Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania George Benson was seven years old when he played his first impromptu show in a corner drug store in 1950. As “Little Georgie” he was a mere ten years old when he made his debut recording, a single called “She Makes Me Mad” for RCA-Victor in New York. After enjoying a partnership with the jazz organist and organ trio bandleader Jack McDuff, the two worked together on Benson’s debut, The New Boss Guitar of George Benson with the Brother Jack McDuff Quartet, where the main man’s love of Hank Garland shone through, as did the fact that five of the cuts were self-composed. After a stint working with the producer John Hammond George moved first to Verve and then A&M. His 1968 album, Shape of Things to Come, charted and signaled a partnership with producer Creed Taylor that endured until 1976. Funk, soul and country permeated his recordings, all extremely well received, but it was his ingenious take on The Beatles, The Other Side of Abbey Road, that turned heads. Featuring Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws, Bob James, Herbie Hancock and a host of jazz horn luminaries and string players this five star release is a marvelous thing: check his version of “Here Comes the Sun”/”I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. Spectacular.
1971’s Beyond the Blue Horizon introduced a heavier element of jazz fusion as Benson covered Miles Davis – “So What” – and provided some of his finest tunes to date in a quartet setting that was powered along by Jack DeJohnette and Ron Carter – an authentic and brilliant listening experience that is worthy of rediscovery.
The CTI years provide many fine examples of the Benson method. One of the best is Bad Benson (1974) where he finds a guitar foil in the guise of Blue Note artist Phil Upchurch and teams up with brilliant drummer Steve Gadd. Cutting loose on Billy Strayhorn’s godlike “Take the ‘A’ Train” and Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” the combo sound ready for chart action with the latter track also shining bright on his In Concert – Carnegie Hall set.
Funk and dance floor pleasers dominate the next batch and George picks up his Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental Performance on “Theme From Good King Bad” in 1977.This era sees a sea-change in ambition and while the Creed Taylor partnership draws to a close what follows sends our man into the stratosphere. The album In Flight, produced by Tommy LiPuma will go triple Platinum while the hit song “This Masquerade” makes George a household name and a major concert attraction. Covering that Leon Russell track was efficacious and the title song, from Bobby Womack, draws George to a bigger crowd altogether and becomes a smooth jazz standard. Needless to say the many Grammy Awards he won here turned his career on its head.
In Flight and Weekend In LA, recorded live at the West Hollywood Roxy Theatre have a progressive fusion appeal. Benson was quick to alight on the Michael Masser/Linda Creed ballad “The Greatest Love of All”, that also appears on the Muhammad Ali biopic, The Greatest. And he stayed on the charts when his version of “On Broadway” made #7 on the pop list and #2 on Billboard’s soul chart. Another Grammy winning delivery this song has since become an AOR standard.
The fine compilation Space mixes some unreleased material with Carnegie Hall highlights. The double-album Livin’ Inside Your Love (1979) is another typically polished affair.
Quincy Jones’ amazing production for Give Me The Night includes a duet with Patti Austin on “Moody’s Mood” and an intriguing take on David “Hawk” Wolinski’s “Midnight Love Affair” – Hawk having links to Chicago’s James William Guercio and a stint as leader of the hippy anarchic combo Madura.
More Platinum there then and also Gold for The George Benson Collection, a comprehensive account of the better known tunes with new material like the infectious “Turn Your Love Around”, written by Bill Champlin, Jay Graydon and Steve Lukather, with fellow Toto man Jeff Porcaro adding an early use of the Linn LM-1 drum machine.
The Arif Mardin produced In Your Eyes includes the hit “Lady Love Me (One More Time)” and sees Benson firmly centered in the contemporary R&B bag. The soul/funk crossover leaps out on 20/20 (1985) where the Roberta Flack duet on “You Are the Love of My Life” and the original version of “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You” keep George on constant heavy rotation.
As does the pop themed While the City Sleeps with its plethora of Narada Michael Walden compositions and modern jazz production, replete with synths and programming.
Moving to GRP in 1996 GB sticks to the trusted on That’s Right and Standing Together but look in the credits and you’ll generally be surprised at the names he employs as guests – anyone from Nils Lofgren to Lenny Castro. Never likely to stand still he offers the terrific Latin jazz disc Absolute Benson in 2000 (with a nod to Carlos Santana) and reunites with Gadd, features Crusader Joe Sample and covers Hathaway’s “The Ghetto”. He is a high class artist, for sure.
For both sides of current Benson try Irreplaceable where you can hear him in R&B mood or smooth jazz and atmospheric, the 2004 Second edition is particularly late night and lovely.
Fans of jazz and scat were delighted when Benson teamed up with Al Jarreau for the 2006 disc Givin’ It Up, particularly since this offers a highly contemporary insight into how to merge the old school of Miles Davis and Billie Holiday with up to the minute artists John Legend and will.i.am – using the great Daryl Hall as a bridge. Paul McCartney emerges as a Benson fan by singing on the ensemble’s version of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me”, Jill Scott joins Jarreau to breathe new life into Lady Day’s “God Bless the Child” and there’s a cracking reading of the Seals and Crofts easy listening classic “Summer Breeze”. More Grammies, more great stuff.
Songs and Stories, Guitar Man and Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole round off our story to date. The Guitar Man set is especially significant for Benson fans as it is available in a variety of formats: standard, Best Buy, Official site, Qobuz/iTunes. Boxing the compass to the tunes of Stevie Wonder, Rod Temperton, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, John Coltrane and Lennon and McCartney, George lets it all hang out and has immense fun tackling Daniel Flores old Champs standard “Tequila” (incidentally the first rock and roll song to win a Grammy in 1959).
We also have a variety of compilations to act as handy introductions with 2015’s The Ultimate Collection being the latest and one that is available in 2-CD format with special extended versions and rarities.
Still going as strong as ever is our George Benson. This summer of 2015 he’s back on the European road with dates in London and Brighton. Expect special guest vocalists and a chance to catch his Mona Lisa smile and marvel at the guitar playing genius of the Boss man and his special silky skills.
Words: Max Bell
This A&M/CTI debut album by George Benson signaled the arrival of a true star in the jazz scene. Creed Taylor signed Benson immediately after Wes Montgomery's passing in 1968 -- he was being groomed for it by Verve's house producer, Esmond Edwards, and arranger, Tom McIntosh, before he ever came to CTI. Taylor paired Benson with arranger Don Sebesky (who had done plenty of work on Montgomery's A&M sides) and engineer Rudy Van Gelder. Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter (both members of the Miles Davis Quintet with whom Benson had guested earlier that year), bassist Richard Davis, and pianist Hank Jones were all guests. Benson's core band for these dates included organist Charlie Covington, drummer Leo Morris, and conguero Johnny Pacheco. The usual strings, supplemental horns, and backing voices in certain places (all Sebesky trademarks) are in place as well. All the stuff is here for Benson to fit neatly into the Montgomery mold -- except for one thing: Benson is a strong-willed artist. He wasn't going anywhere he didn't want to go and insisted on a certain amount of control on the date, and it's all for the better. This is one steamy little album that starts innocently enough with a lithe soul-jazz tune called "Footin' It," written by Benson and Sebesky. The flutes and cellos answer the head played by Benson. The strings fall in exotically as Benson begins to stretch and Covington answers with funk. Benson's guitar is not as smooth as Montgomery's; there is a defined edge in it and it's deep in the cut. Another interesting move was an experiment by Benson to use the Varitone device with Les Paul-like variable speed overdubs on his guitar. Covington alternately talks back and drones as Davis digs hard into the changes and keeps it simple but pronounced. Pacheco, like Benson, just goes nuts. By the time the strings and flute enter near the end your mind is already blown. Barry Mann wrote the cut as the theme song for a teensploitation flick called Wild in the Streets, and it was performed by Davie Allan & the Arrows. Benson turns it into a solid psychedelic soul-jazz number -- no grooves get lost; they just get under your skin.
And so it goes through this set, from the radical revision of "Chattanooga Choo Choo" to Teddy White and Aretha Franklin's "Don't Let Me Lose This Dream," a sweeping, slightly Latinized soul number given full jazz treatment -- the only facsimile concession that Benson makes to the Montgomery memory on the disc. Sebesky's huge brass arrangements pump the tune into something really progressive and tight. Covington soars on it as well, but leaves plenty of space for Benson's righteous solo. Benson contributes his own nocturnal jazzy blues with "Shape of Things That Are and Were," as if to say "I'm not Wes; that was yesterday." Sebesky's horn chart is punchy and underscores the blues in the tune, and the guitarist plays a killer solo in a relaxed, open manner, seducing the listener for the closer. Introduced by a lonesome, blues-drenched harmonica playing solo, as if in a freight yard, Benson and Sebesky turn in a funky jazz rave-up of Boyce & Hart's hit "Last Train to Clarksville." Other than the overly familiar melody line, this cut just takes off, with big bright horns, Morris double-timing the band, Carter half-timing it, and Benson digging into both multi-string chord leads and single-string leads that he twins with Covington's organ about halfway through his break -- this is the sendoff this brilliant album deserves. Shape of Things to Come is the true signal of Benson's arrival, not only as a major soloist, but as an artist who refuses to be pinned down four decades later. He's a pop star, a genius guitarist, a singer, a songwriter, and even now his own man. This is an album that deserves its classic status and wears it well these many years later.
Words: Thom Jurek
No, you're not in Creed Taylor country yet, but you might as well be, for many of the ingredients that would garnish Benson's albums with Taylor are already present in this often enjoyable prototype. The immediate goal was to groom Benson as the next Wes Montgomery (who was about to leave Verve) -- and so he covers hit tunes of the day ("Sunny," "Along Comes Mary," "Groovin'"), playing either with a big band plus voices or a neat quintet anchored by Herbie Hancock, and the sound is contoured to give his guitar a warm mellow ambience. But the eclectic Benson is his own man, as his infectious repeated-interval rhythm trademark tells us on his self-composed title track, and despite Tom McIntosh's mostly lame arrangements, George's work is always tasty and irresistibly melodic.
Words: Richard S. Ginell
George Benson's place as one of the greatest and most successful guitarists in the history of jazz is secure, but what's easy to forget sometimes is that he began his career as a vocalist, and if this release, a tribute to Nat King Cole, comes as any kind of surprise, it shouldn't. Benson's and Cole's careers are remarkably similar, both becoming known first as instrumentalists, Cole as a pianist, and Benson, of course, as a guitarist, with both eventually easing into the pop mainstream because of their voices. Cole was a one of a kind vocalist, of course, and even Benson wouldn't claim to equal him as a singer, but Benson has a similarly soothing and lush tenor voice that more than holds its own on these familiar songs. The album is bookended by two versions of the Cole classic "Mona Lisa," the first a rare recording of Benson at the age of eight singing it sweetly and charmingly while playing ukulele, while the album closes with a full big-band, Nelson Riddle-arranged orchestral version that also features some sweet guitar from Benson. In between are warm, smooth, and soothing versions of "Walking My Baby Back Home" and "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," a bouncing and bopping "Route 66," and nice takes on "Unforgettable" (featuring Wynton Marsalis), "When I Fall in Love" (featuring Idina Menzel), "Smile" (featuring Till Brönner), and "Too Young" (featuring Judith Hill), all given the full big-band orchestral treatment from the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra conducted by Randy Waldman (Waldman also arranged several of the pieces here). It all adds up to a sweet and very impressive album, full of warmth and heart, and it swings where it should.
Words: Steve Leggett
George Benson may have changed labels with That's Right, but he didn't change his approach. Like his other '90s albums, That's Right is jazz-inflected quiet-storm soul. It's quietly funky and always grooving, whether he's playing a light uptempo number or a silky ballad. As always, Benson's tone is smooth and supple -- it's a pleasure to hear him play, even if the material he has selected doesn't always showcase his ample skills. In fact, the unevenness in material is the very thing that keeps That's Right from being on par with Benson's early '80s contemporary soul records. Although the sound is right, and Benson's heart is clearly in it, he just doesn't have quite enough memorable melodies to make the album thoroughly engaging. Still, the joy that is readily apparent within his performance makes That's Right a worthy acquisition for fans of Benson's latter-day recordings.
Words: Thom Owens
As guitarist George Benson morphed from playing with chitlin circuit organ combos to becoming a pop vocalist, these sessions in 1968 formed a transition, and were a prelude to his works for the CTI label. There are five tracks each from the recordings Giblet Gravy and Goodies, featuring horn sections, takes on Top 40 hits, the funky go-go instrumental boogaloo sound of the day, and a slick approach to production values. Included as asides are a lone soul-jazz-blues number with organist Jimmy Smith, a lone jazz standard ("Song for My Father"), and a take on Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" backed by gospel/R&B vocalists the Sweet Inspirations. It's certainly not the best Benson of any era but far from the worst, and does give insight into where he was to go in the commercial music world.
Words: Michael G. Nastos
George Benson's sound is so recognizable that, in its way, it's quite comforting to hear his voice or his guitar come across on the radio or in a club. His recordings have been polished and extravagant in many cases, but there are those signature elements -- his relaxed delivery and silky touch on the strings and his voice, as evocative as a cool breeze floating across a hot summer night. Songs and Stories doesn't deviate from his formula a great deal, but it doesn't have to. He's chosen ten ubiquitous pop tunes from a variety of songwriters (and one by a relatively new kid on the block), and with the help of producers John Burk and Marcus Miller, he puts them across in fine style. The set opens with James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," with the great Brazilian guitarist Toninho Horta on acoustic to contrast with Benson's electric. The tune simply eases down into the listener, and more than a desperate plea as it was in Taylor's case, this version is a request that offers plenty of rhythm -- courtesy of a beatbox by Butterscotch and Paulinho Da Costa's percussion. Another standout on the set is the slow strolling version of Bill Withers' "A Telephone Call Away," with guest vocalist Lalah Hathaway in duet, Gerald Albright's saxophone, and Bobby Sparks II's B-3 all adding to the band's textural palette. Following it is an intimate small-group setting of a cover of "Someday We'll All Be Free" by Lalah's late father, Donny Hathaway. Young Southern soul singer/songwriter Marc Broussard contributes "Come in from the Cold" to the mix. Benson is accompanied by Tom Scott on saxophones, guitarist Jubu, Miller's bass, and Sparks' Hammond, embellished by some nice Rhodes work by Greg Phillinganes. The reading of Tony Joe White's "Rainy Night in Georgia" is unusual, and laden with strings, but it works because Benson doesn't try to create a definitive version of anything; he simply creates his own. There are also two fine surprises at the end of the disc: an excellent version of Smokey Robinson's "One Like You" with a large ensemble; and a downright funky take on Lamont Dozier's "Living in High Definition," which is sure to be a hit at contemporary jazz radio. Benson, Jubu, and Wah Wah Watson all contribute electric guitars, with Miller playing vibes as well as laying down layers of beats atop his own string arrangements. Benson fans should have a ball with Songs and Stories. It's consistently smooth in texture, its arrangements are elegant, and it's sequenced beautifully.
Words: Thom Jurek
Guitar Man, George Benson's second offering for Concord stands in contrast to 2009's Songs and Stories, though is not an about face. While the earlier album focused on Benson's proven, decades-long formula for pop and smooth jazz -- a group of of easy grooving tunes featuring his silky voice and shimmering guitar work -- this set focuses (primarily) on Benson as a contemporary jazz guitarist. While slickly produced by John Burk, this full-length is an ambitious but readily accessible collection with lithe, languid grooves and stellar playing. Primarily arranged by musical director/keyboardist David Garfield, Guitar Man contains eight instrumentals, which include beautiful solo readings of the standards "Tenderly," which opens the disc, and "Danny Boy." There is a lush, balladic, string-laden arrangement of the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" -- a consciously chosen reminder of Benson's work at A&M. Another highlight is his very contemporary but digified reading of John Coltrane's "Naima," which is simply gorgeous. It begins largely solo before the band enters halfway through, led by Harvey Mason's empathic drumming. The reading of "Tequila" here is warm, funky, and fun, with fine piano work by Joe Sample and percussion by Lenny Castro. Likewise, the reading of Arlen's and Harburg's "Paper Moon" displays beautiful interplay between Benson and Sample. Of the vocal tunes, the cover of Stevie Wonder's "My Cherie Amour" is the standout, but "My One and Only Love," with a long solo guitar intro, is very fine too. The set ends with two vocal tunes that contrast nicely. First is a very soulful treatment of the Buddy Johnson nugget "Since I Fell for You," with his voice and guitar accompanied only by Garfield's piano. Guitar Man finishes with Ronnie Foster's Latin-tinged groover "Fingerlero." Sample, Mason, and Castro star on the tune and Benson scats in trademark tandem with his guitar lines, sending it off in a contemporary jazz mode. As a guitarist, Benson is still at the top of his game; his musical eclecticism and his on-target accessibility are refined and equally reflected here.
Words: Thom Jurek
A few decades ago, when the release of a George Benson album was an event for either jazz guitar or R&B vocal enthusiasts, his projects indeed lived up to the album title he employs here. While the new collection probably won't be an essential part of the Benson enthusiast's library, it's fun to see him trying to stay in the post-millennial urban groove hip with some of the younger generation's top songwriter/producers like Joshua Thompson (who's produced for O-Town, Aretha Franklin, and Babyface) and Joe. Those who wish he'd remember his prowess as a jazz guitarist have to content themselves with its general background capacity behind pleasant romantic vocal textures and easy grooving hip-hop shuffle grooves. Fortunately, Benson's in particularly fine voice, and most of the hooks are catchy from the get go. Conceptually, the best tunes are "Six Play" (which we soon realize is a love song to his six-string) and "Cell Phone," which postulates the idea that God and our late loved ones are accessible by wireless. There are a few stylistic deviations from the basic cool formula here, most notably the gospel-tinged "Whole Man," and the lush, gently exotic, flamenco-flavored soul tune "Strings of Love." The hope is that Benson's collaborations with the hipsters will expose his legendary talents to the kids who might otherwise shy away from the charms of an elder statesman.
Words: Jonathan Widran
Givin' It Up finds crossover jazz icons guitarist George Benson and vocalist Al Jarreau teaming up for a breezy, enjoyably melodic session that highlights both artists' long careers. Technically a duo album, it is Benson's first since signing with Concord Records. As such, it works as a nice reintroduction to both artists and even finds them reworking the Bobby Womack classic "Breezin'," which Benson originally covered on his 1976 album of the same name. Here listeners get Jarreau adding lyrics and vocals on a version that really evokes the classic '70s jazz-meets-R&B sound that was an original hallmark of smooth jazz. In that sense, Givin' It Up is a true joy for fans of that more organic, song-oriented approach to crossover music, with Benson and Jarreau digging in to such great songs as Seals & Crofts' "Summer Breeze," John Legend's "Ordinary People," and Darryl Hall's "Every Time You Go Away." Also adding some unexpected fun and celebrity sheen to the proceedings is an impromptu appearance by Paul McCartney, who joins in on Sam Cooke's gospel-inflected "Bring It on Home to Me." Throw in appearances by trumpeter Chris Botti, vocalist Patti Austin, pianist Herbie Hancock, and bassist Marcus Miller and Stanley Clarke, and Givin' It Up proves music is always fun with a little help from your friends.
Words: Matt Collar
Having achieved monstrous success as both a pop vocalist and electric guitarist, George Benson spends most of his albums switching back and forth between crooning over easy soul grooves and gracefully invoking the spirit of Wes Montgomery, the forerunner of the snappy "Breezin'" Benson string style. On Standing Together, he finds his most distinctive voice as an inventive scat vocalist somewhere in the middle of these two modes -- a technique he employs effectively here over brisk guitar licks on the best tracks, the retro-funky, densely percussive "Cruise Control" and the seductive Latin waltz "Poquito Spanish, Poquito Funk." Smooth jazz super-producer Paul Brown adds two clever touches to this latter track: a few brief symphonic washes and a soaring chant vocal behind the scat. The subtle soul Brown has given to a large handful of the genre's successful artists comes across best on the hooky "Fly by Night," which sounds like a great Boney James tune, only with Benson's guitar rather than sax in the lead. The set is bookended by the gentler guitar meditations "C-Smooth" and "Keep Rollin'," which don't challenge his catalog but are likeable enough. Between these standout cuts, however, Benson plays it pretty safe, functioning mostly as a lead vocalist on fluffy, easygoing romances he didn't write, like the title track and "Back to Love." "All I Know" is a far cry from "On Broadway," but as on that classic performance, Benson mixes a passionate lead vocal with the scat interludes listeners never quite get tired of.
Words: Jonathan Widran