Over the course of a 46-year career, with more than 30 albums (one triple-platinum, three platinum, and five gold) and many more bootlegs, George Benson has painstakingly climbed the ladder of success, leaving his mark at every rung. From street-corner crooner to lead singer/accompanist of a doo-wop group to sideman to band leader to coveted session guitarist to jazz great to pop superstar, he has paid all his dues and then some and has come to enjoy his status as one of the most successful and respected all-around musicians on the planet.
Benson's voice is a gift from God. His guitar playing is self-taught--the result of instinct, intense observation, and dedication. He is a player of supreme taste, unbelievable speed, and warm tone, with a sensitive touch calibrated to whatever emotion the moment requires. His pride, spirituality, and hunger for a challenge, combined with his passion for all music, enable George not only to fit into any musical situation but also to contribute something distinctly his own. To hear the first few notes of any of his records or solos is to instantly recognize it as a George Benson performance.
More than anything, George Benson is an entertainer--a man with a lot of soul and an unquenchable thirst to swing, a man who never, ever forgets that people pay good money to come to his concerts and have a funky, good time. The onstage cover photo of George with his arms outstretched that graces his album Weekend In L.A. should have included this caption: "I am here to give you 200 percent of the best of me, and you are going to love every minute of it!"
Benson was born March 22, 1943, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He would spend the first 18 years of his life there, running in its streets and absorbing its energy. Though neither of his parents were professional musicians, music played an essential role in their lives. His father, Charles Evans, played trombone and dabbled at piano and drums. And his mother, Erma Benson, was a good singer.
At the age of six, during a Fourth of July street dance, the budding ham hopped up onstage, burst into song, and stole the show. Soon after he was nicknamed Little Georgie Benson--The Kid From Gilmore Alley, and he could be found wailing on street corners, Saturday-morning radio shows, and anywhere else he could grab an audience by crooning rhythm & blues hits of the day. Ivory Joe Hunter's "I Need You" was an early favorite.
When George was seven his mother met and married Thomas Collier. Collier was a handyman skilled in carpentry, plumbing, and electrical wiring. His trade would be of great benefit to the Bensons, who up until then had been reduced to living in the former maid's quarters in back of the hotel. Fortunately, around the time Collier had entered their lives the people who had taken over the premises could no longer manage it. So George's mother, her two sisters, and her brother converted the Benson Hotel's three floors and basement into a home, where all of the families could live. At one point there were 11 kids under the roof. "But we were happy," George says, "because it had electricity."
In what little spare time he had, Collier was a jazz-guitar enthusiast, with a particular fondness for Charlie Christian, who worked with Benny Goodman's band. Recordings of Christian's, such as "Good Enough To Keep (Air Mail Special)," "Solo Flight," and "Seven Come Eleven," would be the first that little George would hear. And as soon as the Bensons were back in their rightful home, George's stepfather ran to the pawnshop to get his electric guitar and amp out of hawk. "It was about dusk when he brought it home," George remembers. "He plugged it in, started playing, and that was my introduction to the electric guitar--an amazing event." George kept his ear pressed to the speaker in wonder before finally falling asleep.
The next morning George begged his stepfather to give him lessons, but his hands were too small. So he had to settle for a ukulele. Soon the boy was out on the corner, scoring pocket change. "My cousin happened to be with me when people came up and asked, 'Can you play that thing?'" George says. "I'd jump right on it and start singing. He'd see folks going in their pockets, so he took his baseball cap off, and the people filled it with money. We started doing that every night."
Two years later George's stepfather bought him his first guitar--an acoustic instrument that George describes as a $14.95 special.
Benson's local renown caught the attention of a talent scout. In 1953, at the age of ten, Little Georgie Benson made his first recordings, with a seven-piece band, for RCA's rhythm & blues label, X Records (later renamed Groove Records). Of the four sides he cut, one single, produced by Leroy Kirkland, was released: "She Makes Me Mad" b/w "It Should Have Been Me." The latter was made famous the next year by Ray Charles; it was penned by Memphis Curtis, better known as saxophonist King Curtis, who played on George's session. Little Georgie's single flopped elsewhere, but the locals never stopped loving him.
Benson was so hot, he had a manager--a 19-year-old kid named Eugene "Gene" Landy. "Gene was a publicity hound," George says. "He wanted me on every radio and TV show he could get, so my schooling suffered." When George's folks got wind of this, coupled with the failure of his major-label single, they made the tough decision to pull him out of the music business.
George remembers, "I would have been in his hands, and he was just a kid himself." Landy did wind up being very successful as a psychologist, whose clients included some of the biggest names in movies and music, most notably The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson.
Collier pawned George's guitar and put his music career on hiatus. During the next four years, he didn't have anything on which to practice, making his later development all the more awesome. During this directionless period, he grew restless, succumbed to peer pressure, and joined a gang, which led to an altercation that landed him in reform school for a sobering six-week stretch. The experience changed his life, and once he was released, George vowed never to return. But he needed something constructive to occupy his time. Clearly, it was going to be music.
He joined his cousin Nate Benson's group, The Altairs, a stand-up vocal quintet that took their moniker from the name of the North Star. George started out singing--mostly leads, of course. "We hired a guitar player," George says. "In that era every group had an instrumentalist behind them. Problem was, I had to show him everything. Every time he messed up a chord, I'd say, 'Let me see that thing' and show him how it goes. Then I'd turn around, and we'd all start back singing and dancing until he'd mess up again. The guys finally said, 'Why don't you just play it, man?' I didn't think I could sing, dance, and play guitar all at the same time. But they said, 'Oh, yes you can!'"
So The Altairs fired their guitarist. However, George couldn't afford the $50 it took to buy his own guitar. This is when his stepfather came to the rescue by building him an electric guitar from scratch--something he had never done before. George drew the design on brown paper. Then Collier carved the pattern out of George's mother's oak hope chest with a coping saw. They finished the body with formica. After throwing in some old tuning pegs, a fingerboard, strings, frets, and a pickup, the grand total for the homemade guitar was about 20 bucks. George's makeshift amplifier was the monitor component of an old tape recorder.
George managed to play the bass and melody lines on the guitar as well as sing and dance. The Altairs became the top act in the tri-state area of Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and Ohio. They won all the talent shows and even recorded the self-penned doo-wop single "Groovie Time" for Amy Records.
By the time he was 17, George was playing R&B and basic jazz finger-poppers with organ groups. It was at this time that he first heard alto-saxophone great Charlie Parker on record, and his ears were blown wide open to the seemingly endless possibilities of jazz.
George started crashing jam sessions, grabbing as many licks as he could from any musician who blew through town. A few people took time to show him little things. But George learned mostly by watching and listening. "On Saturdays," he says, "we bought any album with a guitar on the cover and stole everything we could off the records--cats like Grant Green and Hank Garland."
George started his first band, the George Benson All Stars, a quintet consisting of guitar, bass, drums, trombone, and baritone sax. They began gigging anywhere that would have them. Times were tough for bands. Folks preferred hearing their favorite hits on the jukebox. But George's All Stars prevailed, playing a jumpin' mix of danceable R&B and jazz--people music.
It was during this period (roughly 1960) that George encountered Wes Montgomery for the first time. Wes, who recorded and traveled with his brothers Monk on bass and Buddy on piano (and/or vibes) under the name The Mastersounds, already had a few albums to his name. In fact, word of Wes' abilities and unorthodox use of his right thumb were quickly becoming legendary in musician circles.
"When The Mastersounds came to Pittsburgh," George says, "I thought, I've heard this name Wes before. I thought he was a white guy, because people said he played finger-style, like the classical players--without a pick. Wes played with his thumb. As soon as I saw him, I knew he was the one everybody had been talking about. He was the baddest cat out there. I had never heard anything like that in all my life.
"The Mastersounds were playing at Crawford's Grill, a swing joint that was sophisticated and quiet. My group was playing right across the street at Mason's Bar & Grill. One night after I came to see them, Wes' brothers walked over to Mason's, 'cause the drinks were cheaper. It was a great hangout, with lots of pretty women, and the jukebox was nice, so it stayed packed all night long. We were in the back, playin' R&B. Buddy came over and said, 'You've got some good fingers. Ever thought about playing jazz?' I said, 'I ain't no jazz player, man.' Buddy said, 'You should try it.'
"As for Wes, he may have come over. I'm not sure. He was a real quiet guy. Plus, the ladies kept him busy--ladies were all over Wes all the time. He was the only guitar player I ever asked to show me something who said no. 'I can't teach you anything,' he told me. 'I'm too busy trying to learn myself.'"
In early 1963 another man came through Pittsburgh who would change George's life forever. It was organ great "Brother" Jack McDuff, who happened to be looking for a new guitarist. Nineteen-year-old George auditioned and got the gig. "Jack had a guy named Eddie Diehl playing guitar for him then," he says. "But he was more of an esoteric, traditional jazz player. Jack had been playing with Grant Green, so he wanted someone more in that category. I wasn't in either one of those cats' categories. But I leaned more toward the funk side. I got over with Jack, because I had been listening to Jimmy Smith's records with Thornel Schwartz on guitar. He was the king of that stuff. That's how I knew how to back up organs. Jack fell in love with me instantly. I wasn't a soloist yet, but I made him sound good."
George stayed with Jack for just under two years. One of his earliest performances was captured on McDuff's classic album, Live! (recorded June 5, 1963, at The Front Room in Newark, New Jersey), which FEATUREs the turntable hit "Rock Candy." Jack has said that George could not play the changes to a complete song at the time and had a limited concept of harmonic structure. He was hard on George, demanding that he either "play it or put it down." But a very prideful George, who didn't take kindly to embarrassment, was a swift study. Jammin' with Jack, George learned to fire up for solos in a short space of time, which would later serve him well as a session player who could deliver thrilling performances under the gun. An early example of this is George's performance on alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson's funk/jazz smash "Alligator Bogaloo," on Blue Note.
On the road with Jack, George encountered such greats as saxophonist John Coltrane and guitarists Kenny Burrell and Jim Hall. He also bumped into the Montgomery brothers again at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. "Buddy said, 'Ain't you that cat from Pittsburgh?'" George remembers. "I said, 'Yeah.' Buddy shook his head: 'I told you you could play jazz, man!'"
It was also during his tenure with Jack that George recorded his first album as a leader, 1964's The New Boss Guitar Of George Benson, with The Brother Jack McDuff Quartet. It contained the song "Shadow Dancers," a cool, moody Benson original. McDuff sat this one out, giving the spotlight to George, special guest Red Holloway on tenor, Ronnie Boykins on bass, and Montego Joe on drums. Driving back home after a gig, George was pleasantly surprised to find that "Shadow Dancers" had been adopted as a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, DJ's show-opening theme.
Around October of '65 George left Jack McDuff to start his own quartet, which FEATUREd Lonnie Smith on organ. When the group arrived in New York, the East Coast was experiencing a blackout. George, a major automobile enthusiast, remembers, "It was the only day in history you could drive from one end of Manhattan to the other with no traffic."
It was at this time that George befriended Timmie Rodgers, a top black comic of the day, who was known for his big eyes, clean routines, and signature saying, "Oh yeah, Oh yeah!" One night after hearing George's group at the Palm Cafe (just down from the Apollo on 125th Street in Harlem), Rogers told him, "I know a guy who would love you. The problem is he's down in Florida. But I'm headed down to play the Fountain Bleu [Hotel]. I'm gonna tell him about you, so be lookin' for him." On George's closing night at the Palm, that man came through the door. His name was John Henry Hammond, Jr.
Hammond was an heir to the Vanderbilt estate who dropped out of Yale University in 1931 to begin an unparalleled 50-year career in music. He was a reformer, a protester, and a lifelong civil rights advocate--a white man who served on the board of the NAACP. He was also a record producer, a respected tastemaker who championed and recorded everyone from Bessie Smith and Fletcher Henderson to Pete Seeger and Paul Winter. At the time he met George, Hammond was credited with discovering Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and Bob Dylan and would later do the same for Bruce Springsteen and the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan. Most importantly for Benson, John Hammond was the man who forced his brother-in-law, Benny Goodman, to audition black Texan Charlie Christian, instigating a revolution for the electric guitar's role in popular music.
"He tried to sign me right then and there on a napkin," George recalls of Hammond at the Palm. "He said, 'This is as good as a contract for Columbia Records.' My manager said, 'Don't sign nothin'!'" So on February 9, 1966, George, Lonnie Smith on organ, Ron Cuber on baritone sax, and Jimmy Lovelace on drums went to do what was called a "taped audition." "That meant if Hammond didn't like me," George explains, "he would just pay for the taping, which was, like, half of recording-session scale. But after we finished the first tune ('Clockwise'), he came flyin' out of the control room, screaming, 'This is no longer a taped audition. This is a recording session!'" The resultant album was The Most Exciting New Artist On The Jazz Scene Today: It's Uptown.
Crucially, George was signed to the label as a vocalist, not as a guitarist. "Columbia was a major corporation, so they weren't looking to sign guitar players. They were looking for Streisands, Beatles, and Supremes. So Hammond signed me as a singer, just like he'd done with [jazz guitarist] Kenny Burrell before me. I had to put at least one vocal on the album." Of the three vocals George cut for the 11-song It's Uptown, the Gershwins' "A Foggy Day" finds him in a swingin' mode, popularized at that time by such singers as Nancy Wilson.
On the instrumental side, It's Uptown showcases George in settings ranging from Spanish fringe to a spry waltz to the blues. A cover of "Ain't That Peculiar," Marvin Gaye's Motown smash that was just then descending from the top of the R&B chart, reflects Benson's R&B roots and instinct for crowd-pleasing. Benson and baritone man Cuber play the melody in tandem while the organ and drums groove away beneath them.
George's second Columbia album, The George Benson Cookbook, was cut with roughly the same group. It FEATUREs his nod to the great Jimmy Smith in a cover of Smith's '50s hit "Ready And Able." George explains, "It was one of the songs that made the organ just leap out in popularity. His version was awesome but so is ours." The next year George was captured at a live club date in Atlanta with Smith, which was released on Verve Records as The Boss.
George's two albums with Hammond marked a crucial time in his conceptualization as an artist. Benson told Joe Smith in his anthology of interviews, Off The Record: An Oral History Of Popular Music, "It gave me an identity. He realized I had other music in me--that I could play rhythm & blues, and some rock 'n' roll. But he said, 'Be known as a jazz musician first. It will be more lasting.'" Years later, in the LINER NOTES for 1981's The George Benson Collection, Hammond recalled his first meeting with Benson, stating, "He was the most technically proficient guitarist I have ever heard. A true ensemble artist and also an original."
Benson's growth as a jazz guitarist landed him a two-album deal with Verve. There he cut Giblet Gravy and Goodies, both produced by Esmond Edwards. From the February 1968 Gravy sessions comes a mellow bossa nova rendition of the torch standard "What's New," matching George with a to-die-for band consisting of Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Billy Cobham on drums, and Johnny Pacheco on congas.
Hancock and Carter were members of Miles Davis' classic '60s quintet. Within the same month that George recorded with them, he took part in a few experimental sessions with Miles' group, most notably "Paraphernalia" (from Miles In The Sky) and "Side Car II" (issued 11 years later on Circle In The Round). Any association with Miles, who was by then a living legend, instantly raised a musician's stock. Miles gave Benson a straight-from-the-hip tip, according to a story George shared with Guitar Player magazine in 1979: "Here we were trying to be super hip like Miles, and he's telling us, 'Hey, man, you know who you are, and I know who you are. You better learn how to make a living and get that money!'"
Miles' words couldn't have been more prophetic, because Benson's next label move was to Los Angeles' burgeoning A&M Records. It was Wes Montgomery--already making top-selling easy-listening/jazz records for the company--who urged copresident Herb Alpert to sign George with a soft-spoken but firm "That's the next cat." Herb sent his jazz confidante, Creed Taylor, to track George down.
"I still owe Wes for that," Benson says.
Had Wes lived, he and George would have been on A&M together. George shrugs off any suggestion that Wes knew he was going to die soon, instead musing that the master was simply giving a deserving youngblood a shot. "Wes was already established. He wasn't worried about what the next cat was doing; he was busy gigging and practicing every day. He was the Coltrane of guitar. I was the only guy he let sit in on his sets, though. He used to beg me, but I wouldn't want to. After you heard him, you wouldn't want to either. He'd say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, my friend is here. Come on up, George.' And he would make me play."
Wes Montgomery died on June 15, 1968, at the age of 43. George Benson's first A&M session occurred two months later and included a cover of Glenn Miller's "Chattanooga Choo Choo" that snatched the song from its swing origins and sent it down south in the heat of summertime. It FEATUREs Herbie Hancock on piano, saxman Buddy Lucas on harmonica, and an arrangement by Don Sebesky--the beginning of an important relationship. Benson's rendition was a highlight of his first A&M album, Shape Of Things To Come. It was produced by Creed Taylor, who was quietly formulating ideas for an empire of his own.
Unbeknownst to George, the photo on the album's back cover can be perceived as having a subliminal message. The shot is of George, shirtless as if naked, with his hands in an awkward position below his chin, which makes him look like he's being born--the next great guitarist to take up the torch from fallen forefather Wes.
George recorded two more albums for A&M, Tell It Like It Is and a then-obligatory nod to The Beatles, The Other Side Of Abbey Road. When Creed Taylor left to start his own CTI and Kudu Records labels, he took George with him.
Together with the hottest musicians of the day, George waxed a mixture of small ensemble originals and pop/rock covers, to many of which Taylor would have arrangers such as Don Sebesky and Eumir Deodato (who also recorded as leaders) add orchestrations. Among George's highlights as a sideman at CTI/Kudu were tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine's Sugar, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's First Light and Sky Dive, and Johnny "Hammond" Smith's Wild Horses Rock Steady.
Bowing to Taylor's history of producing jazz records that sold like pop records (more than 100,000 copies for the hottest ones), Benson initially made music according to Taylor's creed. Did he feel exploited? Yes. But as he told Julie Coryell and Laura Friedman in the '70s, "I was looking for that exploitation . . . someone who could do it with style . . . someone who had the ability to take the things I had to offer as a musician and turn them into a listenable, palatable thing for the public without taking away from me as an artist."
George's first album for CTI, 1971's Beyond The Blue Horizon, was an impressive guitar-bass-drums-organ-and-percussion set that includes a cover of Miles' "So What," Brazilian guitarist Luiz Bonfá's "The Gentle Rain," and three Benson originals. It was on George's next album, though, that things really began to get interesting.
"I brought the idea to Creed to do something with South American rhythms, because they worked well for me," George begins. "So I went home and wrote two songs [one was 'El Mar,' which introduced the world to Earl Klugh] and brought them in the next day." Taylor suggested Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," penned by the San Francisco band's lead singer, Grace Slick. "I had no idea they were talking about drugs in that song," George swears. "If I had, I probably wouldn't have recorded it." Hindsight aside, it was a good move for him. The recording reunited Benson with Hancock and Carter, and it FEATUREd brilliant coloring by South Brazilian singer/percussionist Airto Moreira and acoustic guitarist Jay Berliner. There are first-rate solos by Benson, Hancock, and Hubert Laws on flute, all wrapped in an evocative orchestral arrangement by Sebesky, who magically managed to both camouflage and enhance the hallucinogenic qualities inherent to the song. It earned Benson a Grammy® nomination.
After three more albums for CTI--1973's Body Talk (which expanded on his special relationship with Earl Klugh), 1974's Bad Benson (for which he went to Chicago and recruited the highly influential Phil Upchurch to be his rhythm guitarist), and 1976's Good King Bad (the discofied title track of which was the theme for a TV miniseries that netted him a Grammy)--George wanted more control over his own work.
Looking to make a much-needed improvement in the state of black music at Warner Bros. Records, the label snapped George right up. He was paired with staff producer Tommy LiPuma, who had been working at the label on jazz-tinged projects by then-new artists Michael Franks and Al Jarreau. In a July 1996 interview for Urban Network magazine, Benson reminisced, "The day after I signed, they took me downstairs to meet the people at the offices in Burbank. When I got to Tommy, he said, 'George, I heard you sing five years ago. I can't understand why nobody has taken advantage of your voice.' I thought, That's the guy I want to produce my next record."
For starters, LiPuma allowed George to record with his band, which included keyboardist Ronnie Foster, once a student of Jimmy Smith. Ronnie began gigging with George at age 15. "I'd get on a bus after school and meet him wherever," Ronnie laughs. George switched him from organ to Fender Rhodes electric piano and Minimoog synthesizer, then added Argentine keyboardist Jorge Dalto to counter him on acoustic piano and clavinet. For the bass chair, George stole Stanley Banks from singer Esther Phillips' road band. Phil Upchurch had a lock on the rhythm guitar slot. And drums on the road were handled by a revolving door of cats, including Dennis Davis, Jimmy Madison, and Marvin Chappell.
This band, minus the drummers, composed the heart of Benson's history-making, six-song Warner Bros. debut, Breezin'. They were joined by L.A.'s undisputed first-call drummer, Harvey Mason, and New York's undisputed first-call percussionist, Ralph MacDonald. These six gentlemen played so fluidly together, it was as if they were psychically in tune, and they remained with Benson for his next three albums.
"Breezin'" was composed by R&B great Bobby Womack, a singer who made early inroads in the music industry as both a writer and session guitarist (most notably on the Wilson Pickett hit "I'm In Love"). "Breezin'" was first recorded in 1970 by Hungarian guitarist Gabor Szabo for his album High Contrast, with Womack accompanying him on rhythm guitar. That session was for LiPuma's Blue Thumb Records imprint. It was LiPuma's genius to have George rerecord it and to have Upchurch, also an excellent bassist, reprise Womack's role. The icing on the cake was a tasteful arrangement by Claus Ogerman, the German orchestrator who had been a mainstay at Verve sessions in the '60s and, later, the right-hand man of Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. "Breezin'" was the LP's second single.
The first single, a cover of Leon Russell's melancholy ballad "This Masquerade," was a milestone. George was viewed as a jazz musician when he came to Warners, so five of the six songs on Breezin' were incredible instrumentals. "This Masquerade" was an inspired gamble. Interestingly, the ballad was brought to the attention of LiPuma by alto saxophonist David Sanborn, who had cut it on the demo that earned him his record deal at Warners (though Sanborn wouldn't officially record it until 20 years later, released on his CD Pearls). In '76 LiPuma took it to Benson, who was finally able to record the scat/guitar vocal ideas he had been perfecting on the road. "I wanted to do something that people wouldn't expect," George says of the technique. "I'd been doing it for years in concert, just not on mike at first."
The whole song was done in one take. No one could predict how phenomenal this would be--the comparisons to such heavyweights as Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway that it would inspire. That night it was just a magnificent moment of musical magic.
Alongside Benson's playing and singing and the beauty of the ensemble performance was the late Jorge Dalto's piano solo--among the most stunning contributions ever made by a sideman. "Jorge was a romantic and very dynamic," George reminisces. "He mastered all the moods between triple pianissimo and double forte. I loved pretty, so we got along well. Plus, Jorge had played behind many vocalists before me, so he was very effective at creating another story underneath the main story."
"This Masquerade," which was promoted with the early equivalent of a music video, blew the Breezin' album wide open. It earned airplay on adult contemporary, R&B, jazz, and Top 40 stations. Breezin' went on to be a triple platinum-seller and was the first album to simultaneously top Billboard's Jazz, R&B, and Pop charts. Benson became the darling of the critics' and readers' polls of magazines from Guitar Player and Down Beat to Playboy. And he impressed his fellow musicians, such as Stevie Wonder, who had him perform on "Another Star" from his landmark double-album, Songs In The Key Of Life. He even designed a line of jazz guitars for the Ibanez company--the small-bodied, arch-top GB-10 and the larger-bodied GB-20. Essentially, the entire music industry went George Benson-crazy.
And all of George's previous record companies took note. Within months of Breezin's March release, Columbia hauled out Benson Burner (a double-album of mostly leftovers), Polydor compiled Blue Benson (which includes "What's New" and his sole Verve vocal, "That Lucky Old Sun Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day"), A&M reissued The Other Side Of Abbey Road, and CTI dropped two all-new collections: Benson & Farrell (a co-led date with flutist Joe Farrell) and In Concert--Carnegie Hall.
The Carnegie Hall set (recorded January 11, 1975) included a killer rendition of "Summertime," a song George recorded up-tempo as a lark nine years before on It's Uptown. But here it's rendered rubato--slow and bluesy, as the Gershwins intended it--and FEATUREs all the vocal glory that Creed Taylor refused to nurture. Nobody called George's shots on the live gigs. Taylor overdubbed strings before releasing the live set, though, exacting his after-the-fact will to the very end. "I remember that night," George says of what should have been a magical evening--his night at the prestigious Carnegie Hall. "I was very mad to see the recording equipment rolling up. Creed didn't ask us nothin'. He just started making a record."
George's success as a singer opened the floodgates to a whole new world. Whereas the year before he was a guest on NBC-TV's The Midnight Special (an episode hosted by Glen Campbell), that year he hosted the show, dueting with Carlos Santana on "Breezin'" and a cover of Donny Hathaway's "Valdez In The Country!" While Breezin' is composed of five instrumentals and one vocal, its platinum-selling follow-up, 1977's In Flight, has four vocals and two instrumentals.
One of In Flight's vocals is "Nature Boy," which was clearly intended to establish George's artistic connection to the great Nat "King" Cole--a black man from another era who, like George, was a highly respected "jazz musician" who gained a much broader audience as a "pop vocalist." Thirteen years later George also recorded the Cole signature "Portrait Of Jennie," with an arrangement by England's Robert Farnon.
Nineteen seventy-seven also found George voicing what would become one of pop's most inspirational anthems, "The Greatest Love Of All," penned by Michael Masser & Linda Creed. The song took shape in Masser's home, when George rendered Linda Creed's lyric with unparalleled purity. Though his rendition is best known as the theme song for boxer Muhammad Ali's biopic, The Greatest, it was also performed as a ballet piece by the Dance Theatre Of Harlem on Sesame Street and by many aspiring singers aching to deliver a song that could move the masses with its healing message of self-love and faith. It certainly worked for Whitney Houston, who picked up the torch from George and earned a gold-seller in 1986 for her rendition, which topped the Pop chart for three weeks.
Next up for George was a double-live album, 1978's Weekend In L.A., recorded at The Roxy on Hollywood's Sunset Strip. The title is somewhat ironic, considering the album's big single was "On Broadway," a cover of The Drifters' hit from the summer of '63. Performing live and singing an old favorite inspired an especially passionate performance from Benson. He was on top of the world. As the Kid From Gilmore Alley who had become a superstar, George lived and felt, to his very soul, every syllable of the song's triumphant lyric.
This version is put to shrewd use in the film All That Jazz, a stylized biopic of dancer/choreographer Bob Fosse's life. Eight minutes of Benson's recording brilliantly mirrors the all-or-nothing ambitions of dancers during a grueling audition. It was also the linchpin of the film's trailer.
Another highlight of Weekend In L.A. is the irresistibly sunny "We All Remember Wes," a song written especially for George by Stevie Wonder. "Stevie had been coming to my concerts and promised to write me a song," he says. "He gave a tape to Ronnie [Foster] to give to me, and we loved it. It went straight into the set."
While Weekend In L.A. was going platinum, George toured Japan, Europe, and Australia, then was invited by President Jimmy Carter to be a FEATUREd soloist at the White House tribute to the 25th Anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival.
Another double-album, 1979's studio-rendered Livin' Inside Your Love, followed. It found Benson at a crossroads and would be the last album to FEATURE his history-making band and arrangements by Ogerman. In fact, the first single, "Love Ballad," was arranged by Mike Mainieri (best known as a vibist, who later formed the jazz fusion band Steps Ahead). The song is George's exhilarating cover of a cut that soul singer Jeffrey Osborne had made a hit in '76 as a member of the band L.T.D. L.T.D.'s "Love Ballad" (which was just that--a ballad) topped the R&B chart for two weeks. George's version--one of disco's last, most scintillating records--peaked at R&B #3, and it stands as a keen reconstruction, especially in the sheer elation of George's guitar/scat soloing.
With jazz purists frowning on his pop success, Benson had to make a decision. "Quincy Jones is the one who made me choose," Benson states. "He asked me, 'Do you want to make the greatest jazz album ever made or go for the throat?' In my mind, the greatest jazz album ever made is Charlie Parker With Strings. I haven't heard an improvisation that can touch 'Just Friends' yet. So I told Q, 'Let's go for the throat!'"
And so he did, with the 1980 album Give Me The Night--a historic project for a few reasons. First, it was the maiden voyage for super producer Quincy Jones' Qwest Records imprint. In the album's LINER NOTES, Q defined Qwest as "a place for people who don't put categories on music and can just enjoy the trip." Q defined George as "one of those unstoppable artists who has been a major force in toppling musical boundaries . . . He proves himself to be a singer of immense versatility and sensitivity who also plays a kind of guitar that has made him justly famous."
The second reason the union was historic is because the title track was George's first #1 R&B single. It was penned by Quincy's main man, Rod Temperton, a former member of the German soul group Heatwave, who had written a string of hits for Q-produced acts, including Michael Jackson, The Brothers Johnson, and Rufus. One Temperton trademark is bringing a swingin' jazz sensibility to a groove. Here he has Patti Austin singing counterpoint scats to Benson's parts. The song is among the best ever written about the magic of nightlife. George knew he had a hit when, while listening to the final mix at home, his kids ran in pleading, "Play it again, Dad!" "They had never asked me that before," he chuckles. Fifteen years later "Give Me The Night" was given an ethereal spin--as different from George's as his "Love Ballad" was to L.T.D.'s--by the divine Miss Randy Crawford.
The third historical note for Give Me The Night is that it nabbed Grammys that year in four categories. Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male went to the entire album. Best R&B Instrumental Performance went to the driving "Off Broadway," another cheeky-titled Temperton tune nailed by the stellar group of rhythm guitarist Lee Ritenour, bassist Louis Johnson, drummer John Robinson, keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, percussionist Paulinho DaCosta, and the Seawind horns. Best Instrumental Arrangement went to Benson's rendering of "Dinorah, Dinorah." And Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Male went to George for "Moody's Mood."
"Moody's Mood" is a classic three times over. It started in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1949, when James Moody recorded "I'm In The Mood For Love" on alto sax with a midsong piano break by Thore Swanerud. Moody's coolly impassioned instrumental rendition inspired singer Eddie Jefferson to make history by penning what would become the first renown "vocalese" composition, wedding words to every nuance of Moody and Swanerud's improvisations. A 1952 vocal recording by King Pleasure (Clarence Beeks), with female guest Blossom Dearie singing the original piano break, became the basis for Benson's sexy, Q-produced remake, an instant "quiet storm" classic. It FEATUREs a midsong verse sung by Q's goddaughter, Patti Austin, and strings arranged by Marty Paich. The result: plush seduction for the ears and imagination. So in love with the song, Q produced yet another version in 1995, pairing his old friend Moody with singers Brian McKnight, Rachelle Ferrell, and the vocal sextet Take 6.
Some years after Q's production of "Moody's Mood" became a radio staple, Creed Taylor released George's first attempt at the song--the same recording that he had so hastily halted in midtake back in the '70s. "How he got a finished version I'll never know," George laments.
Though "Moody's Mood" wasn't technically a duet, George had that department covered in a rapturous pairing with the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, for the title track of her 1981 album, Love All The Hurt Away. The words and music of this midnight persuader, written by Sam Dees, finds George and Aretha doing everything you're supposed to in a duet--and then some. After this performance producer Arif Mardin praised Benson as "an artist of the highest caliber and a friend."
Once masters Jones and Mardin had their way with Benson, the '80s found him working with hit pop producers of the day. Jay Graydon, a fellow guitarist, had been a fan since Benson's days with Jack McDuff. He considered it, as he once said, a "treat" to work with him in the context of a pop-vocal thing. On 1981's "Turn Your Love Around," Graydon and cowriters Steve Lukather and Bill Champlin (both guitarists as well) pulled an uncharacteristically aggressive vocal out of George that netted him his second R&B chart-topper. It was also among the first songs to use the Linn Drum Machine.
Warner executive Russ Titelman was behind the boards for "20/20," a song about rekindling love through lessons learned in hindsight and a delightful slice of unmistakably '80s techno-pop. The background vocalists are Patti Austin and special guest James Taylor, the latter of whom brought an appealing country twang to the verses' three-way vocal blend. Patti mirrors George's scatting on the vamp right to the fade in a sweet reunion for the "Moody's Mood" vocal partners.
"Kisses In The Moonlight," from 1986, is a dreamy portrait of clandestine lovers. Producer Narada Michael Walden kept George in his falsetto range. Walden and cowriters Preston Glass and Jeffrey Cohen also got George in a playful enough mood to put some extra oomph in his delivery of the line "I only want a taste of your sweet, sweet ooh!" Narada, an artist who, like George, had started in the jazz world (as a member of fusion gods The Mahavishnu Orchestra) and had crossed over as a pop artist and producer, praised Benson for his devout spirituality as a Jehovah's Witness, his profound vocal gifts, and his amazing prowess as a guitarist.
In 1988 David and Wayne Lewis--members of the soul group Atlantic Starr, which had joined Warners two years before--produced George's remake of the sexy Curtis Mayfield classic "Let's Do It Again." "I'd been a fan of Curtis since the days of 'Gypsy Woman,'" George says. "I first met him with The Impressions in Kansas City just after I joined Jack McDuff's band. We were staying at the same hotel. Right after I recorded 'Let's Do It Again' I ran into him again at the North Sea Jazz Festival. Together we had 2,000 more people in that place than it was meant to hold. There will never be another like Curtis."
"New Day" is arguably George's most criminally unrecognized gem--his personalized "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay" of eloquent, sunset introspection. It was penned by husband-and-wife team Cecil & Linda Womack, who also contributed its shimmering guitar filigrees and vocal ad libs, respectively. Soul-soothing yet world-weary, this serene piece gracefully conjures the spirit of the late, great Sam Cooke.
While George was wowing his contingent of pop fans, the pressure was on for him to play more guitar at least, if not to return to jazz entirely. For some time the best place to hear George simply play was on other people's records. Fans scoured albums by a plethora of artists to do just that, including studio mates Harvey Mason ("What's Going On" from Funk In A Mason Jar) and Claus Ogerman ("Time Passed Autumn" from Gate Of Dreams), plus old friends Jean-Luc Ponty ("Modern Times Blues" from Open Mind), the late Tony Williams (the Benson-penned "Hip Skip" from The Joy Of Flying), and legendary country picker Chet Atkins ("Sunrise" from Stay Tuned).
One stellar sample is included here: the original 1982 recording of Benson's "Mimosa," which he wrote and played on for Jimmy Smith's album Off The Top. This was a slow-burning revisitation to his organ-group roots, only this time in after-5 mode. The song was given its title by Muppets songsmith Joe Raposo, who had the same manager as George. "I was on an airplane, flying back from the date," Benson recalls. "I let him hear it, and he said, 'Say, I like that--makes me think of a mimosa.' I said, 'What the heck is a mimosa?' He said 'Well, it's two things: a drink and a plant. You should name this song 'Mimosa.' So I did." Never quibble with a Muppet.
George rerecorded "Mimosa" with his protégé Earl Klugh when they teamed up for the überalbum Collaboration. An airplay staple from that CD was "Mt. Airy Road," a powerful mix of groove and melody by the chameleonic Marcus Miller, who has penned signature songs for everyone from Sanborn and Vandross to Miles and Aretha. The Benson & Klugh union was one that fans of smooth jazz had been praying for, and the gold-seller did not disappoint.
"One of the things I'm most proud of is opening doors for others," Benson says. "Before Earl Klugh there was only one other acoustic-guitar player [of prominence] in jazz: Charlie Byrd. But Earl, an African-American who was taught by a man who studied with Andres Segovia, took over the radio industry. And he did it because I encouraged him to go in that direction. He didn't think it was commercially viable. I said, 'Earl, people have been telling me what I can't do ever since I got to New York. And everything they told me I can't do I've done.' So I recorded his demos and sent them to Dr. George Butler [at Blue Note], who didn't believe he was African-American and certainly didn't believe he was 19 years old. I said, 'Send him a ticket.' Next thing I know, they sent me a test pressing with a note attached saying, 'Do the LINER NOTES.' If Breezin' hadn't come out that same year, Earl Klugh's [Living Inside Your Love] would have been the album of that year. But Earl has opened up things for everybody else since. Today his style of guitar playing dominates the radio."
Omar Hakim--one of Weather Report's most famous drummers and a groovesmith-for-hire to artists including Sting and David Bowie--holds the distinction of penning two of George's most radio-friendly instrumentals. Their history stems back to after-hours jams when a teenage Omar would try to sit in with George at fabled New York nightspots Mikell's and Seventh Avenue South. "He never took no for an answer," George remembers. Though Omar never became a member of George's band, he did help him cop yet another Grammy for a standout he penned that was included on his 1983 LP, In Your Eyes.
"Being With You" was written by Omar Hakim for a proposed live album by George Benson and Earl Klugh. Omar relays: "Tommy LiPuma's assistant called and asked if I had any songs I'd like to submit. I said yes, even though I didn't. You never tell these people no. So I went to my piano and started writing on the spot. We did record it live at the Bottom Line [with a band that included Marcus Miller, Jorge Dalto, and Omar], but the album was never released. A year later Arif Mardin's assistant called me, holding a cassette of a new studio version he had done with the words 'Omar's Song' scribbled on it. They asked me to give it a title. I called it 'Being With You,' because it sounded like a lover's conversation whispered in each other's ears. When I finally heard Arif's string arrangement and the way George reproduced my melody so precisely, I was elated."
"Shark Bite" is the mysterious B-side of "20/20." The groove is credited as a Benson original, but he has no recollection of its creation. Though released in 1984, it was most likely recorded in the '70s with members of the Breezin' band. "Shark Bite" is a vamp with a hot turnaround that, overall, has an unfinished quality. Yet it must have been considered close enough to completion, because there are sketchy flute and string parts that smack of Ogerman's work. Other than George, the prominent player here is drummer Harvey Mason, whose slippery, slick licks are a joy to listen to. "Shark Bite" is an off-the-cuff snapshot of masters at play that's been a coveted acid-jazz club collectible since its release.
On the traditional front, 1989's "Tenderly" is a solo-guitar rendition of the standard that's been sung and played by so many musicians before Benson, most notably by Sarah Vaughan. George opens with an extended intro of picked runs that exude a fluidity and sensitivity.
"Ready Now That You Are" comes from 1990's Big Boss Band, a project that George recorded to fulfill a promise he made to the great Count Basie before he died--to cut an album accompanied by his world-renown Basie Big Band. The tune was penned and arranged by Basie's choice, Frank Foster III. This song is a straight-ahead swingin' affair with an intricate melody shared by George and the horns. It's a tour de force for George, whose first solo is a rare scat sung without his guitar--that is, until the closing bars, which he seals with a six-string sting. Following fine solos by Foster on tenor and David Glasser on alto, George returns for both guitar and guitar/scat solos.
After nearly two decades with Warner Bros. George left the company for another that welcomed him with knowing, loving arms. When Tommy LiPuma became President of GRP Records in 1994, Benson was his first signing. In a press release he stated, "As we prepare to lead GRP into the future, I can't think of a more inspiring and wonderful event than bringing George into our family of artists. I look forward to working with him again."
"Tommy knows what I can do, but he also knows when to cut me off," George says. "He knows that I may be looking for something in a performance that maybe my audience isn't looking for. I trust him. Every time we get together we come up with something musically special that sells well and connects with the audience."
The first piece of music George recorded with Tommy for GRP was a stunning rendition of John Lennon & Paul McCartney's "The Long And Winding Road." George sings his heart out as John Clayton's arrangement supports him with a dynamic fit for a Broadway showstopper. It was the lead-off song for a very special home-team project, titled (I Got No Kick Against) Modern Jazz/A GRP Artists' Celebration Of The Songs Of The Beatles. Released on CD and a limited-edition two-LP set (complete with artwork by '60s pop-art genius Peter Max), the all-star album heralded LiPuma's arrival to GRP with an undeniable bang. Taking into account George's many pilgrimages to the Fab Four's songbook since the late '60s, this 1995 recording assures that the pairing of Benson and Beatles hits an era-defying bulls-eye every time. The artistry of both is simply timeless.
George has since released three albums for the label, beginning with That's Right (1996), followed by Standing Together (1998) and Absolute Benson (2000). A representative sample of this period is "C-Smooth." The title says it all. It was produced by Paul Brown, who proved to possess the elusive ingredient that the programmers of smooth jazz radio craved in the late '90s. The slinky groove plays like a "Shadow Dancers" for moderns, complete with a synth-vibes solo by Minneapolis' Ricky Peterson.
And the story continues to unfold. George's latest release, Absolute Benson, FEATUREs "Hipping The Hop," an exceptionally tight number that's a seamless blend of hip-hop and jazz and serves as ample proof that he's well aware of what's happening now.
The thing that's never changed about George is his immersion in music. At 57 he continues to tour and record, finessing the balance between his pop and jazz instincts. More remarkably, he still dips into clubs, checking out all the up-and-comers his trusted friends recommend and passing down the lessons that were passed on to him. The lucky ones get to come back to George's house in Jersey for his famous all-night jam sessions.
"Cats still call me from all over the world for my opinions," he marvels. "I just try to give them whatever I feel is practical. I'm always amazed at how serious they take me." He should never be surprised. In the LINER NOTES of 1981's The George Benson Collection, the late John Hammond respectfully commented on the pop direction Benson's career had taken: "George has always had a mission in life and unbelievable energy . . . I hope that his unparalleled success as a commercial artist will enable him to concentrate once again on his instrumental career. Fine though he is as a pop singer, he is truly innovative as a guitarist. There are far too few of this latter breed around."
The same can be said of George Benson the man. Phil Upchurch, a dear friend and mentor of sorts to George, loves to tell the story of how George once stayed at his home three extra days just to discuss "the word," quoting from the Bible he carries with him at all times. Ever-proud, Benson prioritizes family over all, preaches his strong religious beliefs to anyone who will listen, and scrutinizes every lyric he sings. Most telling is that whenever George plays a concert back home in Pittsburgh, he sets aside a room for family and friends to relax with him after the show.
He has also been known to squeeze some substantial sums of money into the hands of people in need on those nights--just like his grandfather did for the good folks on "The Hill." It is this spirit that's touching you whenever you are moved by a certain something in the way that George Benson plays and sings.
--A. Scott Galloway
Special thanks to Mr. George Benson for giving so graciously of his time for this project and for the extensive diversity of his offerings as a musician. He has given us all many hours beyond what this sampling could hold of serious listening pleasure. I hope he "feels" this collection.
To Phil Upchurch for always being there. To Omar for being a brutha. To Narada for "60 Seconds." And to Ronnie Foster for "swimming with sharks" for me.