By Brian Soergel
George Benson has amassed a lifetime of stories in 67 years. And he’s created more than a lifetime’s worth of songs. Maybe that’s why the guitarist and vocalist titled his latest CD Songs and Stories, a mostly vocal project with several tasty smooth jazz instrumental tracks.
During a recent interview, Benson gamely reminisced about a few stories, delivering thoughtful and expansive answers that must be getting stale for the Grammy winner who’s conducted the interview song-and-dance since his teenage days.
One story fans might not know is one about his first musical instrument. No, not a guitar. It was a ukulele. The Hawaiian uke has enjoyed a tremendous upswing in popularity over the past few years as its ease of use and relatively simple learning process has led to enthusiastic music groups and packed community-center classes. But Benson, no doubt because of his busy touring schedule and on-the-go lifestyle, had no inkling of the four-stringed instrument’s comeback after decades of ridicule.
“I had no idea,” he said, sounding pleased. “When I was 7 years old, my stepfather met my mother, and he brought along his guitar.”
He tried teaching young George a few chords, but the youngster’s small hands thwarted progress. One day, the stepfather found a ukulele unceremoniously dumped in a garbage can.
“Somebody had busted it up and thrown it away,” Benson said. “So he glued it back together, put some strings on and taught me my first chords.”
It wasn’t long before Benson was "pulling in a small fortune"––his words––as a singer and performer. One day, after receiving a huge 20-cent tip selling newspapers, Benson entered a drugstore, uke in hand.
“A guy said, ‘Boy, can you play that thing?’ I played an uptempo song and everyone crowded around,” Benson recalled. “Then my cousin came in, took off his baseball cap and passed it around. So I would go out on the street corner and make more money in one weekend than my mother would make for two weeks in the hospital. That was beginning of my professional career.”
Of course, the future 10-time Grammy winner’s hands would soon grow and he’d get the chance to tackle the guitar. Fans will be able to see Benson’s continued expertise when he performs on June 13 for the sixth time at the famed Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Among those in his band are bassist Stanley Banks, keyboardists David Garfield and Tom Hall, and guitarist Michael O’Neill.
“It’s a fun show to play, and the best musicians in the jazz world are there,” he said. “We’ve had tremendous success every time we’ve played there. We love it.”
Benson is also scheduled to perform on Aug. 13 at the DreamCatcher at Viejas in Alpine, a community of San Diego County.
Benson’s worldwide popularity was recently on display in London, where he traveled in early May for interviews in advance of his shows there scheduled for May 28-June 4. To mark the occasion, a best-of collection, Classic Love Songs, was released in the U.K.
“The first week I went over there, it went from No. 18 to top 10,” said Benson. “I was on the top TV shows and interviewed by the top media, which is saying a lot at this point in my career.”
The arc of Benson’s career is well known. Inspired by Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and Hank Garland, among others, Benson launched his solo career in 1964 with The New Boss Guitar, a nod to Montgomery’s influence. During the ‘60s he played with mentor Jack McDuff, sat in with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, and put a spin on the Beatles’ Abbey Road before hitting it big with a series of top jazz albums in the '70s on the CTI label.
The album of Beatles' cover songs, The Other Side of Abbey Road, is one of Benson’s most successful.
“(CTI founder) Creed Taylor said, ‘George, I want you take a listen to this new album by the Beatles.’ The Beatles. Hmmm. OK, I like their music. I took it home, listened to it and told him everything sounded good to me. Creed said, ‘OK, we’ll do the whole thing.’ I said, 'What?' Because I knew the jazz people, they wouldn’t approve of it.”
But like similar, earlier crossover projects between Taylor and Montgomery, the CD further expanded Benson’s appeal.
In 1976, Benson’s career entered the stratosphere with Breezin’, his first collaboration with producer Tommy LiPuma. It became the first jazz album to achieve platinum status and soared to No. 1 on the U.S. Pop, Jazz and R&B charts. In addition to memorable instrumental songs like the cover track, “Affirmation” and “Six to Four,” it offered the vocal smash “This Masquerade.”
“I had no idea it would be so huge,” Benson said. “I just knew I had the baddest band in the world (including Phil Upchurch, Ronnie Foster, Ralph MacDonald and Harvey Mason). We rehearsed in my garage in the Bronx, and on the road we rehearsed every day. We were tight as a band, and that’s what I couldn’t get before. I couldn’t get a producer to allow me to bring in guys who I knew so well so I could be freed up to improvise how I wanted to. It all came to the fore on that album. I had a new guitar, new amp. It all worked like a charm.”
In April, Benson––who has lived in the Phoenix area for many years––was in attendance for the opening of The Musical Instrument Museum, which bills itself as the world’s first global musical instrument museum. The museum has an exhibit on Benson’s iconic Breezin . It owns the Gibson Johnny Smith guitar Benson used to record the album, as well as sheet music, a guitar strap, the Best Pop Instrumental Performance Grammy award, the Triple Platinum plaque (more than 3 million sold), and the 1976 Billboard Award. In addition, Benson’s 2009 National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters plaque is on display.
It was Breezin’ that inspired a whole generation of contemporary and smooth jazz guitarists, including Jonathan Butler and Norman Brown. Benson knows this, of course, and is flattered.**
**The complete George Benson story can be found in the June issue of Smooth Jazz News. Pick up your free copy at our radio station affiliates (see radio station page for listings), various concerts, festivals and select Southern California outlets. Or you can subscribe and receive 11 issues of Smooth Jazz News per year, mailed monthly (except January), for $35. Click here to subscribe online today.
For more information on Benson, including his complete tour schedule, visit www.georgebenson.com.
George Benson On Tour
32nd Annual Playboy Jazz Festival
2301 N. Highland Ave.
Los Angeles, California
DreamCatcher at Viejas
5000 Willows Road