Retro Interview With George Benson

If Louis Armstrong was “The father of Jazz” as Ken Burns proclaimed in his 2000 documentary “Jazz – The Story of American Music” then George Benson has to be its favourite son. If there was a Beatles in this genre it would have to be George Benson – he is our poster boy.

Benson’s ‘Breezin’ album in 1976 served as the most important turning point in this genre. Smooth Jazz producer and guitarist Paul Brown say’s “Breezin,’ changed the course of Jazz, it influenced a generation of musicians in a dramatic fashion .That was the beginning of Smooth Jazz.” Guitarist Nick Colionne ads, “I left my girl friend to go buy the record!” It was that kind of album! There were no grey areas when it came to ‘Breezin’ – if you wanted it, you wanted it now! It has since sold over 10 million copies worldwide but proving he was no one trick pony Benson kept varying his formula.

In the eighties he was known as successful Pop artist with hits like ‘Turn Your Love Around’ and ‘Lady Love Me (one More Time).’ He started the nineties with ‘Big Boss Band’ featuring the Count Basie Orchestra and let’s not forget how his guitar chops we’re turning heads long before ‘Breezin.’ Classic albums like ‘White Rabbit’ and ‘Bad Benson’ from his CTI years and ‘The George Benson Cookbook’ from CBS had some predicting Benson to be the heir apparent to guitar Gods Charlie Christian to Wes Montgomery.

george_benson_john_beaudin_walle_cameronBackstage at the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards with Lifetime Achievement Award honouree George Benson. (left to right) Smooth Jazz Now President John Beaudin (awards co-chair/ Broadcaster nominee), George Benson and Walle Larsson (Broadcaster Nominee) from COOL FM in Winnipeg. The Oakville Centre of Performing Arts. April 10, 2005.

John Beaudin – Hi George. Right off the bat I have to tell you that when I heard “The Other Side of Abbey Road” I thought some of those were your songs. I was really young at the time.

George Benson – (laughing) Is that right, man?

John – Yeah, I heard you singing “Oh Darlin” and I thought that was your baby.

George – (laughing) Yeah, that was a good tune man.

John – So was “The Other Side of Abbey Road” really released just three weeks after The Beatles “Abbey Road?”

George – It wasn’t too long. They had just come out with it and I was in Creed Taylor’s office and we were trying to come up with ideas for the next project and he pulled the album out and said, “Do you know this album?” I told him no, in other words, I don’t listen to nothing by The Beatles except maybe “Yesterday.” That was the only Beatles song that ever appealed to me. Creed asked me to take it home to see if there was anything on it that I might like. I did take it home and listened to it and thought everything on here sounds good. In other words pick one and we’ll do it and he said, “Good, we’ll do the whole thing.” (laughing) I said “What?” I couldn’t believe he was talking about reproducing all of it but that’s how we got it to that stage.

John – Your former CTI and WEA rep Linda Nash got us connected.

George – You have to have a fan like that, you have to have someone who believes in you and keeps encouraging you because there were a lot of down periods. Jazz is very frustrating in the sense even though you keep honing in on your art to get better and better it doesn’t guarantee it will affect anybody. It doesn’t really mean anything commercially speaking. If you do something spectacular in other types of music folks will take notice but in Jazz music they expect you to be spectacular every time out. They say, ‘Well, so what?’ So that created a challenge for me I thought how do I get to them in a way that makes them feel something different, a powerhouse to get them to notice me. It was very tough but it made me work harder.

John – Did you feel appreciated by the public around the CTI years in the late sixties and early seventies?

George – What Creed Taylor did was very important because it was Jazz from a fresh point of view. He had some young players like Freddie Hubbard, Hupert Laws, Stanley Turitine and Grover Washington Jr. These guys all had great energy when they played so they gave it a freshness that hadn’t been seen in a while. Remember we were coming from the birth of the cool which was Miles Davis’ invention and people would be sitting down with dark glasses on in a nightclub and if they weren’t puffing on a reefer they were pretending to be puffing on a reefer. (laughing) With CTI we were bringing Jazz back out to the foot stomping stage where people tap their feet to the music and perhaps actually getting up to dance. So it was a fresh approach and during that era we did concerts together and we went out with a CTI package. I think it was called a CTI spectacular or something and we had crowds that went crazy when we played and that’s what I thought music was all about. It should do that! I played with that kind of conviction every time I picked up my instrument. It was about making a connection to communicate not to just give them a whole lot of notes or playing to people who might be half out of their minds. (laughing)

george_benson_00030John – Jack McDuff was the guy who impressed upon you the importance of the Blues. It was simple but integral, isn’t that what he told you?

George – Jack McDuff made me aware of something. You know I used to complain about playing the Blues all the time because Jack played everything from a Blues point of view and if he had his way he’d play nothing but the Blues all night. (laughing) I like melody and he realized that there were some songs that had the melodic that was very important. He told me, “George, Blues is the only music that you can play in the world that will have an audience anywhere. If you play the Blues people will like it. That’s anywhere in the world; China, Japan, Russia and you know something? I think he was right! (laughing) Everywhere we played the Blues people would stand up and take notice and the fun would begin. (laughing)

John – I remember reading a review of “In Flight” from one of the bigger U.S. papers. The guy said something that I really enjoyed and that was you made him listen to the lyrics of “Nature Boy” like it was a brand new song. That’s a great endorsement.

George – That’s right man. That’s what it’s all about, communication in the story. I always ask did you really get the message over or were you just flexing some muscles and some fingers. (laughing) That is the challenge but that’s the exciting part about music though, it is a challenge each night and each performance and I think that’s what kept it alive for me all these years other than that I would have gotten bored with it years ago. It keeps it alive and I keep discovering new things. When I hear new things I’m always thinking why hasn’t anybody thought about that before? (laughing) Then I start examining what it is I have -heard and try to incorporate some of it in my playing but only if it can flow in my playing naturally. If you have to change styles or change your whole vision of music then no but if there’s something that’s in there that’s tasty or something that you can use that can make that pie taste a little bit different and better then that’s good.

John – I know you’re a big Paco De Lucia fan. I know you enjoy his guitar playing a lot.

George – Sure do. That cat man! He’s amazing and I have to give his father credit for staying on him and making him play and he’s made the world happy with it and he’s given guitar players some great ideas and kept us on our toes. You have to have a cat like that or else everybody will be relaxing and soon we’d all be playing the same thing. He keeps showing “Hey, have you tried this? I know you’re never going to be able to play this but let me play it for you anyway.” (laughing) I don’t think he realizes how good he is and I think that’s the great thing about him. He’s still churning out the spectacular even at this stage of his life.

John – Hey, I’ve heard that said about you my friend! I’ve also heard from people who know you well that you’d be the last person to tell anyone how good you are but when you get on stage you sure can show them. You don’t talk it, you walk it.

george_bensonGeorge – I got you. That’s a good one. I’ll have to put that in my book.

John – Yeah, tell me about your book?

George – I’ve been working on it for about four years. It’s an autobiography and alot of the information is being compiled by a friend of mine who’s jogging my memory so I can tell these stories. We’re just about there and we should have that book finished this year.

John – What was the catalyst to you writing a book? I know you probably have some juicy tales to tell.

George – Well, my friends kept coming up to me and telling me to write one. They say, “Remember when you did this?” Certain things I hadn’t thought about in years and had forgotten but not completely. When I’d tell them stories they say, “Man, the world has to hear that.” So I started doing it by jotting down little bits and pieces and it’s pretty interesting so I’m glad I did it because maybe in a couple of years I might have forgotten everything that happened to me.

John – It must also be a healing experience to look back to relive these tales for the book?

George – Yeah. Jack McDuff and the old days when he was called the Silver Fox. There would be five woman waiting for him when he got off the stage including his wife. (laughing)

george_bensonJohn – (laughing)

George – (laughing) And that didn’t matter to him. He tried to take all five of them with him.

John – (laughing) Put me down for 10 of those books.

George – (laughing) You know Joe Dukes was jealous of that so he tried to keep up to Jack. He was the star of the band because he was the drummer and he was very flashy and different and people loved him. His finale was playing the drums backwards. After playing the devil out of the drums he stood up at the end and turned around and put the back of his heel on the bass drum and played the drum roll on the bass drum while he played the cymbals backwards and that knocked the socks off of people every night. He and I had a terrible rivalry going because we were almost the same age and we’d have conflict over women. (laughing) Red Holloway was like my dad or an older brother and he would tutor us and keep us out of trouble but he was always in trouble. (laughing). There would be guys looking for him with guns because he had their wives in his hotel room. (laughing)

John – (laughing) Never minal_jarreau_george_bensond put me down for 40 of those books!

George – (laughing)

John – Did you think you were building something back then with the music?

George – Not really man. I was so happy to be out there learning something on the guitar and remember I was the singer who happened to play guitar because in my home time there were not a lot of guitar players. Anyone who owned a guitar was sought after because the guitar started gaining a lot of recognition when Rock and Roll became famous and also when the organ groups came out. So everybody had to have a guitar in their band but there were not many guitarists in my home town and especially my age that could play with the youngsters. Then I came up a few notches in age because there were not many middle aged guitar players either. So I had to learn to play enough to get some gigs. I had to take advantage of that but still I was known as a singer until Jack McDuff took me on the road. He said he didn’t like singers and his reasoning was that the singers get all the credit no matter how good the band was. It could be the Count Basie Orchestra or Duke Ellington but everybody is waiting for the singer to come on. The singer could be mediocre, he didn’t have to be good but they would get all the credit and he hated that.

John – Well, at least George Benson the singer sure made up for lost time.

George – (laughing) I’ll tell you what a guy just told me the other day. It was something that Jack McDuff said, he said, “Boy, if I had known George Benson could sing like that he would have been singing in my band.” I had never heard that back then though. No one had ever said that to me. I always thought even when Jack died that he left here not really appreciating that. It didn’t bother me because he didn’t hire me for that. He hired me to play guitar and I did my best but he made that statement to a friend of mine before he died and I thought that was pretty incredible.

John – I remember your early vocal stuff on CBS before you went to CTI. I appreciated “Tell It like It Is,” that wall of sound, sax, trumpets and then your guitar that was alive.

george_benson_900383George – (laughing) I got ya. There is a video that’s coming out because I had horns in my band for a little while with Tower of Power who used to be our opening act and I had some mean horn players from Los Angeles and boy did they play. There’s a video that we recorded in 1986 in Montreux, Switzerland and I just saw it the other day and their getting ready to release that and it’s coming out sometime this year hopefully.

John – I hear it’s not uncommon for you to show up at the Blue Note in New York to play along with you’re old buddy Freddie Hubbard.

George – Oh yeah, that’s my man.

John – Yeah, you two go way back.

George – Yeah sure.