George Benson Innovates, Crafts Pop Hits


George Benson’s latest album was recorded live at Ronnie Scott’s in London.

(Photo: Carl Hyde)

“A lot of jazz purists weren’t ready for that,” Banks said.

But Benson said he had learned from predecessors who faced a similar predicament: “It can be a problem, except I had heard both sides of the arguments. I heard it from the singer’s point of view; they used to talk about Nat Cole. I said, ‘Man, what can you say bad about Nat “King” Cole?’ And then there was Wes Montgomery. I saw an article where they gave him one star on a song. Wes Montgomery couldn’t make a one-star record if he tried.

“So when I got famous, I said, ‘I’ve heard this before: The next line that comes out of his mouth is going to be “this,” and I’m going to say “that.”’ But I think Stanley Turrentine had the best answer of all. Someone asked him: ‘Stanley, you’re a great saxophone player. Why do you play that funny music?’ He said, ‘Because I want to.’”

Whatever Benson’s desires, he was aware that his mainstream success had been facilitated by market forces outside his control—including the rise of smooth-jazz as a format, precisely at the time he was developing the material for Breezin’.

According to Waldman, for all the exposure, there was irony attendant to Benson’s career turn. “A big niche for him ended up becoming the smooth-jazz market,” he said. “Some of his songs seemed to fit that mold. There’s probably a chunk of his audience who think of him as that. But that’s not really what he is at all. He’s one of the most creative jazz musicians there ever was.”

In Benson’s telling, Hammond encouraged him early on to build a profile in jazz. “He said to me, ‘George, I perceive that you do a lot of things, and you do them all well. You do r&b, you play jazz, you play swing music. But if you become known as a jazz artist first, your career will have longevity.’ And he was right.”

Though Benson does many things well, it is the guitar to which he returns at the end of the day. On tour, while the band sees the local sights during the day, Benson often sits by the hotel pool practicing his guitar. On the band bus, he falls asleep with the instrument in his hands.

“The guitar has been beating me up like that all my life,” Benson said. “I love the sound of the instrument. It’s always fascinated me.”

As a young man, he sought out Montgomery. “When I saw he was playing, I’d go where he was,” Benson recalled. “And he’d make me come up on the bandstand sometimes and play with his band.” The last time that happened was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to which he and his stepfather had driven 200 miles from Pittsburgh. “Montgomery was smoking.”

Before Montgomery, he said, he was fascinated by the sound of Charlie Christian in the Benny Goodman sextet: “My stepfather met my mother when I was 7 years old, and that’s all he played day in and day out, Benny Goodman records and George Shearing records.”

In 1975, at a PBS broadcast honoring Hammond, Benson had the opportunity to play with Goodman, filling the Christian chair on the uptempo warhorse “Seven, Come Eleven.” Even for a guitarist on the cusp of pop stardom, it was a heady experience; egged on by a demanding Goodman, Benson arguably never swung harder. But he looked back on the date with humility.

“I knew I would never be a Charlie Christian,” he said. “He thought like a saxophone player. His phrasing was like a saxophonist. I’m just getting to the stage where I understand what he was trying to say.”

Benson is often self-effacing. In 1968, a banner year in which he appeared on albums released by jazz notables like Lee Morgan, Larry Young and Miles Davis, he also put out albums like Giblet Gravy, which featured contributions from pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter. The album is especially memorable for some majestic exchanges between Benson and Hancock on “What’s New?”

“When I first heard it,” Benson recalled, “I said, ‘Man, I got nerve I didn’t know I had.’”

He obviously scored points. “Ron Carter called Miles Davis and said, ‘Man, you better hear what George Benson did to Herbie Hancock on this record,’” he said. “That’s when Miles started calling me and trying to get me to be in his band.”

The resulting association with Davis was limited. But Benson’s propulsive work on “Paraphernalia,” from 1968’s Miles In The Sky—his opening chords set the trippy pace for the classic Davis combo with Hancock, Carter, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and drummer Tony Williams—hints at what might have been had the collaboration continued.

In recent years, Benson said, two of his albums from roughly a half-century ago—the Beatles excursion titled The Other Side Of Abbey Road (1969) and the Creed Taylor-produced White Rabbit (1972)—have attracted new audiences. He said he hoped the same would apply to 2013’s Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole, a crooning turn that proved to be a global sensation, landing him major festival bookings.

Meanwhile, he said, “What I try to do is stay flexible and keep my ears open.”

Last year, he released Walking To New Orleans (Provogue), a tasty tribute to Chuck Berry and Fats Domino that topped the Beyond Album category in the 2019 DownBeat Readers Poll. A relatively self-contained studio album, it provides a counterweight to the more-freewheeling Weekend In London.

Benson has attracted fans and collaborators from throughout the music industry. He is featured on funk wizard Bootsy Collins’ recent single, “The Power Of The One,” and in 2018 he appeared on “Humility,” a hit by the band Gorillaz.

Despite the guitarist’s enduring popularity, 2020 has been as restrictive for him as for others. Rather than spending 48 weeks a year on the road, he has been staying at his home in Arizona.

Even when the coronavirus wanes, he said, the future of the music business might be in the hands of power brokers rather than artists: “They have to settle into something that works. Nobody can say exactly what that is, except maybe the big wheels who are planning, trying to create a new market.”

Whatever the “new normal” becomes for the music industry, Benson seems ready, as always, to stake out his territory within it. DB

This story originally was published in the December 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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