You may know George Benson as an accomplished jazz guitarist. Or you may be familiar with his smooth R&B vocals, like on the track "On Broadway."
What you may not have known is that as a child, Benson sang and played ukulele in nightclubs. As a teenager, he picked up the guitar and started working on his craft as a player, not a singer, though he has found success in both arenas. At the age of 19, Benson joined organist Jack McDuff's band, where he received a deeper education in jazz. From there, he transitioned into worldwide success as an R&B artist, which afforded him the freedom to do what he wanted, and do it well.
Benson recently spoke with Shift's Tom Allen about working with Miles Davis, how he avoided the downside of success and how he keeps his fans happy.
Listen to Tom Allen's full interview with George Benson.
Tom Allen: I understand that you started out singing in a rock band when you were 17. Can you tell me about that? What was the band called?
George Benson: Actually that was one of my bands, and it was called George Benson and his All-Stars. But before that, when I was seven years old, I worked in a nightclub and when I was 10 years old I made my first record as Little Georgie Benson the singer. So I had a career a long time ago.
TA: Yes indeed, and in terms of singing, that was really your identity for a very long time before you became known as a guitarist.
GB: That’s right. I’ll tell you this incredible story. This guy came through my hometown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the guitar was starting to become very popular with organ groups and he had a hard time finding a guitar player. He heard about me. I sat in with him and he loved what he heard so he took me on the road. I explained to him that I wasn’t a guitar player, I was a singer who happened to play guitar and he found out that first night so he fired me that very same day he hired me. But he couldn’t find anybody to replace me right away, so he said when I get to New York I’ll find a job for you, don’t worry about it. But when we got to New York, his manager said you can’t fire this kid, your band sounds so much better with him. So I began to have a career as a guitar player from that day forward.
TA: How old were you then?
GB: 19 years old.
TA: From there, tell me about your transition into jazz.
GB: The organ group I was with played R&B and swing music, and a touch of jazz. But that was good enough to get to me to thinking about improvisation. So after a few embarrassing performances I began to practice for the first time in my life and thinking about the guitar. And then one day a guy said something to me that no one else has ever said – he called me a guitarist. Nobody ever called me a guitarist; they called me a guitar player. This guy, in an article, and he didn’t say nice things about me, but when he said I was a guitarist, that was all he needed to say to me. I was truly honoured.
TA: Was it somehow more honourable to be a guitarist, to be known as somebody who could get what you wanted out of this instrument than it was to be able to sing?
GB: There were a million singers out there, and your chances of being successful was based on whatever hit record you could come up with, but you were still in great competition. So I had pretty much given up on a singing career ... I started recording as a sideman with a few people in New York. And all of them were light hits, nothing big, but records that were playing on jukeboxes. And who was the guitar player? George Benson, and boy what an honour that was for me.
TA: So then tell me about playing with Miles [Davis] because that’s a huge leap from the picture you painted at the beginning of your career to playing in Miles Davis’s band.
GB: A couple of years after I moved to New York to start my own band, I was in the studio with Ron Carter, which was one of his musicians, one of the greatest bass players of all time. It was him and Billy Cobham who played with Mahavishnu Orchestra, and the great Herbie Hancock. The record went off so well that the next day I got a call from Miles Davis so that means that one of the guys, either Herbie or Ron Carter, called Miles and told him about the record, that it was outstanding so he called me and asked me to come into studio and record with him.
TA: I’ve often heard the description of [Davis] being a rather intimidating leader. What do you remember about first walking into the studio?
GB: Oh he was definitely intimidating. You didn’t want to open your mouth around him, because you didn’t know how he was going to respond. So I just took direction from him. But I saw him do things in the studio that lived up to his reputation. The crazy thing is that we became good friends and he respected my playing, he loved my playing. I never did play with his band live but I did make a couple of records with him.
TA: Let’s just keep moving on through time and this amazing period that starts in 1976 with your hit “Breezin'.” You were 33 years old. These were years of stardom. How did it feel to taste worldwide fame?
GB: What a transition. I did what everybody told me that I could not do. First thing they told me when I started making records under the name George Benson, the guitar player, was that you will never sell records. I remember asking the producer, how many records do you think we’re going to sell? He said, "We’ll sell somwhere between 3 and 6,000." And I said, "What?" At that time there were four or five billion people in the world. And I said, "Man that’s impossible, that’s incredible." He said, "George, Miles Davis only sells 20,000 albums." I said, "Something’s wrong here. I think if you put something on that record that people want to hear, they’ll buy it." And my theory turned out to be the true one because now we have one record, that sold about 10 million copies, Breezin'.
TA: Did it have a cost? Was there a downside?
GB: The cost would be you could have a disconnect with your family if you don’t watch it. Because the trend is you’re making so much money you want to keep making it, because you don’t know when it’s going to stop. Nobody had longevity in their career except for an elite few. You had to be Ella Fitzgerald or Count Basie or Duke Ellington. But we made enough. And after we bought beautiful homes, I started thinking, what is this going to end up being for my family. I put some money in the bank and I started working when I wanted to work, that’s the important part, working when you want to work and not because you have to.
TA: You had this giant hit with the Leon Russell song “This Masquerade,” in which you were suddenly a singer again and your guitar playing, to a certain extent, got pushed to the side. How did that feel?
GB: Record of the year was worth it. That’s one of the things they said could never happen to a jazz musician. I was now the number one male vocalist on the biggest record company in the world, Warner Brothers Records. No one could have sold me that story.
TA: So let's go ahead to where you decided to step away from that treadmill and you were able to do what you wanted to do. So what did you want to do after that incredible peak period?
GB: Well I moved to Hawaii from Inglewood, New Jersey. I had planned on retiring there. I kept my word, I told [my managers] I was moving but they didn’t believe me. They came to the conclusion that they were not going to have an artist that they could book every day of the week anymore. So I started working weekends so I could have a family life.
TA: How many kids do you have?
GB: I have seven boys.
TA: That does require some time at home!
GB: Proves I went home.
TA: It does! At least seven times. Just one more thing, one of the trappings of being so versatile is that the crowds that want soul music and R&B will maybe complain that you’re too jazzy, and the crowds that want jazz are going to complain that you’re not jazzy enough. How do you make everybody happy?
GB: It’s true. There was a period that I went through that was very much like that. And you couldn’t make anybody happy. So I find that by being loose on the stage, not having a set program, I could cater to those who were giving me the most energy from the audience. And then use the other music to temper the show. One thing all the way through the show to me is boring. I don’t care how great the artist is. I find that if my audience is very young and they want to hear very young songs, my show will be dominated by that. But there’ll be some ballads here and there and some swing tunes. That works very well for me today.
George Benson will be playing in North America and Europe this summer, including a stop at the Toronto Jazz Festival on June 26.
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on Jun 25, 2012