Gus Greenlee

Owner of the Legendary Crawford Grill and the Pittsburgh Crawfords

Gus Greenlee was a businessman, politician, sportsman, and numbers banker who founded the Crawford Grill Jazz clubs in Pittsburgh.  The two Crawford Grills located in the Hill District were national epicenters for jazz from the 1920s through 2003.  The Crawford Grills were among the top jazz clubs in the world in the category of Birdland and Minski’s in New York, Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago, and the Lighthouse in San Francisco.   Both clubs where major centers for African American social and cultural life in Pittsburgh.

Crawford Grill

The first Crawford Grill club began as a hotel called the Leader House.  It stood on the corner of Crawford Street and Wylie Avenue where Crawford Square now sits. Pittsburgh jazz pioneer Louis Deppe’s band performed at the Leader House in the 1920’s with its young pianist Earl Hines.  Gus Greenlee purchased the building in 1930 and renamed it the Crawford Grill.  The building was almost a full city block long with three floors.  The main room on the second floor had a central elevated revolving stage.  The third floor housed the exclusive “Club Crawford” an insider’s only club where Greenlee and his business associates held court.  During its hey day top jazz musicians such as Louie Armstrong , Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne and Dizzie Gillespie headlined there along with Pittsburgh’s own stars Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, Roy Eldridge, Mary Lou Williams, and Erroll Garner.  Big Band swing musicians who played concerts at the Roosevelt Theater in the Hill and at Stanley and other theaters in downtown Pittsburgh came to the Grill after their shows for all night jam sessions.  Members of the big bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, and Fletch Henderson could be heard battling in jam contests at the Grill with Pittsburgh’s legendary jazzmen. 

As the Grill welcomed both white and black music fans, it was a meeting spot for all jazz lovers.  Steel workers from Homestead and wealthy suburbanites from Fox Chapel mingled together clothed in their best outfits to enjoy the great jazz and lively social scene of the Crawford Grill.   Crawford Grill number 1 was destroyed in a fire in 1951 leaving only a burnt out shell.   Gus Greenlee died the following year.  The building was demolished in 1959 when the Wylie Avenue business and cultural center was tragically destroyed in the name of “urban renewal” to make way for the construction of the Civic Arena.

Greenlee along with his numbers partner Joseph Robinson opened Crawford Grill No. 2 in 1943 on the corner Wylie Avenue and Elmore Street a few blocks up the hill from the original Crawford Grill.   After Greenlee's death in 1952, Robinson and his son Buzzy moved their numbers operation  to the front office of number 2.  The Crawford Grill #2 building built in 1917 was a narrow 20 foot wide shotgun structure with a raised 11-by-11-foot stage on one side divided by a narrow aisle from the bar on the other side.  It was a small space that held 100 to 200 people.  There was no room for dancing.   It was all about the music.  William “Buzz” Robinson booked the acts for the club.  He brought in jazz legends Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Cannonball Aderly, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine, George Benson, Ahmad Jamal, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Max Roach, J. J. Johnson, Eric Dolphy, Elvin Jones, Slide Hampton, Ray Brown, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Walt Harper, Harold Betters, Dakota Staton, Jon Hendricks, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley and Tommy Turrentine, Horace Silver, and many more.  The club drew a racially mixed audience that included blue collar workers and members of Pittsburgh’s professional and business elites such as Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell,  the Rooneys, the Kaufmanns, and the young playwright August Wilson.  Out of town visitors such as Ethel Kennedy and Martin Luther King stopped in the Grill.  Business fell off after the Martin Luther King riots in 1968, as whites became afraid to come to the Hill and the African American middle class moved out.  But the Grill continued to operate until 2002.  The building now sits empty bereft of the scared sound of jazz once played there.

Gus Greenlee opened a third Crawford Grill No. 3 in 1948 in the Northside Manchester neighborhood, at the corner of Bidwell Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.   Not as popular as it’s predecessors on the Hill, it was closed in 1955.  A fourth venue “Crawford Grill on the Square" opened in 2003 at Station Square, but it closed in 2006.

Gus Greenlee, born a log cabin in Marion, North Carolina in 1893, migrated to the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1916 after attending a year of college.  He worked as a shoeshine boy, steel mill worker, and then bought a taxicab.  During World War I he served overseas in 1918 as a machine gunner in the 367th Army Division.  Hit with shrapnel at the battle of Verdun he was discharged in 1919.  Back in the states he became an entrepreneur. During prohibition he operated a bootlegging business selling whiskey from his taxi.   1926, Greenlee and his partner William “Woogie” Harris introduced the numbers game to Western Pennsylvania.   Taking numbers bets and sports wagers his operation took in nearly $25,000 a day.  The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported that Greenlee’s numbers operation employed 500 people who ran a hundred numbers banks, each with its own territory.  Greenlee opened his first club the Paramount Club in 1922 on Wylie Avenue where he employed an orchestra and ran a musical booking agency.  It was closed down twice by the Pittsburgh Police.  He later opened the Workingmen’s Pool Hall on Fullerton Street and the Sunset Café. 

With his large cash holdings Greenlee became the leading banker in the Hill giving mortgages and business loans to members of the African American community who were denied credit by white bankers.  He was also a philanthropist who helped his friends and neighbors by paying for college tuition, medical bills, and helping them out with monthly bills.  He gave turkeys to families at Thanksgiving and ran a soup kitchen during the Great Depression. Greenlee also provided funding to local hospitals and the NAACP.  In 1948 he was named Businessman of the Year.  Today Greenlee’s numbers business is run by the Pennsylvania Lottery to benefit senior citizens.

Greenlee was also a sportsman.  He owned a stable of boxers that included the first black light heavyweight champion, John Henry Lewis.  In 1930 at the urging of its players Greenlee purchased the semi-pro baseball team the Crawford Colored Giants.   The George Steinbrenner of his day he signed the top stars of the Negro leagues legends Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell.  Joining the Negro Leagues in 1932 the Crawfords won the black National League championship in 1935 and 1936.  The 1935 team fielded five Baseball Hall of Fame players.  Enraged that his players were not permitted to use the Forbes Field dressing rooms, he built Greenlee Field in 1932, the first black-owned baseball park in America.  Located at 2500 Bedford Avenue in the Hill the park had 7,500 seats and lights.  Built at a cost of $100,000, the park also hosted black college football games, boxing matches, and other sporting events.  In 1933 Greenlee organized the annual Negro League all-star baseball game that became the popular high-light of the baseball season.   The East-West Classic played in Chicago drew over 50,000 fans sometimes more than major league games.  Greenlee also founded the Negro National League serving as its president for five seasons.  Losing eight of his best players to the Dominican Republic team and losing money on a heavily played number, Greenlee sold the baseball team after the 1938 season.  The city of Pittsburgh purchased Greenlee Field from Gus for only $38,000 to tear it down to for the “urban renewal” Bedford Dwellings housing project. 

Being a nationally known sports owner and powerful gaming and business leader in Pittsburgh, Gus Greenlee was known as “M. Red”, “Mr. Big” and “The King of the Hill”.  He died in 1952 at only age 55.  The victories of his teams at Greenlee’s Field, the glory of great jazz at the original Crawford Grill, and the vibrant cultural center of the lower Hill were felled by the wrecking ball of “urban renewal”. 

Gus at the Crawford Grill
Crawford Grill Number 1 - Waiting for the Wrecking Ball
Crawford Grill Number 2
Dr. Nelson Harris on the Crawford Grill #2 Stage
Greenlee Field