George Benson - Biography
It takes something really special to unite three such disparate guitarists as Vernon Reid (Living Color), Jimmy Vivino (The Conan O’Brien Show), and Uli Jon Roth (Scorpions), and one thing they all agree on is George Benson. “Pretty amazing...astounding” (Roth), “the next phase, the next generation” (Vivino) and a “god that happens to be walking the earth” (Reid) are some of the things these heavyweights have said about him. Benson is an extraordinarily versatile guitarist who excels in any style he chooses to explore, a consummate soloist with fleet fingers and a beautifully rounded tone. Of course, millions of people around the globe know him for hits like “Breezin’” or “This Masquerade.” Trying to keep the guitar, the voice, and the stardom in balance has been part of Benson’s job description for many decades.
George Benson was born on March 22, 1943, in Pittsburgh, PA. By the age of four, he was already singing, performing well enough to win a contest. Only three years later, at seven, he was on the streets earning money with his voice and a ukulele. Two years later, he switched to guitar. As he later told interviewer and fellow musician Ben Sidran in a wide-ranging interview printed in Talking Jazz: An Illustrated Oral History (1992), “I used to make a fortune. I made as much money in one evening as my mother used to make in two weeks working in the hospital.” At the tender age of ten, he had a recording contract with RCA. A single of “It Should Have Me” backed with “She Makes Me Mad” came out in 1954 on the label’s Groove subsidiary. Benson doubts that his vocal talent by itself would have gotten him very far in the music world. “I don’t know if I ever would have done what the guitar put me in a position to do,” he says, noting that he really couldn’t play anything on the instrument as a youngster, and was merely using it as a prop. It was the great swing era pioneer Charlie Christian that first made Benson think more seriously about the guitar. “If I had to pick one favorite jazz guitar solo, it would have to be ‘Solo Flight’...For years, no one was able to come close to ‘Solo Flight’ in terms of ingenuity, feeling and tone.” Soon, he was concentrating on the playing of more contemporary performers like Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell and Grant Green. But the main influence on the young Benson would be guitarist Hank Garland. Pigeon-holed as a country musician, Garland confounded everyone when he made a jazz album in 1961. His playing reminded Benson of Christian’s style, but without the latter’s single-minded urgency. Benson felt that what was missing among improvising guitarists was someone “not on fire all the time,” and Garland embodied that dimension in his playing. Pretty soon, Benson began to devote himself to learning how to really play the instrument that he’d been carrying “to back up my singing with...”
After working extensively on his playing in Pittsburgh, he managed to get a gig with organist Jack McDuff. It was McDuff who brought him to New York in 1963, when Benson was nineteen. McDuff later noted that Benson was raw when he hired him. The youngster could play the blues, but didn’t know any tunes all the way through. The organist certainly cured him of that, and Benson appreciated being in the employ of such a hard taskmaster. “I learned things,” he reminisced, “and so it made it worth all the ear beatings I used to get from him. I learned...the value of playing everything with a little blues touch.” While touring with the McDuff trio, Benson made a point of going to hear as many guitarists as he could. At every stop, he would wait “to see them do something that I could not. And none of them did that.” Only one cat really knocked him out, and it was another teenager, Pat Martino. Benson’s natural self-confidence, obvious talent, and McDuff’s tutelage all contributed to his rapid development. When McDuff and the band were ready to record in June 1963, Prestige Records set up in the friendly confines of Newark, New Jersey’s Front Room. Hallelujah Time (re-issued on Live!) and The Midnight Sun were the results, the first in a series of well-received albums of soul-jazz, many were recorded on the bandstand.
Less than a year after making his debut with McDuff, Benson recorded as a leader for the first time. The New Boss Guitar of George Benson (1964 Prestige/Original Jazz Classics) was made in the familiar surroundings of the McDuff group with saxophonist Red Holloway and drummer Joe Dukes. Bassist Ronnie Boykins and percussionist Montego Joe filled out the band’s sound. Further work with McDuff kept him busy for a couple of years. Benson then formed his own band in 1965, using Dr. Lonnie Smith on organ, Ronnie Cuber on baritone saxophone, and various drummers including Ray Lucas and Jimmy Lovelace. The quartet came to the attention of famed Columbia talent scout and producer John Hammond, who had introduced Charlie Christian to Benny Goodman back in the Thirties. Columbia signed the band for a pair of soul-inflected hard bop albums, It’s Uptown (1966 Columbia) and The George Benson Cookbook (1966 Columbia).
Now working as a solo artist with bands assembled for specific projects, Benson signed to Verve in 1967.
Benson was busy throughout the year and into 1968. He recorded with organist Jimmy Smith, and made a number of guest appearances on Blue Note, in bands led by organists Melvin Lastie and Larry Young, saxophonists Hank Mobley and Lou Donaldson, and trumpeter Lee Morgan. He also played on one track of Miles Davis’ Miles In The Sky (1968 Columbia).
It was not long after Wes Montgomery died in June of 1968, that producer Creed Taylor began recording Benson with larger ensembles for the A&M label. Montgomery had been doing successful pop-jazz albums for Taylor, and Benson asserts that his “intention was never to be a Montgomery...even if I could have accomplished that.” While that was the direction that Taylor’s production sense was taking, Benson’s strong-willed personality and individual style keep him from ever being a mere clone. Their first collaboration, Shape Of Things To Come (1968 A&M), with its range of pop songs from “Last Train to Clarksville” to “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and arrangements by Don Sebesky, was a big success and established Benson as a star of soulful instrumental music. Follow-ups included Tell It Like It Is (1969 A&M) and an album of Beatles songs, The Other Side Of Abbey Road (1969 A&M).
When Creed Taylor left A&M to form his own CTI imprint, Benson went with him. The guitarist appeared on CTI albums by Hubert Laws, Stanley Turrentine, and Freddie Hubbard, before making his first record for the label, Beyond The Blue Horizon (1971 CTI). This was followed over the next few years by White Rabbit (1972 CTI), Body Talk (1973 CTI), and Bad Benson (1974 CTI). There also a number of live albums, often with the label’s all-star roster including Hubbard, Laws, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, saxophonist Hank Crawford,
While Taylor’s productions had a certain “classy” appeal, and helped establish Benson’s versatility with the public, it took a new label, and a new production team featuring arrangements by Claus Ogerman to break Benson through to the next level of popularity. Warner Bros. reportedly paid Benson the largest advance ever for a jazz artist when they signed him to a new contract, and he delivered Breezin’, which on the strength of “This Masquerade,” became the first jazz album to sell over a million copies The album established the vocal and guitar combination that has become his signature sound. That mega-hit was followed by another smash, “On Broadway,” from the live album Weekend In LA (1977 Warner). It helped Benson immensely to have a group of musicians he trusted and whose capabilities he knew well. His working band at the time, keyboardists Ronnie Foster and Jorge Dalto, rhythm guitar ace Phil Upchurch, bassist Stanley Banks, drummer Harvey Mason, and percussionist Ralph McDonald, was just the right vehicle for Benson’s pop-jazz approach.
The Quincy Jones production Give Me the Night (1980 Warner) won Benson his first two Grammy awards, for “Off Broadway,” which won the Best R&B instrumental award, and the title track, which took the R&B vocal award. There was another instrumental winner in 1983, for “Being With You,” but his string of R&B-flavored releases grew more and more formulaic. In the late Eighties, Benson moved back toward the jazz mainstream, featuring his guitar more on Tenderly (1989 Warner), a standards album with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Louis Hayes, plus charts by Marty Paich, and the follow-up, a meeting with the Count Basie Orchestra on Big Boss Band (1990 Warner). Benson moved back to recording smooth jazz in the Nineties for the GRP label, while continuing to play the occasional jazz-oriented dates like his reunion with Jack McDuff on Bringin’ It Home (1996 Concord Jazz ). Benson teamed with vocalist Al Jarreau for Givin’ It Up (2006 Concord), which also featured guest appearances by Paul McCartney, vocalist Patti Austin, and keyboardist Herbie Hancock. The album won two more Grammy awards. A successful 2006 tour of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand with Jarreau proved Benson's enduring popularity.