I will always be grateful that my father introduced me to the music of many jazz greats while I was young. In fact, much of the music he played for me long before I began to study music formally, I fondly remember my dad playing the albums of Wes Montgomery, a jazz guitarist who blazed the trail for many to come after him. One, in particular, went on to become a favorite of many, and a jazz superstar. I’m speaking of guitarist, singer/songwriter George Benson.
Benson is a musician I could not overlook as I started to study music, and certainly he was an important part of my jazz studies in college. He also was one of the few music makers that everyone (within my family and circle of friends) could appreciate as a major musical talent. Before I entered high school, the world discovered George Benson the singer when in 1976 he released “This Masquerade”, which gained Benson a Grammy award for Record of the Year. I knew of guitarist George Benson some time earlier because my favorite trumpet player, Freddie Hubbard, in 1971 released his award-winning album First Light, with Benson prominently featured throughout the album. Benson’s 1976 album Breezin’ earned a place in music history as it became the first jazz release to go platinum.
Some may wonder why I chose to feature Benson this week. Well, last week George Benson made a concert appearance here in South Florida. I planned on attending earlier but personal events of life kept me away from the live performance – but not away from this feature. In fact, I struggled to find a proper title for this post, until I decided to keep it simple. I used a line from one of his hit songs “On Broadway”. If you wish to define George Benson using few words, two words that will always be included are music and guitar. One fact about George Benson is that he can play the guitar – very well. I have heard countless recordings from the ten-time Grammy award winner. I also have attended a few of his live performances. He is always in top form.
One fact that caught me by surprise is that George Benson recently celebrated his seventy-third birthday. Somehow, I never thought about the energetic, guitar virtuoso still performing live well into his seventies. Nevertheless, after finishing several American tour dates, Benson next month will be heading to Africa and Europe before coming back to the US. Certainly, there is still great demand for George Benson music, and he is able to deliver entertainment to a large audience of fans worldwide.
His story is not very different from many other successful musicians, as he was a child prodigy. Benson was born and raised in the Hill District in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the age of seven, he first played the ukulele in a corner drug store, for which he was paid a few dollars. At the age of 10, he recorded his first single record, “She Makes Me Mad”, with RCA-Victor in New York, under the name “Little Georgie”. Benson attended and graduated Schenley High School. As a youth, instead, he learned how to play straight-ahead instrumental jazz during a relationship performing for several years with organist Jack McDuff. At the age of 21, he recorded his first album as leader, The New Boss Guitar, featuring McDuff. Benson then signed with Creed Taylor’s jazz label CTI Records, where he recorded several albums, with jazz heavyweights guesting, to some success, mainly in the jazz field. His 1974 release, Bad Benson, climbed to the top spot in the Billboard jazz chart, while the follow-ups, Good King Bad (#51 Pop album) and Benson and Farrell (with Joe Farrell), both reached the jazz top-three sellers.
It was 1976 that changed everything. As he recorded for Warner Bros. Records, a whole new audience began to discover George Benson. In 1976, Benson toured with soul singer Minnie Riperton. Also in 1976, George Benson appeared as a guitarist and backup vocalist on Stevie Wonder’s song “Another Star” from Wonder’s album Songs in the Key of Life. He also recorded the original version of “The Greatest Love of All” for the 1977 Muhammad Ali bio-pic, The Greatest. The live take of “On Broadway”, recorded a few months later from the 1978 release Weekend in L.A., also won a Grammy.
I remember well the year 1981, the Qwest record label (a subsidiary of Warner Bros., run by Quincy Jones) released Benson’s breakthrough pop album Give Me The Night, produced by Jones. Of course by this time, jazz artist Quincy Jones was well-known for producing some of the best R&B of all time. Michael Jackson found major success with Jones and so did Benson. Benson made it into the pop and R&B top ten with the song “Give Me the Night” (written by former Heatwave keyboardist Rod Temperton). More importantly, Quincy Jones encouraged Benson to search his roots for further vocal inspiration. That inspiration led to several vocal albums for Benson into the 1990s.
Today George Benson travels around the world providing music fans with concerts filled with his timeless music. Benson has played in just about every arena imaginable, even on Broadway, only because he can play the guitar well. In fact, Mr. Benson can sing too. If you get an opportunity, buy a ticket when George Benson comes near your home. I will guarantee you will hear one of the best guitar players of all time. If you’re not familiar with his music, take a moment, download and listen to a few George Benson albums. That’s exactly what I did this week and I enjoyed every minute.