George Benson: Guitar Hero
10-times-Grammy-winning superstar soul/jazz/pop vocalist and guitarist George Benson returns to the UK this summer for a six-date concert tour. Which - opening on June 28 with a night at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall - follows the recent release of his largely-instrumental new album "Guitar Man." A set which finds him revisiting his Sixties/early-Seventies guitar-playing roots with a 12-song collection of covers of both jazz and pop standards overseen by producer John Burk.
Born in March 1943 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, George interestingly made his recording debut as a pre-teen way back in 1954 (!) for RCA Victor under the name ‘Little George Benson’ before earning a credible reputation as an acclaimed jazz guitarist throughout the Sixties via a string of album releases on such prestigious labels as Prestige (1964-1965); Columbia (1966-1967); Verve (1968); and A&M (1968-1969). However, it was after signing to seasoned jazz/fusion producer Creed Taylor’s CTI label that, from 1971 to 1976, Benson would attain true stardom within the jazz field through such albums as 1971’s "White Rabbit," 1974’s "Bad Benson" and 1975’s "Good King Bad."
Nevertheless, bona fide mainstream success would not arrive until, after signing with Warner Brothers in 1976, George released the monumental "Breezin’" album. Which - topping the US pop, soul and jazz charts - became the first jazz album to attain triple-Platinum status while amassing an impressive three Grammies along the way. Meanwhile, the release of its vocal track "This Masquerade" would also mark the start of a new career for Benson as a crossover Wonder/Hathaway-influenced soulful tenor vocalist. All of which in turn paved the way for the international-chart-topping success of his biggest commercial hit to date - the seminal, 1980-released Quincy Jones-produced LP "Give Me The Night." Whose offshoot Top 10 singles "Give Me The Night" and "Love X Love" would herald the start of a multi-million-selling near-decade as a world-conquering soul and pop vocalist via such Warner Brothers-released hit albums as 1983’s "In Your Eyes"; 1984’s "20/20"; 1986’s "While The City Sleeps…"; and 1988’s "Twice The Love’' - pioneered by chartbusting singles like "Turn Your Love Around," "Never Give Up On A Good Thing," "Lady Love Me," "In Your Eyes" and "Shiver."
Nevertheless, having weathered an inevitable jazz purist backlash throughout the Eighties, 1989 found George (having by now sold over 30 million records worldwide) reaffirming his jazz guitar credentials with the album "Tenderly." Since which time he has comfortably straddled his two different audiences with a succession of less-high-profile album releases that range from the smooth jazz flavours of 1993’s "Love Remembers" (his last for Warner Brothers), 1998’s "Standing Together" and 2006’s triple-Grammy-nominated "Givin’ It Up" (with Al Jarreau); to more mainstream- R&B-flavoured sets like 2003’s "Irreplaceable" and 2009’s "Songs And Stories."
…All of which conveniently brings us back to today. As a still-down-to-earth and affable Mr. Benson reacquaints himself in his New York hotel suite with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis for a look-back on his trailblazing career, which has without doubt seen him become one of the most significant black music icons of the past 50 years.
PETE: I understand the beginning of your recording career can actually be traced back to 1954, when - as a pre-teen - you released four tracks for RCA Records…
GEORGE: “Well, I actually got discovered in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania by a man who worked at a place that sold barbecue sandwiches! Basically he became my manager, took me to New York, and got me a record deal with RCA Victor - which was the biggest record company in the WORLD at that time!... So yeah, Little Georgie Benson had finally got his break and my career was well on its WAY! But having said that, it didn’t LAST too long - because my mother began to get worried about the fact they would always have me out doing promo tours, running around the city doing radio interviews... Plus for a short time I even had my own ‘Little Georgie Benson RADIO Show’!… You know, it did become a little crazy - and my mother got DISILLUSIONED by all of that. Because to the outside world it sounded like I was making a lotta money. And so she was afraid someone was gonna kidnap me, and that they wouldn’t believe her if she told them we didn’t actually HAVE any money! So she immediately took me out of that environment - and at 11 years old it seemed my career was OVER!”
PETE: So how from there did you start learning to play guitar?
GEORGE: “Well, when I was 15 years old my cousin and I formed a singing group called The Altaires. And, because we became the most popular singing group in the Tri-State area, the rest of the group convinced me I should play the guitar - even though I didn’t OWN one! So what happened was, my stepfather actually MADE my first electric guitar for me for $23! And so that was when I actually learnt to play and sing and dance all at the same TIME!”
PETE: Your commercial peak as a globally-successful superstar vocalist surely arrived with your internationally-chart-topping, Quincy Jones-produced 1980 LP "Give Me The Night." So what are you memories like of working with super-producer Quincy, who at the time was red-hot from producing Michael Jackson’s then-record-breaking 1979 album "Off The Wall"?
GEORGE: “Well, it was a very interesting period. Because, when we first got ready to do the "Give Me The Night" album together, Quincy Jones asked me one question. He said ‘George, I wanna know if you wanna make the greatest jazz record in the world, or if you wanna go for the throat!’... And I just laughed politely and said ‘Quincy, go for the THROAT, man!’- because I knew how successful he was being at that time in breaking new ground in the POP field... I mean, he’d just taken Michael Jackson to a place where nobody believed he could EVER get! And so, when I said that, Quincy was like ‘Well, I’ve got a friend Rod Temperton who wrote "Rock With You" for Michael Jackson’ - and straightaway I was like ‘That’s the GUY!’... So we started working with Rod, who was a very meticulous arranger and songwriter - to the point of it being TEDIOUS. I mean, he made me turn every corner on every song and phrase everything the way HE thought I should be phrasing it. You know, he put me to the test in a way nobody had ever quite done before. But I didn’t mind - and of course it all worked out very WELL! I think "Love X Love" (the album’s second Top Ten single) in particular was ESPECIALLY great.”
PETE: Your career as a globally-successful singing superstar continued throughout the Eighties, though the latter part of the decade did also see you returning to your jazz-guitarist roots - since which time you’ve comfortably straddled both careers. How do you now look back on your Eighties heyday of working at keeping both careers going while predictably encountering problems keeping the two very different audiences simultaneously happy?
GEORGE: “Well, no-one can predict the future, and I certainly couldn’t. But these things were happening to me and I wasn’t RESISTING them! You know, because I didn’t know which career was gonna be more successful, I hung out with BOTH! So, though they tried at one point to get me to put my guitar down and just sing, I basically just told them ‘No, I put too much time into this guitar. This guitar is going NOWHERE!’… Which is when the critics started complaining about it hanging from my neck while I was singing songs - while the people who were paying money to hear me sing "Give Me The Night" and all those other wonderful vocals like "In Your Eyes" and "Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You" were very vocal TOO! You know, they wanted to hear their SONGS, and they didn’t want no EXCUSES!... So yeah, I juggled all that for YEARS! But at the same time, I kept my career alive and we did very, very WELL! We made a lot of money, my family had a great life - plus I did enjoy the actual CHALLENGE of keeping the two careers going! So overall it was lotta fun to me and it never became a NEGATIVE!... I mean, to an extent I could understand the criticism I got from the JAZZ purists. Because my guitar career had SERIOUSLY started to flourish at the time that "Breezin’" came out - you know, it was REALLY alive and well! But then at the same time - when things like "This Masquerade" and then "Give Me The Night" came along - I couldn’t pass off the opportunity to go to the moon EITHER, and to reach audiences that no-one from a jazz-guitar background had ever REACHED before!”
George’s UK tour runs from June 28 to July 4. Tickets available from ticketline.co.uk 0844 888 9991
The album "Guitar Man" is out now through Concord Jazz
Words PETE LEWIS