George Benson Guitars
From hard bop guitarist to R&B/pop superstar, George Benson has worn a wide variety of hats over the years. R&B lovers know him as the guitar-playing vocalist who is responsible for such hits as "Give Me The Night" and "Turn Your Love Around," while the jazz world continues to treasure his classic instrumental albums of the 1960s and early 1970s. And it goes without saying that Benson's million-selling Breezin' album of 1976 practically defined the NAC, quiet storm, and contemporary jazz radio formats.
Because the guitarist/singer is so diverse and unpredictable, one never knows what he will do from one album to the next-and on his latest GRP release, Absolute Benson, the eight-time GRAMMY¨-winner surprises us once again by emphasizing instrumental music. While Benson's last album, 1998's Standing Together, was full of R&B/pop singing, only three of Absolute Benson's nine songs find him providing vocals: his rendition of Ray Charles' "Come Back Baby," an infectious remake of the late Donny Hathaway's soul classic "The Ghetto," and Benson's Latin-flavored "El Barrio" (a companion piece to "The Ghetto"). Everything else on the album is instrumental, and this time, Benson's distinctive guitar playing takes center stage. Though Benson is still quite capable of playing straight-ahead hard bop, Absolute Benson isn't a bop album. Blending jazz with R&B and pop, Absolute Benson aims for accessibility. From the haunting "Deeper Than You Think," the intriguing "Medicine Man," and the slightly Wes Montgomery-ish "One On One" to the funky "Hipping the Hop" and a thoughtful version of Stevie Wonder's "Lately," Absolute Benson illustrates Benson's virtuosity without sacrificing his commitment to the groove, the beat, and the melody.
On Absolute Benson, the guitarist is joined by an appealing combination of veteran improvisers and "young lions." While the bassist Christian McBride represents jazz's younger generation, pianist/keyboardist Joe Sample (who was a founding member of The Crusaders and presently records for GRP) and drummer Steve Gadd are jazz veterans with long and impressive resum*s. Other musicians featured on this new release include percussionist Luis Conte, drummer Cindy Blackman, and organist/keyboardist Ricky Peterson.
Absolute Benson was produced by longtime friend and collaborator (and Verve Music Group Chairman) Tommy LiPuma. ("The Ghetto" and "El Barrio" were produced by LiPuma and the Masters at Work partnership of "Little" Louie Vega and Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez.)
Benson and Masters at Work (who had previously collaborated with Benson on their acclaimed Blue Thumb Records album Nuyorican Soul) also brought in a number of special guest musicians to record "The Ghetto" and "El Barrio:"Carlos Henriquez, bass; Vidal Davis, drums; Luisito Quintero, percussion; and Claudia Acu?a, Lisa Fischer, and India, backing vocals. Richard Shade and the legendary Roy Ayers also contribute backing vocals on "The Ghetto."
Of course, playing with first-class musicians is nothing new for Benson-he's been doing it since the early 1960s. Born in Pittsburgh, Benson fell in love with a variety of music as a child and was only eight when he first sang in a local nightclub. As a guitarist, Benson's primary influences were Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery; but by the time organist Jack McDuff hired a 19-year-old Benson as a sideman in 1962, it was clear that he had become quite distinctive and recognizable himself. Benson's first album as a leader, 1964's The New Boss Guitar of George Benson on Prestige, was in the hard bop/soul-jazz vein and was followed by the critically-acclaimed, John Hammond-produced straight-ahead albums he recorded for Columbia in 1965 and 1966.
When one thinks of improvisers who defined straight-ahead jazz guitar in the 1960s, Benson's name is inevitably mentioned along with Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, and Grant Green. But Benson was never a jazz purist, and his love of R&B, rock, and pop became increasingly evident when he joined forces with producer Creed Taylor-first at A&M in the late 1960s, then at Taylor's CTI label from 1971-1975. While Benson was still best known as a jazz instrumentalist during that period, he didn't hesitate to incorporate funk, soul, and rock rhythms or interpret the hit soul, pop, and rock songs of the day.
It was in 1976 that Benson took the plunge and became a superstar in the pop and R&B worlds thanks to the platinum Breezin', which soared to #1 on the pop charts and contained his GRAMMY¨-winning hit recording of Leon Russell's "This Masquerade." For the first time, Benson was enjoying worldwide mass appeal.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Benson emphasized vocals and enjoyed one major R&B/pop smash after another, including "The Greatest Love of All" and a remake of The Drifters' "On Broadway," "Give Me The Night," "Turn Your Love Around," and the Kashif-produced "Inside Love," among others. But true to form, Benson refused to play any one style of music exclusively-he returned to classic standards and acoustic-oriented jazz with 1989's Tenderly and paid tribute to Count Basie on 1990's Big Boss Band.
The 1990s found Benson rejoining LiPuma-who had produced Benson's Warner Bros. recordings throughout the '70s and '80s-at GRP Records. Together they offered a modern vision of contemporary jazz on the 1996 gem That's Right. They also collaborated on 1998's Standing Together, which again showcased Benson's chops while bringing in elements of hip hop and Caribbean rhythms.
Throughout his career, George Benson has embraced everything from straight-ahead jazz to contemporary jazz to R&B/pop vocals. And through it all he has demonstrated that creativity and commercial success aren't mutually exclusive. Absolute Benson clearly continues that display.
Appreciated as both musician and performer by millions, George Benson has always had the duel personae of expert improviser and vibrant entertainer. He has always placed his keenly discerning art in the service of a rousing good time.
he's earned himself an impeccable reputation as one of music's most enterprising and engaging stars.
Few might have predicted that striking level of stardom some forty years ago, when Benson was a fledgling guitarist working the corner pubs of his native Pittsburgh. That's where his yen to please a crowd was born.
"I was an entertainer first," he says proudly "As a kid I sang, danced and played the ukulele in a nightclub. As my career has progressed, I've had the pleasure of playing with the baddest jazz cats on the planet. But that doesn't change my desire to entertain folks. That's really who I am."
It was Wes Montgomery, one of jazz's most creative players, who came across Benson early on; the vet complimented the young guitarist, urging him to continue his already impressive work. In the early 1960s, Benson apprenticed with organist Brother Jack McDuff; he found the organist's gritty swing a fertile ground for the sly, confident and adventurous guitar lines which earned him an early rep as a master.
"Jack turned me on to a lot of stuff," muses Benson. "A lot of the jazz tunes we played together were danceable, and that furthered my understanding of what people wanted. When jazz was danceable, it was king. The intellectual stuff that came later on - Charlie Parker and all that - turned toward a brainier sound. That was good, and I dug it. But I really like when people kick up their heels and go crazy."
Montgomery had called one of his best records Boss Guitar. Benson had both the conviction and chops to nip at his hero's heels; his 1964 debut was released as The New Boss Guitar. It lived up to its title. Benson's tone was juicy, and his blues solos sparkled with a carefully honed logic. A jaunty funk and swing aesthetic prevailed.
By the time legendary talent scout John Hammond signed Benson to Columbia, the guitarist's name was bubbling throughout the industry. His work for the label proved Hammond's hunch to be on-target: brains and flash were in perfect synch.
"I'd sat down with a great blind pianist from San Francisco name Freddy Gambrel," recalls Benson. "He turned me onto some wonderful ways to get in and out of chord changes and weld harmonies together. Of course I still wanted to be like Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, and Hank Garland - my heroes. I've always liked the hot guitar guys.".
Playing the combination won Benson access to all sorts of arenas. His work was boundless: in the late '60s he sat in on heady Miles Davis sessions, and also put a personal spin on the tunes from the Beatles' Abbey Road.
Hooking up with the CTI label in 1970, he was united with many of jazz's finest instrumentalists, including Stanley Turrentine, Ron Carter, and Freddie Hubbard. His visibility and prestige grew even further. Classic albums, such as Beyond the Blue Horizon, abounded. But after a while different ideas began to flow from Benson's muse. And the environment didn't seem right for growth.
"I'd been screaming about my guitar sound for years, and they didn't want to hear about it. I wanted to use my band in the studio, just get comfortable and test out some stuff. But it was like pulling teeth. The first time I tried to sing along with my guitar, everybody in the studio booed. They all said that it wouldn't work. When I got with Tommy LiPuma all that changed. He said 'Sure, let's go with some vocals, see where we get.' And you know what happened after that."
What happened was Breezin', the first jazz record to attain platinum sales. The 1976 blockbuster, his first in a long association with Warner Bros. Records, brought the instrumental title track to jazz radio. And Benson's soulful update of Leon Russell's "This Masquerade," which featured the guitarist scatting along with his solo break, was a pop smash. He followed up with a sultry version of "On Broadway," and the irresistible "Give Me The Night," which thrilled many a dancer. Benson was a superstar.
Some old fans were miffed about this new pop success. "I guess that's the biggest crime I've made as far as jazz lovers go," offers Benson. "They don't always like to see you play for the general public. They want to be catered to. But I've tried that approach and it doesn't work for me. Nobody can stay one way for 30 years. I've always tried to let my experience show itself. You learn, you change. The door opened and I walked through it.".
Throughout the 1980s Warner Bros. and LiPuma followed their smash success with several terrific Benson records. Individually, they blended grooves and guitar work, proving that R&B was a natural part of Benson's profile. Collectively, they cemented his global renowned. The guitarist has won eight Grammies, played around the world, and thrilled many crowds with his playing.
In the mid-'90s Benson followed LiPuma to the GRP label. Their association had proven artistically and commercially fertile; both wanted to sustain it. Together they cut the 1996 gem That's Right. It offered a modern version of contemporary jazz that reminded its listeners Benson was one of the genre's forefathers.
These days Benson's interests are many. He's often spotted out at Manhattan jazz clubs, checking the action of fledgling guitarists. The most impressive of the lot are sometimes invited back to Benson HQ for jam sessions and stylistic powwows. The guitarist is resolute about keeping the sparkle in his playing.
"The younger cats awaken something in me from the early days," says the 55-year-old, "I love listening and playing with guys like Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove, and Christian McBride. When they tell me I've still got the chops, I feel great.".
Benson's latest GRP disc is Standing Together. It not only assures that his chops are sharper than ever, but suggests that his studio savvy is continuing to grow. This time around, he uses elements of hip hop and Caribbean rhythms to keep his personalized R&B on the edgy side.
"I'm not against ear candy," he chuckles, "but I like mine to be significant, not just noises in the record. Some of those backing tracks on the new record are cool. They give me little tidbits of sound to bounce my guitar lines off of.".
Said like a open-minded creative type, which is exactly who Benson is. Unfazed by the constrictions of predictability, he's built a career on sniffing out what people enjoy hearing, and what he enjoys playing.
"I had to break a couple rules along the way," he reflects. "There was an unwritten law: be cool, don't get too raunchy. But jazz was once hanging-out music. And the easiest way to involve people is by getting 'em tapping their feet. When they're tapping a bit, they'll go your way. That's when I can float any kind of jazz line into the music. Once the audience knows I respect them, they let me be whatever I want to be. I hope - no, I firmly believe - that will always be the case."
- This Masquerade-Record of the Year (1976)
- Breezin'-Best Pop Instrumental Performance (1976)
- Theme from Good King Bad-Best Rhythm & Blues Instrumental Performance (1976)
- On Broadway-Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male (1978)
- Give Me The Night-Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male (1980)
- Off Broadway-Best R&B Instrumental Performance (1980)
- Moody's Mood-Best Jazz Vocal Performance (1980)
- Being With You-Best Pop Instrumental Performance (1983)
- Awarded Honorary Doctorate Degree in Music from Berklee College of Music (1990)