Benson, George 1943–
George Benson 1943–
Jazz guitarist and vocalist
George Benson is one of the few musicians who has successfully crossed the divide between jazz and black popular music, neither ignoring the commercial possibilities in jazz nor abandoning his artistry when he achieved commercial success in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His hit recordings featured his light yet expressive singing voice, and to the general public he is known as well for his vocal work as for his guitar skills. But Benson came out of the jazz world, where he had a loyal cadre of fans, and returned to jazz when his connections with that world threatened to become stretched too thin. He is one of the figures most responsible for the presence of sophisticated jazz musicianship in the world of black popular music generally.
Born on March 22, 1943 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Benson showed prodigious talent from an early age, winning a singing contest when he was only four years old and enjoying a short career as a child radio performer under the name of “Little Georgie Benson.” He started playing the guitar when he was eight, but it was as a vocalist that he spent much of his vast musical energy as a teenager, organizing and performing with a succession of rhythm-and-blues and rock bands around Pittsburgh. He made recordings for RCA Victor’s X Records subsidiary in the middle 1950s. But Benson’s stepfather encouraged his instrumental efforts by constructing a guitar for him, and in his late teens he began to concentrate exclusively on guitar. Seeking out the music of modern jazz’s golden age, he became more and more interested in jazz, and was particularly inspired by recordings of saxophonist Charlie Parker and guitarists Charlie Christian and Grant Green.
In 1961 Benson jumped to the national stage when he joined the group backing jazz organist Jack McDuff. He played and recorded with McDuff for four years. Then he struck out on his own: he moved to New York City, then the capital of the jazz universe, and formed his own band. There Benson made two acquaintances who proved crucial in setting him on the path to jazz stardom: guitarist Wes Montgomery, whose soft tone and graceful octave playing provided Benson with his most important stylistic inspiration, and Columbia Records producer and executive John Hammond, whose unerring eye for talent brought
At a Glance …
Born March 22, 1943, in Pittsburgh, PA; wife’s name Johnnie; seven children, three deceased.
Career: Guitarist, vocalist, and composer. Played electric guitar in quartet of jazz musician Jack McDuff, 1962–65; worked as sideman and led own quartets as guitarist and vocalist, 1965-; signed recording contract with Columbia label, 1965; worked with producer Creed Taylor, first at A&M Records, then at CTI, 1968–74; signed with Warner Brothers label, 1976; released Breezin’, one of the top-selling jazz albums of all time, 1976; moved to GRP label, 1995; released Standing Together, 1998.
Awards: Many Grammy awards, including Record of the Year 1977; Best Instrumental Performance, 1977; Best R&B Male Vocal Performance, 1980; Best Jazz Vocal Performance, 1980; and Best Pop Instrumental, 1983. Platinum and gold record certifications for numerous albums.
Addresses: Personal Management-Turner Management Group, 3500 W. Olive Ave., Suite 680, Burbank, CA 91505.
such seminal musicians as Bob Dylan and Bruce Spring-steen to the label. Impressed by Benson’s growing list of sideman credits, which included work with such luminaries as Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard and later Miles Davis, Hammond signed Benson to Columbia in 1965.
Benson’s first two Columbia albums were It’s Uptown and Benson Burner. His 1960s LPs, two of which were produced by Hammond himself, were in the main bop-influenced vein of the jazz of the time, and they garnered the guitarist, who was still in his early twenties, plenty of positive attention in the jazz community. Searching for wider public recognition, Benson switched labels several times, landing first with Verve (1967), and then with A&M (1968) and CTI (1970–71). He came under the influence of jazz producer Creed Taylor, who had also worked with Montgomery, and who encouraged Benson’s natural versatility, backing him with various ensembles and cutting vocal tracks with him that reawakened Benson’s interest in singing.
It was another label move that paved the way for Benson’s breakthrough to mass success. Signing with Warner Brothers in late 1975, he released the album Breezin’ the following year. While much of the album reprised the light guitar-and-strings sound that was common in Benson’s CTI work, he took two great and accessible steps forward. First, Benson included on the album a frankly pop-oriented vocal, the Leon Russell composition “This Masquerade.” The song reached the Number One position on jazz and R&B charts and drove the album to the same position on the pop charts. Benson’s second innovation on Breezin’ was the introduction of what would become his trademark: scat singing along with his guitar, doubling it at the interval of an octave.
The combination was irresistible, and by some accounts Breezin’, which won three Grammy awards, became the best selling jazz album of all time. Benson’s pop vocals were self-assured and pleasant; he was in front of the curve which would lead to the highly successful, jazz-inflected “Quiet Storm” formats in black radio of the 1980s. The scat singing seemed to connote a satisfying kind of oneness between Benson and his guitar. “When I pick up the guitar, it’s an extension of what I am,” Benson told Guitar Player magazine. A series of commercially successful albums followed, most of which emphasized Benson’s singing. All six of Benson’s Warner Brothers albums of the late 1970s and early 1980s were certified gold (sales of 500,000 copies), andfourof them wentplatinum (sales of 1,000,000 copies). Benson credited his success in part to his conversion to the faith of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Like other jazz players who have followed commercially oriented paths, Benson has taken criticism from jazz purists who felt that he had abandoned his early artistry. Writing about 1978’s In Your Eyes, for example, Richard S. Ginell observed in the All Music Guide to Jazz that “[f]or jazz fans, Benson’s albums at this point become a search for buried treasure, for his guitar time is extremely limited.” Benson apparently took the criticism to heart, for in 1989 he made a full-blast return to jazz, recording Tenderly, an album of standards, with the legendary jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, and touring with Tyner’s trio that year. In 1990 he recorded the album Big Boss Band with Count Basie’s orchestra.
The music he made when he returned to jazz showcased part of what was best about Benson’s music: his versatility He was equally at home with small ensembles, with a big band, with a string section, with hard bop, with Latin-inflected selections, with popular sty lings. Through the 1990s Benson, his popularity assured, appeared in a wide variety of concert situations, and continued to manage well the balance he had achieved between the worlds of jazz and pop. He moved to the jazz-oriented GRP label in 1996, releasing the album That’s Right, a quiet-storm-styled work, and following it up 1998’s Standing Together in the same smooth-jazz vein.
For all his success, Benson’s life has been shadowed by personal tragedy. He has lost three of his seven sons, one to kidney failure, one to crib death, and one to gunshot injuries stemming from a bar fight. His losses led to an unusual commission in 1998: he was asked by father Mohammed Al Fayed to write s song in commemoration of Dodi Al Fayed, who died along with his friend Princess Diana of England in a 1997 automobile crash in Paris. “During the writing, I asked my wife to come listen to what I had written,” Benson was quoted as saying in Jet. “But when I got to certain parts, it became too difficult. My lips were trembling. I was thinking about my own losses and couldn’t get past it. It stopped me cold.”
George Benson/Jack McDuff, Prestige, 1965.
It’s Uptown, Columbia, 1965.
Benson Burner, Columbia, 1966.
The George Benson Cookbook, Columbia, 1966.
Giblet Gravy, Verve, 1967.
The Shape of Things to Come, A&M, 1968.
The Other Side of Abbey Road, A&M, 1969.
Beyond the Blue Horizon, CTI, 1971.
White Rabbit, CTI, 1972.
Bad Benson, CTI, 1974.
Breezin’, Warner Bros., 1976.
In Flight, Warner Bros., 1977.
Weekend in L.A., Warner Bros., 1978.
Livin’ Inside Your Love, Warner Bros., 1979.
Give Me the Night, Warner Bros., 1980.
In Your Eyes, Warner Bros., 1983.
20–20, Warner Bros., 1984.
Twice the Love, Warner Bros., 1988.
Tenderly, Warner Bros., 1989.
Big Boss Band (with the Count Basie Orchestra), Warner Bros., 1990.
Love Remembers, Warner Bros., 1993.
That’s Right, GRP, 1996.
Standing Together, GRP, 1998.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 9, Gale, 1993.
Erlewine, Michael, et. al, The All Music Guide to Jazz, Miller Freeman, 1998.
Kernfeld, Barry, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, St. Martin’s, 1995.
Romanowski, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Fireside, 1995.
Down Beat, October 1991.
Guitar Player, June 1999, p. 135.
Jet, September 7, 1998, p. 55.
—James M. Manheim
Guitarist, singer, composer
George Benson straddles the pop and jazz worlds, managing to garner fans in both. Although he is well known for his warm singing voice, which is featured on many commercially successful albums, he initially drew notice in the music industry as a young and innovative jazz guitarist. After many years of recording and performing primarily pop music, he resumed playing traditional jazz in the late 1980s.
Benson’s singing career apparently began soon after he could talk: in 1947, when he was just four years old, he won a singing contest and performed on the radio as “Little Georgie Benson.” Benson sang in nightclubs and on the street, where at age ten he was heard by a talent scout. This discovery led to his first recording, the R&B song “She Makes Me Mad,” on the RCA label. Benson cites jazz great Eddie Jefferson as an early influence on his singing. He told Down Beat reporter Lois Gilbert, “I felt he was one of the greatest jazz singers the world had known—he was to me the Bebop King.” Listening to recordings of groundbreaking saxophonist Charlie Parker and guitarist Grant Green increased his interest in jazz, and at seventeen, he led a five piece R&B group, in which he played rhythm guitar and sang.
Benson’s big break came in 1961 when he joined Jack McDuff’s organ trio as an electric guitarist. He toured and recorded with McDuff until 1965, when he left to lead his own quartets. In addition to singing and playing electric guitar with his own group, he played as a sideman for such jazz masters as Ron Carter, Billy Cobham, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, and Lee Morgan. Benson’s first album as a leader, Benson Burner, was released in 1967. Although his singing was considered unremarkable, his brilliantly searing guitar solos were hailed as the work of a promising new jazz guitarist.
Benson’s guitar style—especially his octave playing and soft tone—reflects the influence of Wes Montgomery, the legendary guitarist who set the pattern for the younger musician’s career. Both worked under producer Creed Taylor, who first steered Montgomery from jazz playing to pop success, and then did the same for Benson. Benson initially worked with Taylor at A&M Records, joining Taylor’s newly established CTI label in 1970. Although Benson still played guitar, Taylor worked to showcase his singing, backing his vocals with orchestras. Benson continued to record some highly praised jazz, particularly on his 1971 album Beyond the Blue Horizon.
For the Record…
Born March 22, 1943, in Pittsburgh, PA; wife’s name, Johnnie; children: Keith Givens (deceased), Robert, Marcus, Christopher, Stephen, George, Jr.
Guitarist, singer, composer. Played electric guitar in Brother Jack McDuff’s quartet, 1962-65; worked as sideman and led own quartets as guitarist and singer, beginning in 1965; recording artist with Columbia Records, 1965-68; worked with producer Creed Taylor, first at A&M Records, then at Taylor’s CTI label, 1968-72; recording artist with Warner Bros. Records, beginning in 1976.
Awards: Numerous Grammy awards, including record of the year, 1977, best instrumental performance, 1977, best R&B male vocal performance, 1980, best jazz vocal performance, 1980, and best pop instrumental, 1983; multiplatinum award for Breezin’; several other platinum and gold records; honorary degrees in music.
Addresses: Record company —Warner Bros., 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505-4694.
Benson disliked his lack of autonomy under Taylor, so he moved to Warner Bros. and producer Tommy LiPuma. Benson and his group recorded with LiPuma, who overdubbed the strings section to sweeten their sound. At this time Benson developed his style of scat singing the identical line he was playing on the guitar. His 1976 Warner Bros. album Breezin ’, which includes the hit “This Masquerade,” sold four million copies and broke the instrumental sales record for that year.
Benson started the 1980s by attempting to break into the dance market with Give Me the Night. Produced by Quincy Jones, who also produced Michael Jackson’s phenomenally popular dance album Off the Wall, Benson’s album achieved moderate success. Benson told Gilbert that he was striving to appeal to a variety of listeners: “I don’t ever want to be pigeon-holed, and I don’t want to make records that just sit on a shelf,” he said in Down Beat. “I want them to be spinning on somebody’s turntable.”
Benson’s commercial success in the 1970s and early 1980s was coupled with criticism for his virtual abandonment of traditional jazz. Jazz purists were disappointed that Benson’s early promise as a jazz guitarist had not been fulfilled. Although Benson had dabbled in playing jazz guitar—as in his performance with Benny Goodman on public television’s Soundstage Tribute to John Hammond— he did not dedicate an entire album to his jazz playing until 1989, when he collaborated with jazz masters McCoy Tyner, Lenny Castro, and Ron Carter on the hit Tenderly. Benson also toured with the McCoy Tyner Trio throughout the summer of 1989. Commenting in Down Beat on his decision to shift back to jazz guitar, Benson noted, “With Tenderly, I very much felt I was reestablishing my jazz credentials and, although it took audiences a little while to get used to it, the response was eventually overwhelming.”
Benson took this favorable response to his jazz playing as encouragement to pursue a jazz recording with the Count Basie Orchestra (CBO). Their collaboration, the 1990 album Big Boss Band, was well received. Benson joined the CBO for several songs at the NorthSea Jazz Festival that same year, standing in for Ella Fitzgerald at the last minute. Benson reported to Down Beat writer Michael Bourne, “We had no rehearsal except for what we’d done in the studio, but the great vibe was still there.”
Benson’s trademark—scat singing a line identical to the melody he plays on the guitar—has earned him the admiration of fans and music critics alike. Although he generally sings in unison with the guitar, he occasionally sings an octave higher or lower than he plays. Even more rarely, he sings in harmony with his guitar. He told Down Beat’s Michael Bourne, “My guitar can do things my voice can’t do. It can soar and makes my voice try to follow, and I end up singing in octaves my voice can’t do when I’m just doing the vocal. When I’m doing it with the guitar, my voice doesn’t stop. It follows the guitar all the way up the scale and down. I don’t know how I’m able to get that much range, but I can.”
Benson’s attempts to juggle the roles of guitarist and vocalist, jazz innovator and pop success, have occasionally led to criticism of his lack of dedication to pure jazz. However, his efforts in the late 1980s to fulfill his early promise as a jazz performer have resulted in the expansion of his pop audience with jazz enthusiasts. Throughout the early 1990s that expansion gave signs of continuing as Benson worked on an album with Jon Hendricks, Al Jarreau, and Bobby McFerrin and considered a world tour with the Count Basie Orchestra.
Benson Burner, Columbia, 1967.
Giblet Gravy, Verve, 1968.
Shape of Things, A&M, 1968.
(With Miles Davis) Miles in the Sky, Columbia, 1968.
Beyond the Blue Horizon, CTI, 1971, reissued, 1987.
White Rabbit, CTI, 1971.
The Electrifying George Benson, Affinity, 1973.
Breezin’, Warner Bros., 1976.
Weekend in L.A. Warner Bros., 1977.
Give Me the Night, Warner Bros., 1980.
While the City Sleeps, Warner Bros., 1986.
Twice the Love, Warner Bros., 1988.
Bad Benson (recorded in 1974), CTI, 1988.
George Benson in Concert at Carnegie Hall (recorded in 1975), CTI, 1988.
(With McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, and Lenny Castro) Tenderly, Warner Bros., 1989.
Big Boss Band Featuring the Count Basie Orchestra, Warner Bros., 1990.
(With Jack McDuff) George Benson and Jack McDuff, Prestige. The Other Side of Abbey Road, A&M.
20/20, Warner Bros.
Livin’ Inside Your Love, Warner Bros.
Feather, Leonard, and Ira Gitler, The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies, Horizon, 1976.
Lyons, Len, and Don Perlo, Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters, William Morrow, 1989.
The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, volume 1, edited by Barry Kernfeld, Macmillan, 1988.
Audio, February 1987; December 1989.
Chicago Tribune, August 3, 1992.
Down Beat, November 1980; November 1987; March 1988; July 1988; November 1988; November 1989; December 1990; January 1991; October 1991.
Guitar Player, October 1987; January 1992.
High Fidelity, September 1988.
Los Angeles Magazine, January 1990.
New York Times, October 10, 1991.
People, October 24, 1988.
Rolling Stone, October 5, 1989.
Stereo Review, September 1988; November 1989; March 1991.
Variety, July 4, 1990.
World Monitor, November 1991.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Warner Bros. Records press material, 1991.
—Susan Windisch Brown
Best-selling album since 1990: Best of George Benson (1995)
Abrilliant jazz guitarist who smoothly crosses into other musical genres, George Benson earned pop music fame in the 1970s after placing greater emphasis on his singing. In the later years of his career, he has increasingly revisited his jazz guitar beginnings.
While growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Benson won a talent contest at the age of four as a singer. He continued making his mark as a singer throughout his teenage years with several rock and R&B groups. His step-father, a major influence in his formative years, presented him with a guitar when he was eight years old and promised the child prodigy that learning the instrument would pay off. The styling of saxophone pioneer Charlie Parker, in addition to guitarists Charlie Christian and Grant Green, fascinated Benson early on and in 1961 Benson, just eighteen years old, joined bandleader and organist "Brother" Jack McDuff. He elevated McDuff's music for four years with his hot jazz guitar work before leaving in 1965 for New York to pursue his own musical interests.
Benson arrived in New York with a solid reputation, having already worked as a sideman for other jazz luminaries such as Herbie Hancock, Billy Cobham, and Miles Davis. It was there that he met his most important influence, now-legendary jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery. The self-taught Montgomery impressed Benson with his ability to move comfortably from jazz to other styles and Benson began emulating Montgomery's soft touch and penchant for playing octave solos, improvisational note patterns in which a second string, the octave of the chosen note, is struck simultaneously. This technique is a staple component in Benson's guitar style. At times, Benson adds a third and even a fourth string, making it a chord solo.
Benson's first recordings were well received by the jazz community. When Montgomery died in 1968 Benson was looked upon as the heir apparent to his style and he did not disappoint. Benson recorded several critically acclaimed jazz works in the early 1970s, yet repeatedly switched record labels in search of a broader appeal and began playing pop interpretations of tunes like "California Dreamin" and "Unchained Melody." He also sang more and gradually developed the "scat" style soon to become his signature sound.
Warner Bros. producer Tommy LiPuma convinced Benson to add pop style string arrangements to Breezin (1976) for a more commercial touch and the mostly instrumental album became a multiplatinum Grammy Award–winning sensation. It made Benson a pop superstar on the strength of the album's one vocal, the hit single "Masquerade." Written by Leon Russell, "Masquerade" features Benson scat singing to his guitar solos, matching the instrument note for note with his voice. On later recordings, he varies the technique and sings an octave apart or lets his voice harmonize with the guitar. Critics note Benson's velvety high singing tone seems to have no limit when he lets it follow the heights reached by his guitar notes.
He continued recording successful pop albums throughout the 1970s and 1980s, spawning hits on the strength of his singing, such as "Give Me the Night" and "Turn Your Love Around." He also caught plenty of flak along the way from the pure jazz world, which saw Benson as a commercial sellout. However, most others recognized Benson as an artist who adroitly infused pop music with his jazz genius. He returned to a pure jazz sensibility in the 1990s with Tenderly (1989) and continued to avoid being pigeonholed by recording Big Boss Band (1990) with the Count Basie Orchestra. Big Boss Band is a departure from all previous work and Benson sounds like he belongs in the big band swing era as he croons classics such as "Without a Song" and "Walkin' My Baby Back Home."
An eight-time Grammy Award winner, Benson subsequently released recordings in the 1990s that mix jazz guitar instrumentals with a light blend of pop, Latin rhythms, soul, and R&B. They typify the smooth jazz sound that emerged as an extension of Benson's similarity to Wes Montgomery. Benson surprised the music world with the mostly instrumental Absolute Benson (2000), again letting his listeners know that he had not forgotten his beginnings. His pure jazz guitar grooves are marked by trademark octave and chord solos and there is a strong Latin influence. One of the three songs that he sings on the album is Ray Charles's "Come Back Baby."
From his time as a young man playing Pittsburgh nightclubs to the present, Benson has ultimately focused on being a crowd pleaser, an artist whose primary concern was getting his music out to as many listeners as possible. He nonetheless maintains respect in the jazz world for never letting go of his roots, and holds an honorary doctorate of music from the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.
George Benson/Jack McDuff (Prestige, 1965); Benson Burner (Columbia, 1965); It's Uptown (Columbia, 1965); The George Benson Cookbook (Columbia, 1966); Giblet Gravy (Verve, 1967); The Shape of Things to Come (A&M, 1968); The Other Side of Abbey Road (A&M, 1969); Beyond the Blue Horizon (CTI, 1971); White Rabbit (CTI, 1972); Bad Benson (CTI, 1974); Breezin' (Warner Bros., 1976); In Flight (Warner Bros., 1977); Weekend in L.A. (Warner Bros., 1978); Livin' Inside Your Love (Warner Bros., 1979); Give Me the Night (Warner Bros., 1980); In Your Eyes (Warner Bros., 1983); 20/20 (Warner Bros., 1984); Twice the Love (Warner Bros., 1988); Tenderly (Warner Bros., 1989); Big Boss Band: With the Count Basie Orchestra (Warner Bros., 1990); Love Remembers (Warner Bros., 1993); Best of George Benson (Warner Bros., 1995); That's Right (GRP, 1996); Standing Together (GRP, 1998); Absolute Benson (Polygram, 2000).
Benson, George, pop-jazz guitarist; b. Pittsburgh, March 22, 1943. He began learning the guitar at age eight. Having moved to N.Y., he first recorded as sideperson to Jack McDuff; he then recorded under his own name for Columbia, where he introduced his singing on “Willow Weep for Me.” He began to make his mark during the 1960s and early 1970s with his jazz-flavored guitar work. Under the name George “Bad” Benson, he scored his first British hit single with “Su-pership” (1975). His breakthrough came with the jazz-funk LP Breezirí (1976), when it became apparent that this skillful guitarist was a strong singer too. “This Masquerade,” a remake of the Leon Russell song, became the first U.S. Top Ten hit for Benson. The Stevie Wonder-ish vocals of Benson were pushed to the forefront on the next hit “The Greatest Love of All,” the theme from the Mohammed Ali movie The Greatest. In 1980, Benson teamed up with the Quincy Jones, whose jazz-tinged, soul-inflected sound made Give Me the Night a major commercial triumph; the album’s title track was Benson’s first Top Ten single in the U.K. and reached #4 in the U.S. This success with its financial rewards gave Benson the kind of security needed to tempt him back to jazz with Tenderly and Big Boss Band with the Count Basie Orch. One of the most popular jazz guitarists of all time, he has had such success as a commercial singer that few people remember his spectacular drive and fluency as a jazz instrumentalist. Nevertheless, his singing is gorgeous and heartfelt.
Discography: Beyond the Blue Horizon (1971); White Rabbit (1973); Breezin’ (1976); In Flight (1977); Weekend in L.A. (1977); Give Me the Night (1980); Tenderly (1989); Big Boss Band (1990); Love Remembers (1993); That’s Right (1996); Essentials: The Very Best of George Benson (1998); The George Benson Anthology (2000).
—Music Master Jazz and Blues Catalogue/Lewis Porter