George Benson rose from the corner pubs of his hometown, Pittsburgh, to become one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time and a genuine pop superstar to boot. His 1976 album Breezin’ set the standard for crossover recordings, propelled to the number one spot by the irresistible instrumental title track and a Top Ten cover of Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade.” For the next five years, Benson was ubiquitous, living near the top of the pop charts with hits including “On Broadway,” “Give Me the Night” and “Turn Your Love Around.”
For the last twenty five years, he’s retained his legendary status while creating a diverse catalog of recordings running the gamut from classic jazz standards to pop confections to contemporary smooth jazz grooves. Friday night he brings his distinctive guitar playing and soulful voice to the Ferguson Center for the Arts.
I caught up with Benson at his Arizona home two weeks ago. He was particularly pumped about his soon-to-be-released album with Al Jarreau on Concord Records called Givin’ It Up. With Jarreau vocalizing on Benson’s “Breezin’” and Benson laying down a tasty guitar ride through Jarreau’s “Mornin’” along with an all star cast, Givin’ It Up is bound to garner a great deal of attention when it comes out later this month.
While Benson and Jarreau were recording this spring, Paul McCartney happened to be in the studio next door. When he dropped by to say hello, Benson invited him to join them on Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home to Me.” That’s where our conversation began.
JN: I see that Paul McCartney is on the new album with you and Al.
GB: That’s right, man. Wait ‘til you hear this record. Everybody performs so incredibly. Paul, off the cuff, came in the studio and I begged him to put something down on the song that me and Al were trying out. I said, ‘Do you know this song?’ He said, ‘Yeh, I know it.’
He said it was very ‘cheeky’ of me to ask him to do that, in a very English way—‘Sir Paul, please.’ And it came out great. We got into a discussion about the first time I tried their music on The Other Side of Abbey Road.
JN: You and Al Jarreau are a great combination.
GB: We always knew we were going to do something together, but time goes by so fast. We didn’t realize how long it’s been since we first signed with Warners way back in ’75. Our careers really took a big jump when that happened. I think, between us, we got about 75 million records sold.
JN: For a lot of people my age, those CTI records in the early ‘70s really got us hooked into jazz and led us to go back and discover other jazz.
GB: That was some great stuff—Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine; that was a great time because we were trying out new things. And we finally made that jump from the jazz world into a middle ground that still allowed us to be improvisationalist, but it made a different statement. It had a little more rhythm and a little more identity for the new audiences. When I saw the potential of what could happen, all I needed was a record company with some big distribution, which CTI did not have, unfortunately.
Freddie Hubbard was at the top of his game, playing some incredible stuff, writing some great music also. He and Stanley Turrentine had formed this relationship that was so tight and so colorful, and they put me in the middle right between them. I don’t know if you ever saw the tour we did—CTI Summer Jazz Festival.
JN: I remember a recording from one of those tours.
GB: That’s right--one from the Hollywood Bowl and one from Carnegie Hall.
JN: There was one you did with Hubert Laws, that you were singing “Summertime” on.
GB: That’s right. For the first time, [producer] Creed Taylor liked my voice; he never did before. When we did that at Carnegie Hall, it blew the place apart. And he finally admitted that I could sing a little bit. He changed his opinion of me, but unfortunately I moved over to Warner Brothers and ‘This Masquerade’ came out and it was too late for him.
JN: All of a sudden you went from being this guy that a lot of us admired just for your jazz chops to this incredible popstar, just overnight—at least it felt like that.
GB: For me too! It was like I woke up on a different planet where I was suddenly the focus of attention.
JN: I loved your guitar playing, but for a few years we weren’t hearing as much of it on record.
GB: It happened before to Nat Cole. He had a great audience playing his instrumentals because he was an incredible pianist. And then, all of a sudden, there was a clamoring for him to vocalize. It got so big ‘til his wife convinced him, ‘Nat, don’t play the piano; just sing.’ And for a while he did that, he stopped playing the piano, just walked up to the microphone and sang—to the chagrin of a lot of people.
So I said to myself, I’m not gonna do that, though my managers tried to get me to. I said, no I can’t do that—I love the guitar and I’m going to find a way to make this thing work. So I started mixing the instrumentals with the vocals, putting more vocals in but I kept the guitar. And I think that was the best decision I ever made in my life
JN: I agree. You were able to go through the popstardom thing but you never lost your credibility as a jazz guitarist.
GB: You know something—after that decision, it kept the guitar in my hands, which I used to do, I used to live with the guitar. And I still play the guitar every day. It’s a part of me; it’s not something I could just push to the side. It’s not something I have to work hard at. I do it like I breathe.
JN: Do you still feel like you’re finding fresh things to play?
GB: Oh, man, wait ‘til you hear this record. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done in a while. And I did something with Boney James recently that is a monster. He came here to Arizona and we did some amazing tracks. I just got it yesterday, the mix, and it is awesome. But the variety on the record with me and Al is amazing. It’s got solid jazz tunes, some great luminaries—Jill Scott, Patti Austin, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke on upright bass. It is really a tasty record!
copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.