. After his family moved to Elizabeth City, N.C., he began traveling with older musicians to Virginia and other states. He moved to Pittsburgh in 1941 and was enrolled in New York’s famed Juilliard School when he was drafted into the Army. He was assigned to the Special Services, stationed in Algeria, and played at receptions for Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. When he returned to Pittsburgh, he joined Leroy Brown and his Brown Buddies, mainstays of the local jazz scene in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Mr. Spaulding said his was the first black band to play regularly at the Hollywood Show Bar on Sixth Street, Downtown. Before that, black bands could play at establishments above Grant Streets and in parts of the North Side, Homewood and Wilkinsburg. Most other dance halls, clubs, parties and such were the domain of the white musicians’ union. Black musicians were paid $50 to $60 for four or five hours of work, much less than white musicians. In 2012, Mr. Spaulding was inducted into the Manchester Craftsman Guild’s Pittsburgh Jazz Legends and interviewed by the Smithsonian Institution on Pittsburgh jazz history. He is survived by six children: Penelope Calloway of Paramount, Calif., Dr. Frederick Harris of Atlanta, Teranell Kirksey of Swissvale, Simone Spaulding Cephas of Wilkinsburg, Georgette Burnham of Valley Forge and Beverly Johnson of San Jose, Calif. He had 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Visitation is from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday, with Masonic services from 6 to 8 p.m. at Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Homewood. Visitation also will be from 10 a.m. until noon Friday at the church, followed by the funeral. Burial will be in Restland Memorial Park in Monroeville. Kevin Kirkland: email@example.com or 412-263-1978.