Illinois fiddler and bluegrass promoter George Portz passed away on January 9, 2023, from a heart attack, just two days after his last performance – at the Missouri Area Bluegrass Committee’s (MABC) Winter Festival, Eureka. He was 70 years old.
Since 1969, when Portz won the Illinois State Fiddling Championship, he became one of the nation’s leading fiddlers and promoters.
George Perry Portz was born on October 17, 1952, in Granite City, IL into a family of fiddlers, and had a fiddle in his hands before he could walk or talk.
At the young age of 16 he won the Illinois State Open Fiddle Championship, becoming the youngest State Champion in the United States. His grandfather, Perry Biggs – after whom he established the Perry Biggs Memorial Fiddle Contest – won the Illinois State Senior Division Championship that same year (1969). They became the nation’s only grandfather-grandson combo of champions.
He won another Illinois State Championship (in 1987) and overall was a five-time Illinois State Fair Fiddle Champion, seven-time Western Illinois Fiddle Champion, and was the 1981 National Open Fiddle Champion of United States. Portz won more than 130 first place titles and amassed over 300 trophies.
In the years that followed, Biggs’s daughter, (Portz’s mother) Kathaleen, won the Ladies Division at the Illinois State contest and his son, Jason, was placed in the Junior Division. They appeared at many events and contests billed as the nation’s only four generations of fiddlers.
Also, his daughter, Kaitlin, began competing in 1997, adding many more awards to the family collection. George’s other son, Justin, is an accomplished songwriter and musician whose band, The Gloaming, received a recording contract after winning a Battle of the Bands in 2005 hosted by Pop’s Blue Moon and 12 Bar Studios of St Louis, Missouri.
In 1970, Portz was asked to be the fiddler for Jeff Cook & The Grasscutters, a St Louis bluegrass group (making his debut as a full-time member in a band), and performed locally with them for about a year.
Cook was the first President of the newly formed MABC and a DJ with his own radio show on KDNL, which provided the opportunity for live appearances on the radio that gave Portz more exposure around the Missouri and Illinois area.
He also filled-in for various area groups, including with local music legend Dub Crouch, who was viewed as the Bill Monroe of the St Louis Bluegrass music scene, and made friends while jamming with a lot of other musicians.
So, by 1971, he formed his own band, The South County Bluegrass Ramblers. While performing with this group, he became acquainted with Don Brown & The Ozark Mountain Trio, and he became part of that band, replacing Bobby Puckett as their fiddle player. Portz stayed with them from August 1971 through to the end of May 1973.
As Brown’s group performed more for festivals, Portz was able to keep his own band going as well, since they just did local shows, such as homecomings, county fairs, and other annual events in the two state area.
Subsequently, he joined The Goins Brothers, playing bass. His debut show with the Goins Brothers was on June 10, 1973, and thereafter he toured with them extensively on the festival circuit and elsewhere for the next two years. The following month Portz went into theJessup Recording Studio with Melvin and Ray Goins, Ralph “Joe” Meadows, and Harley Gabbard to cut tracks for what was the Goins Brothers first all-gospel album.
The Goins Brothers – Six Hours On The Cross
from God Bless Her, She’s My Mother (Jessup MB-146)
The same individuals did an all-instrumental LP for Meadows.
In July of 1973, Portz, along with Melvin Goins, played with Bill Monroe at the White House for then-President Richard Nixon and, earlier that day, at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival.
During the 1970s he appeared on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry numerous times, with The Goins Brothers and with Bill Monroe.
After his stint with the brothers ended Portz left Kentucky and returned to Illinois, where with George and Paul Brake, another well-known name in the area’s bluegrass community, started playing music together with some other musicians. When they performed on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River (generally booked by Paul Brake) they were billed as the Bluegrass Limited, and on the Illinois side of the river (mainly booked by Portz himself), they were billed as George Portz and Friends.
Around about the spring of 1975 Portz joined the North Country Bluegrass Band as a fiddler. Other members of the group included Merle Lawson (banjo), Devra Lawson (bass), and George Colclasure, (guitar).
Eventually, Portz focussed on his own band, and after making a concert appearance in 1979 at Southwestern Illinois College, Belleville, they became known as George Portz & the Friends of Bluegrass.
For over 40 years they made over 2,000 appearances, performing throughout southwest Illinois and eastern Missouri and recorded a handful of self-released albums. With Portz an energetic on-stage presence, the Friends of Bluegrass played a fiery blend of bluegrass roots with traditional Irish and Louisiana bayou/Cajun, Country and Gospel music that entertains audiences of widely varying ages.
George Portz & the Friends of Bluegrass – bluegrass gospel worship service (Salem In Ballwin United Methodist Church, Ballwin, Missouri)
George Portz (fiddle); David Dalton (lead vocals and rhythm guitar); Dave Montgomery (harmony vocals and lead guitar); Gene Hall (banjo); and Kathie Pohlman (harmony vocals and bass).
One prestigious event occurred in 1986, during Ronald Reagan’s second term as President, when the Friends of Bluegrass band performed for him at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield.
In 1997 Portz teamed up with Zane Prosser, a St. Louis, Missouri-area bluegrass artist, and released a CD entitled Together at Last. Prosser had previously been a member of Portz’s group and of 1980s band The Over The Hill Gang.
Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine
from the CD Portz & Prosser – Together at Last
Wil Maring, singer, highly acclaimed songwriter, and well-travelled touring musician from southern Illinois, feels his influence strongly …..
“I’d say that for many, many people, in the Illinois and Missouri area, George was the introduction to the world of old-time and bluegrass style fiddle music. He was an institution around here, since he ran almost all the fiddle contests. I started going to his contests around 1980 and played back up guitar for the fiddlers. I love playing rhythm for others; I remember seeing teenaged Alison Krauss and Andrea Zonn at the same contests, who have gone on to become famous. George also organized music festivals, offered musicians like myself places to play here close to home. His level of energy and enthusiasm for the music down to the very end was always astounding and inspiring. If everyone could pick a way to go, I would pick the way George went out, in a moment of rest after doing something he totally loved.”
Portz mentored and taught over 100 young folks in his music room in Shiloh, Illinois, teaching them without ever charging a fee for doing this.
One of his proudest achievements was seeing one of his former students, Alison Krauss, perform on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, and becoming a household name in the process. She gave him credit for giving her the start she needed in the music industry by thanking him on her debut album, Too Late To Cry.
Made a Kentucky Colonel in 2013 by the State of Kentucky for his contributions to traditional music, Portz recently received a Legacy Award from State of Illinois Department of Aging in recognition of his efforts in preserving, promoting, and perpetuating bluegrass and other American music traditions. This is the state’s highest honour.
Over 40-plus years Portz organized a considerable number of fiddle contests, amounting to over 200 in all. His first was back in 1979, held at the American Legion in O’Fallon, IL (after a couple of years this venue could not support the crowd size of the event. Hence, he decided to move it to the KC Hall in O’Fallon). This event will continue perpetually, at his request, as the George Portz Memorial Fiddle Contest and Bluegrass Show (this year’s date is April 15, 2023).
Additionally, he had long-running contests in Murphysboro, IL (started in 1980); in Patoka, IL – The Perry Biggs Memorial Fiddle Contest (1981); and at the Madison County Fair in Highland, IL (which ran for 20 years from 1977 through to 1997). Also, Portz originated and co-ordinated one at the Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site near Chester, IL (1989) – moved 11 years ago to Festus, MO, and re-named the Festus Missouri Traditional Music Festival
Ex-wife Kathie Pohlman remembers some moments in their 40-year long musical adventure together …
“One particular jam that George was invited to in the Winter of 1976 was a Sunday afternoon session at Wayne Lanter’s Lebanon home. Wayne was an English Professor at BAC College, later Southwestern Illinois College (SWIC). While jamming, Wayne asked George if he could get a group of bluegrass pickers together for a show on the final day (Sunday) of BAC’s Spring 1977 Fine Arts Festival.
That first year’s show featured 10 of the area’s old-time fiddlers and area musicians playing along with them. Our Bluegrass Show consisted of George on fiddle, Zane Prosser on guitar, Paul Brake on mandolin, Dean Crowe on banjo, and Jerry Whitener on bass.
When introducing the bluegrass portion of the program, the MC asked George what the name of his group was, and George said they were a ‘bunch of his bluegrass friends’… from that point on, the band became known as George Portz & his Friends of Bluegrass.
Throughout the 46 years, we’ve had many outstanding performers grace our stage; such as 14 year old Alison Krauss and her new band Union Station (her band’s first performance), George’s former band mate from the Goins Brothers, Joe Meadows; The Lost Kentuckians; Corrina Logston & Family; Illinois State Harmonica Champions Cliff Patterson and later Matt McElroy; harmonica champion Mel Creasey (who received a standing ovation that night); award-winning fiddler Liesl Schoenberger; The Worthington Family; The Moore Family; The Baker Family of Birch Tree, MO, and so many more.
Our SWIC College Roots of Bluegrass Show we believe is the longest continuous running music show of any college in the nation!”
George Portz & Friends of Bluegrass
Orange Blossom Special
Frank Ray, the leader of Missouri-based Cedar Hill, confessed ….
“It was very sad news about George Portz. I knew him for a little over 50 years. He was a very energetic person as well as a good guy. Not to mention a very good fiddle player.”
Zach Hardesty was a member of the Friends of Bluegrass from 2009 …
“I spent 11 years on stage with George, playing the music that he loved so dearly. From the early days of playing in his banjo contests, to then hiring me as his regular banjo player, he gave me a chance, and he definitely helped shape who I am today as a banjo picker. While his show didn’t fit the typical ‘bluegrass festival’ circuit, George was one of the busiest pickers in the St. Louis area, and has one of largest and most dedicated followings of any band I’ve ever seen. He has introduced bluegrass music to countless people who otherwise might not have ever gotten the chance, or taken a chance, to hear it. Playing music with George has taken me all over Missouri and Illinois to countless county fairs, town/church picnics, concerts, and other venues… some that have remained on his schedule throughout the years, and some that have not. Many of his fans and followers have become like family. George was an inspiration, a mentor, and a teacher to literally hundreds of fiddle students. He helped countless youth discover the fiddle. I don’t believe he even charged for fiddle lessons. His legacy will absolutely never be forgotten.”
George Portz & Friends of Bluegrass have played shows with many other well-known musicians, including John Hartford, Johnny Gimble, Riders in the Sky, ‘Pappy’ Wade Ray, Michael Martin Murphy, Patsy Montana and Rhonda Vincent.
from the CD George Portz & His Friends of Bluegrass (according to Zach Hardesty, Portz played this “at mini funerals.”)
R.I.P., George Portz
Visitation will be held on Thursday, January 19, 2023, from 4:00 p.m – 8:00 p.m. at the Schildknecht Funeral Home & Cremation Services in O’Fallon, IL.
Funeral Services for George will be held on Friday, January 20th, with a brief visitation from 12:00 to 1:00 p.m. at Shiloh United Methodist Church in Shiloh, IL, with the Funeral Service commencing at 1:00 p.m. at the church, followed by graveside service immediately after at Shiloh Valley Cemetery, opposite.
Memorial donations may be made to Bank of O’Fallon, c/o “George Portz Memorial Scholarship Fund,” 901 South Lincoln Avenue; O’Fallon, Illinois 62269.
We are extremely grateful to Kathie Pohlman for her considerable help in completing this obituary.
Thank you, Walter Volz, DJ KDHX public radio, for the MP3s.
- Grandpa Biggs’ Fiddle Favorites (cassette, 1988, re-released on CD, 2021)
- Champion Fiddler George Portz “Jest Jammin” with Friends (2009)
George Portz & His Friends of Bluegrass
- George Portz & His Friends of Bluegrass (2004)
- Volume 5 (2013)
- All Requests (2017)
Portz & Prosser
- Together at Last (1997)
- Ralph Meadows And His Bluegrass Fiddle (Bluegras C 002, 1973)
The Goins Brothers
- God Bless Her, She’s My Mother (Jessup MB-146, July 1974)
- Bluegrass Blues / Hateful Thing (Jessup MB-147, 1974)
- Bluegrass Blues (Plantation PLC-67 1984) (cassette)
- Harmonica: Country Harmonica Favorites (2000)
Portz has played fiddle on other Mel Creasey releases; for Cliff Patterson (two or three times); and with local fiddler, The Reverend Fred Baue (once) also.
In addition, George Portz & His Friends of Bluegrass can be seen on a DVD of the Traditional Music Festival.