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Like it was yesterday, I recall driving my beat-up Monte Carlo with the windows rolled down during one hot and humid day in July 1976. The car had torn seats, a rusty roof, a few hub caps were missing and there was no AC. None of that bothered me much. What made my jalopy special to me — what made my joy rides joyous — was the aftermarket cassette player with FM radio I had installed in the dashboard where a cheap, factory-installed radio once resided. On the day aforementioned, I had my upgraded radio tuned to the local progressive station, and through the large speakers I also had installed, I encountered a new song, one I’d never heard before.
At the time, the only jazz album I owned was Return to Forever’s Romantic Warrior. Still, this new song sounded “jazzy” to my ears. The singer sounded a bit like Stevie Wonder, but I didn’t think it was Stevie, partly because the guy on the radio scatted occasionally, and I didn’t imagine Stevie ever scatted. The guitar work on the song was impeccably fluid — I didn’t know yet that the singer was also the guitarist — the strings were elegant and the production pristine.
That week I did some digging at the local record store, where I discovered that the singer and guitarist were, in fact, both the same man: George Benson. The song, penned by Leon Russell, was “This Masquerade,” which was included on Benson’s recently released album Breezin’, the entirety of which I soon learned was a sharp stylistic departure from Benson’s earlier work. I bought the LP, took it home and proceeded to study the front and back covers, a ritual I engaged in regularly back then (when back covers served as large canvases of useful information). The front cover featured a handsome photo of Benson in a black tuxedo, sans guitar; the back cover included a photo of Benson with a guitar, along with track listings and a few paragraphs that mentioned the musicians who played on the album and, briefly, Benson’s story. Soon I began to check out everyone on that personnel list — even producer Tommy LiPuma — and started buying albums by each artist, including solo projects by keyboardists Jorge Dalto and Ronnie Foster, drummer Harvey Mason, guitarist Phil Upchurch and percussionist Ralph McDonald. The man credited with the orchestration and arranging the strings on Breezin’ was Claus Ogerman, and I found his LiPuma-produced Gate of Dreams, featuring Benson, David Sanborn, Joe Sample and Michael Brecker — and I began connecting the dots.
Those dots ultimately helped me launch JAZZIZ in 1983, but I’ll save that story for another time. Though Benson appeared on a JAZZIZ cover with Earl Klugh in 1987, it wasn’t until our 10-year anniversary that we commissioned a photo shoot for a Benson cover (detailed in our Spring 2019 35th Anniversary issue). By that time, I had already had several engaging conversations and encounters with George. The most memorable of those occurred one night at a hotel. We were sitting in the back corner of the hotel’s bar, talking. Not wanting to be seen, George had his back to the other patrons in the bar. Suddenly, when Whitney Houston’s version of “Greatest Love of All” began playing over the room’s audio system, George stood up, turned around and serenaded the crowd in a virtual duet with Whitney.
Fast forward to now. I’ve listened to Benson’s new album, Walking to New Orleans: Remembering Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, through a pair of B&W headphones in the comfort of my air-conditioned home. As the title suggests, the record is once again quite a stylistic departure from all of the jazz-guitar legend’s previous work. This time around, after many years of listening intently to each of Benson’s new releases, I picked up the phone, called George at his home in Arizona, and we picked up the conversation that we started years ago. An edited version of that discussion serves as the cover story in this issue. The unedited and uncut conversation is available as a podcast at www.jazziz.com. One way or the other — or both — enjoy. - Michael Faigen