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Few careers have been as rich and variegated as that of 76-year-old guitarist extraordinaire George Benson. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he cut his first record at age 10, singing sweetly on a catchy R&B single titled “She Makes Me Mad.” In 1964, at 21, he recorded The New Boss Guitar, his debut album as a leader. On six more largely straightahead jazz albums released under his name during the 1960s, he slowly but steadily established his credentials as a first-rate instrumentalist and the heir apparent to the great Wes Montgomery.
Highlights from the ’70s included a half-dozen strong-selling recordings for Creed Taylor’s CTI Records; the 1976 Warner Bros. release of the multi-platinum album Breezin’, which included a vocal turn from Benson on the Grammy-winning single “This Masquerade” that brought Stevie Wonder immediately to mind; his 1977 hit recording of “The Greatest Love of All,” a song that provided Whitney Houston with an even bigger hit eight years later; and his live version of “On Broadway,” which pocketed Benson another Grammy, one of 10 that he’s collected through the years.
With a sophisticated but easily accessible sound, Benson ascended to great heights of pop stardom in 1980 with the release of the Quincy Jones-produced album Give Me the Night. He cruised smoothly through the remainder of the decade, releasing eight more studio albums, from which emerged a string of hit singles, including “Love All the Hurt Away,” “Turn Your Love Around,” “Lady Love Me (One More Time)” and “20/20.”
Since 1990 the singer and guitarist has steadily continued to release new albums, restlessly flirting along the way with pure pop, smooth jazz, light soul and R&B, and yet more straighahead jazz. A couple of months ago, he took an honest stab at early rock ’n’ roll with the release of Walking to New Orleans: Remembering Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. The record — 10 faithful covers of classic fare from seminal influences Berry and Domino — sounds like nothing Benson has done previously, and he’s happy about that.
By now, 55 years after his debut recording, Benson has become an icon. In addition to the many albums he’s released as a leader, he’s worked as a sideman on countless recordings by the likes of Jack McDuff, Hank Mobley, Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Dexter Gordon, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, B.B. King and Minnie Riperton. He’s toured the world, establishing himself as a potent live performer, and remains a popular draw whenever he makes one of his increasingly rare appearances. In 2009, he was recognized as a jazz master by the National Endowment of the Arts.
Benson was in good spirits when we spoke in March, not long before the release of Walking to New Orleans. That conversation, presented here, has been edited for length and clarity.
Michael Fagien: Let’s take a trip down memory lane a little bit before we talk about the new record. It was my first year in college. I was into The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, progressive rock. Back then, as you know, radio was still breaking artists. And one day I’m in the car and “This Masquerade” comes on the radio. I turned it up, immediately noticing this incredible fluidity of the guitar, the strings, this beautiful voice that sounded familiar. But I didn’t know you at the time, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Is this Stevie Wonder or someone who sounds like Stevie? I couldn’t tell. After doing some digging, I learned about and bought the vinyl version of Breezin’. And from you I learned about Jorge Dalto, Harvey Mason, Phil Upchurch, Ronnie Foster, Ralph MacDonald, Claus Ogerman and someone who became a good friend of mine and who I miss so much, Tommy LiPuma. And I know you and Tommy go way back.
George Benson: Yeah, wonderful fellow, man. You know what he said to me that changed my whole life? He came to hear us play in San Francisco at a place called Keystone Korner. It was a great night club. I was playing, and Tommy LiPuma came in with Bob Krasnow, his partner. They owned Blue Thumb Records together, and they recorded the first “Breezin’” with Gábor Szabó. So they came in. Bob had on a Warner Bros. jacket with Bugs Bunny on the back.
And I had heard that they were going to approach me with a record deal, but I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. But after we talked, Tommy said, “I heard you sing five years ago, and I cannot understand why the record company is not using your voice.” When he said that, after I signed the deal with Warner, I asked for him to be the producer. If there was going to be a vocal on it, I wanted somebody who respected my voice. A lot of people didn’t, and he did.
So let’s talk about the new record, Walking to New Orleans. This is like your 40th or 50th album.
It’s between 45 and 50.
What I found interesting is that it’s on Provogue Records, which is in the Netherlands. It’s kind of a rock/blues label, which befits the new record.
Yes, and I’m going to tell you why I made that move. If I put out a record in the United States with a U.S. record company, the first thing they would do is try their best to get it played on smooth-jazz radio. I didn’t need another hit on smooth-jazz radio. Commercially it has no effect on your career; it’s just another smooth-jazz hit, which I was getting anyway. Every record we put out went straight to number one on smooth jazz, but it didn’t move my career forward any. Outside of the smooth-jazz record industry, the records were almost unknown. So I knew that if I turned up with a European record company, that it would get worldwide play first, worldwide attention, and that’s exactly what happened. People have been calling me from Australia saying they got a copy of the record, and I don’t even have a copy of the record — and that’s me! [laughs]
[caption id="attachment_19756" align="alignleft" width="682"] George Benson: “If I put out a record in the United States with a U.S. record company, the first thing they would do is try their best to get it played on smooth-jazz radio. I didn’t need another hit on smooth-jazz radio.” Photo: Austin Hargrave.[/caption]
Those who know your career know that you’re not shy about trying new things. And you seem to have had a lot of fun with this record.
I did, for a lot of good reasons. The first one was the one I told you; I was not recording for an American company. So I knew I could be looser in my interpretations on things. And I didn’t have to worry about the jazz content, because that was the thing I would always get: “Where’s the jazz, where’s the jazz?”
And I was down in Nashville, Tennessee. Nothing but great musicians, and they play from the heart. They got cats who might not be able to read a note, but you’d never know it when you hear them play; they play like a classical musician. But it has a vibe that is only in Nashville. So I knew I was safe in that [environment]. And then I heard the band that I was going to be using on the record. When I came to the studio the first day, they were rehearsing one of the songs we were going to record that day. I was knocked out by what I heard. And I said, “You mean to tell me I got to get in the middle of this? These cats are movin’!” And here’s the thing: I knew they had a different expectation of me, because, you know, my reputation is big. But in Nashville, guitar is like breathing. You’re not gonna outplay Roy Clark and Chet Atkins and cats like that, so forget that.
But then the main thing was not to lose the vibe, the simplicity of Chuck Berry and even Fats Domino. And I knew better than to try to copy Chuck Berry, because there’s only one Chuck Berry, and to capture that sound you have to have his equipment, and I don’t have his equipment and I don’t play like Chuck. Wish I could, but I don’t. I never tried to copy. I can play like him a little bit, but I’d like to keep some of my own identity, you know.
I listened to the record knowing it was George Benson. But if someone would have played it for me, it would have taken me a while. I would have said, “Hold on a second, is that George Benson?” Because it’s got that raw, early roots of rock feel — certainly Fats and Chuck Berry — and you capture that. It’s going to catch people off guard. And I think what’s also very cool is that it’s available on vinyl, too.
Yeah, it’s wonderful man. The first 500 vinyl records sold so fast, it’d make your head spin. And they said, “Well, Mr. Benson, you’re going to have to sign these.” I said, “What?” [laughs] But, you know, that’s part of what we do.
What a lot of people don’t know is that you started so young. You were a young guy when you released The New Boss Guitar. I mean, you were a baby.
I was 20 years old then, when we did The New Boss Guitar. And so that we don’t make a mistake, I played it for Wes Montgomery, who was the boss of guitar. I remember getting a copy of the vinyl in the mail, the test pressing. And I couldn’t wait to play it for Wes Montgomery. We were in Buffalo, New York, and John Coltrane was in the room. And I said, “Wes, they sent me a copy of my new record.” He said, “Go up and get it, man; bring it down.” So I brought it down to the room, and I played it for him.
And then right after I played it, he said, “I just got a copy of my new record. Would you like to hear it?” I said, “Yeah.” And he put on “’Round Midnight.” I said, “Yeah, excuse me, man, I got to go upstairs.” He said, “Where you going?” I said, “I’m going upstairs to practice.” After I heard what he played, I said, “Wow, this cat’s so good.” And, you know, I was never jealous of his playing. He injected something into the industry that we need every now and then — somebody to show us a different way of doing things, take us to what some people might call the next level. I just call it seeing from a different viewpoint.
You mentioned that I was very young. Little Georgie Benson used to walk the street corners in Pittsburgh at 7 years old with my ukulele. Since my hands were too small to play guitar then, I played ukulele. My stepfather taught me the first few chords, and I found out I could play a lot of songs with the few chords he taught me. When the people found that out, they stopped me walking down the street with my ukulele, because I always had it with me, and they asked me to play something. Once I started playing, a crowd would come around.
And my cousin, who was coming from somewhere else, saw the crowd, and he saw they were reaching in their pockets. So he took his baseball cap off and passed it around the audience, and, boy, did we make a lot of money. That was the beginning. And then I was still 7 years old when I worked in the nightclub. I was still playing ukulele. I had not switched to guitar yet. So, yeah, I worked in the nightclub until the police came and broke all that up, stopped that shit.
The classic albums that you made on CTI — The Other Side of Abbey Road , White Rabbit  — were seminal jazz records because they had crossover potential, but they were so authentic and still so rooted in jazz. I didn’t read was happening back at the time — I was 10 years old — but I can only imagine that jazz critics were listening to those records and saying, “Man, Benson’s such a great guitarist, but this is really kind of pop.”
I loved recording The Other Side of Abbey Road, because it was all done live. The chamber orchestra was in the studio with us, and we did it all live. And I was very proud of the record. But I knew I was gonna face some critics, even when Creed Taylor asked me to record it. He called me in the office one day and he said, “George, I want you to listen to this record, and it was Abbey Road by the Beatles. He said, “Tell me if there’s anything on here that you like.” He wanted to record something from that album. So I went home and listened to it. I came back the next day, and I said, “You know, Creed, everything sounds good on here” — meaning, pick something and we’ll try it. He said, “Good, we’ll do the whole album.” I said, “What?” Because I knew that the jazz critics were gonna eat me up, and they did.
When Breezin’ came out, that was good. Because people were saying, “Well, where did George come from? I never heard of him before.”
I was one of those guys.
Yeah [laughs]. They discovered White Rabbit and The Other Side of Abbey Road. They said, “Yep, he belongs in that spot. Yep, he should have been here a long time ago.” So that was the thing, but it took a while to cross over because there was such a resistance to it in the industry. Nobody wanted to hear us do Beatles songs.
[caption id="attachment_19757" align="alignleft" width="683"] George Benson: “He said, ‘Do you want to cut the greatest jazz record in the world? Or do you want to go for the throat?’ Those were the words he used. I said, ‘Quincy, go for the throat, man.’” Photo: Austin Hargrave[/caption]
I want to ask you about your version of the “The Greatest Love of All.” I’ll start by telling you a story. After we did our first cover with you, you and I were at the same festival, and we ran into each other at the bar. We walked over to a table in the corner, and you sat down. And I could tell you sat down so that you wouldn’t face out to the bar — so that you could have some privacy. And over the barroom speakers came Whitney Houston’s version of “The Greatest Love of All.” And I don’t know if you remember this, but you actually stood up from your seat and started to sing. I was taken aback by that because I thought you wanted a little privacy.
I was knocked out by what she’d accomplished. I had met her on the street corner, right next to the Empire State Building. And she stopped me on the sidewalk, and she almost screamed, “George Benson, my favorite artist! And my favorite song is ‘The Greatest Love of All.’” She told me her mother was Cissy Houston. And I said, “Oh, yeah, I know your mom.” And she said, “Yeah, I’m gonna record that song one day.” And I said to myself, “Yeah, the chances of that are very slim.”
When I first heard that song on the radio, I said, “I wonder if that’s that same kid.” And sure enough it was. I said, “Wow, don’t doubt yourself in this world because it can happen.” And the record went on to do some amazing things. I always loved her version of the record, too. I thought it was outstanding that she could take a song that was meant for a guy and turn it into a classic, for everybody. It was wonderful.
Tell me about your work with Quincy. I really enjoyed those records, which were obviously more pop, but they clicked.
Well, he said to me one thing, he said, “George, you need to make a choice.” He said, “Do you want to cut the greatest jazz record in the world? Or do you want to go for the throat?” Those were the words he used. I said, “Quincy, go for the throat, man.” You only get this opportunity once in life to make a difference. So he put together what he called his “A team,” with the great drummer JR Robinson and [keyboardist] Gregory Phillinganes and then the Johnson brother, Louis Johnson, on bass. Yeah, you couldn’t miss with that. If you wanted to be modern and up-to-date at that time in the music business, that was the team. Rod Temperton, who wrote all those songs for Michael [Jackson], was a great songwriter, and Quincy had already locked into him.
Rod Temperton was tough on me. He said, “No, no, no, you’re singing your melody; I want you to sing my melody, the one I wrote, sing that.” So I stiffened up, and I sang his melody. And then he said, “Now, loosen up and do something.” I said, “But you just stopped me from loosening up.” He said, “Well, no, this is the time to loosen up. You’ve got the melody down; now loosen up.” At first I thought it was pretty harsh. But I got the point.
And then the album was done. I had been in the studio every day for about a month. And the next day I was on my way home, and Quincy called me in the middle of the night. “George, you can’t leave now, we got one more song.” I said, “No. Quincy. No, man. Uh-uh. I been with ya’ll for a month. I’m going home!” He said, “We got everybody here in the studio, all the main parts are already done. And we got the guys standing by in case we need them.” He said, “It’s going be easy.” And I went there and it was “Give Me the Night.” Can you imagine if I had done that album without that song in it?
It would’ve changed the title of the album for sure.
Yeah. That song is still very, very popular even today, almost 40 years later.
Wherever you are, when that song comes on, you just can’t sit still. It just makes you move.
Quincy tricked me into doing that voice. [sings a line of verse from “Give Me the Night”]
I had sang it regularly, trying to put as great a voice as I could on it. He said, “George, try it one more time.” And I said, “Quincy, this ain’t going nowhere.” [sings another line of verse]. He said, “George, give me a take like that.” I said, “No, I know you, man. You’ll put that on the record.” He said, “No, I’m not gonna put that on the record. I just want to hear it one time.” So I did a whole take of [sings another line of verse]. And sure enough, he did a test pressing, and he had that voice on it.
And I said to myself, “Boy, how did I let him trick me into that?” But after hearing it three times, I got used to it. And then I took it off. As soon as I took it off, one of my sons came in; he was a little boy, about 10 or 11 years old. He said, “Dad, can you play that song again?” I said, “What song?” He said, “The one that goes [sings another line of verse].” And I knew I had a smash on my hands, because my kids never ask me anything about my music, ever. [laughs]
From the mouth of babes, right?
Yeah, you know, they’re proud of you.
There’s something about that song, George. The first two bars. It just pulls you in. I remember back in the vinyl days, I played it over and over. The last thing I wanted to ask you about was — you beat me; you’ve got seven kids, I have six.
Seven boys, no daughters.
I have four daughters, two boys. I always say my boys are easier.
Yeah, they are.
I know that you’re a family man. And one of the things that I’ve always loved and respected about you is, as big and as popular as you got, you always kept it clean. I mean you sang about relationships and romance, but it was always classy and clean. And I always kind of said, “Well, that’s because George is a family guy, and he’s very spiritual.” Would you agree?
I’ve been with my wife, this is the 54th year.
I do have eight granddaughters though, and one grandson. My cousin said it better than I could say it. He said, “Nature fights back, man.” Because out of those seven boys, somehow I ended up with eight granddaughters and one grandson. He said, “Nature fights back. I’ve been telling you that, man.”
But, yeah, I love family. I always knew that I was gonna be a family man. And I knew I was gonna have a lot of sons. It happened that way, so I was very, very happy with that. But time goes by so fast. It’s hard for me to believe where we are in history right now. Because it feels like a few months after I came to New York, and I came to New York to live in late 1965.
Have you been in North Jersey since then?
No, I just sold that house, though, that I had for many years. But I was living in Maui, Hawaii, for a while. That was my second home. And then I moved to where I live now in Paradise Valley, Arizona. I’ve had some nice places, you know, and I moved here to get away from the hustle and bustle, because they were wearing me out on the East Coast.
It can be a rat race, and certainly, Arizona’s a place to chill.
Yeah, especially where I am in my life right now, because I’m semi-retired. And they’ve got a lot of doctors and things here. And sunshine almost every day. And fresh dry air. It’s all clean, and breathing is easier. So that’s why I’m here. And I’m practicing.
You probably don’t get interrupted as much.
I think that’s right. I have a guitar everywhere in my house. I’m looking at one right now, which I’m gonna grab when I get off this phone.
George, it was great talking to you. Thank you so much.
I appreciate it, man. You take it easy. - Michael Fagien