George Benson has just celebrated his 72nd birthday but he has no intention of hanging up his trusty guitar just yet. “I don’t believe in going against the flow,” he explained when I asked him during a recent face-to-face interview – conducted in a secluded corner of a bar in a swanky London hotel – what continues to drive him. “If things are moving in a positive direction I’ll let it flow and try and stay with the wave. Things are going well and I wouldn’t like to disrupt what’s happening in my career because it’s been so beautiful. Everything has worked out in my favour so far. I think that if I never cut another record I’d still live well for the rest of my life off of what I have done.”
Thankfully, the Pittsburgh-born musician whose career began when he was ten years old in 1953 when he recorded under the name ‘Little Georgie’ isn’t content to rest on his laurels. Despite having accrued a staggering ten Grammy awards and selling millions of records around the world, his thirst for making music isn’t sated. Just recently it’s been like old times for the affable singer/guitarist who is currently riding high in the UK albums chart with a new career retrospective, ‘The Ultimate Collection,’ on Rhino. As well as this, he contributes a striking cameo on Van Morrison’s new critically-acclaimed album, ‘Duets.’
In a revealing interview with SJF’s Charles Waring, the groundbreaking musician who blurred the boundaries between jazz, soul and pop talks frankly about his life and career…
So how’s the UK been treating you, George?
I’ve mostly been right here in London this time, and we had a very busy day yesterday. We hopped all over the city: segway-ing from one radio station to a TV station back to radio. But it’s interesting. I’m used to it. I’ve been doing it for years and we’ve got so many wonderful people who know a lot about me and who continually express their deep love for me so I’m very, very happy.
‘The Ultimate Collection’ goes right back to your days at C.T.I. Records in the early ’70s with the inclusion of ‘White Rabbit,’ your cover of a song by psychedelic rock band, Jefferson Airplane…was that a song that you consciously chose to record back then?
No (laughs). I didn’t even know what they were talking about. I thought they were talking about a white rabbit. Then I found out that white rabbit is actually another name for cocaine. Since I don’t do drugs and never did, it took people on the street to come to me and say hey George, and they asked the same question you just mentioned. Why ‘White Rabbit’? I don’t know. To me it’s just a song. But that was the idea and if you notice on the original cover (of the 1971 C.T.I. album, ‘White Rabbit’ pictured left) they had a guy who looked like me knowing that they would never make me take a picture like that with my arm in a sling and white paint on my face. It was interesting. One of my friends one day sat down and explained all my album covers to me and I was shocked at what he said. He said: “this is you, George, they say you’re a drug addict, you’re hooked on drugs.” I said what?! (Laughs). They would’ve never got away with that if I had known but (producer) Creed Taylor was a very different kind of guy. He was trying to do what A&R men are supposed to: connect their artist to their listener. A&R is artist and repertoire and Creed did it through the repertoire: music that I could handle well and communicate. Creed Taylor was good at that.
What was he like as a producer to work with?
Sometimes difficult because I didn’t know what he was looking for. I think he did that on purpose. He didn’t tell me everything and just wanted me to hang out and play. Sometimes the songs were so long but he let me go on and I kept creating things. I was practising all the time so I had a 1000 ideas and he would let the song go on and on and on. I think it hurt me actually but in the long run, history will show a lot of my ideas.
(Quincy Jones, left. with Creed Taylor)
And of course you worked with Quincy Jones as your producer on ‘Give Me The Night,’ several tunes from which are included on ‘The Ultimate Collection.’ What was Quincy like to work with?
He was a taskmaster in the very early parts. I was used to coming up with an idea and saying to my producers “hey man, let me do it this way, let me try this,” and usually that was somewhat different from what the producer had in mind. But they let me do it. They’d say: “it’s different from what I thought but I like it.” But Quincy said “no, I got an idea. I’ve got something I’m looking for.” He told me: “George, I know you better than you know yourself.” At first I thought it was an insult but as the album went on I began to realise that he was coming up with things which were different. I heard myself from a different point of view. And then it started to be good. Every night after we finished recording – it was early in the morning, say one or two o’clock – I’d ride around L.A. listening to tapes of the sessions in the car and I couldn’t stop riding around Beverly Hills and listening to ‘Love X Love,’ which was an instrumental at first then later Rod Temperton came back with the lyrics and I said, “what, I’ve got to learn this all over again?!” (Laughs). But it was a lot of fun. That’s what made it good for me. As long as it didn’t get boring I was happy. And Quincy did not get boring. He never got boring.
You were a child when you began your recording career…
I’ve been making records since I was 10-years-old. I was always a star in my hometown. Little Georgie Benson they called me. And my mother got disillusioned by it all, by the press, who made it look like we had a lot of money. Her fear was that someone was going to kidnap me and ask her for money because they thought we had money. She had no money so she was afraid that it was going to get negative so she stopped it all and allowed me to have a kid’s life again. That’s why I can relate to people like Michael Jackson because I had that happen to me as a kid. There was a lot of negativity involved in it. But I thank my mother for her insight. She let me have a kid’s life. The worst thing was I’d be in a swimming pool with the rest of my friends and my manager would appear at the fence of the swimming pool and say “George, come on over here, get out of there, man, we got a radio show to do!” But that’s not important to a kid who was 10 years old. (Laughs).
Do you come from a musical family?
They never did anything professional. My mother was a singer but I was born when she was 15 years old. She just turned 15 and a few days later I was born. So we almost grew up together so she never got a chance to sing but she had a really unique voice. Her voice was very clean. She sang an octave above everybody else. She sang all the time so that made me familiar with all the songs because she sang all the great songs of our time and she took me to a lot of movies where I heard all those great arrangers who wrote those fantastic charts. So I heard all that stuff as a baby. When I started school and they found out that I could sing that stuff they wore me out: “Little Georgie come over here and sing something for us.” To me singing was not a sport (laughs). It was just something I did all the time.
As a jazz guitarist you followed in the footsteps of Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery. Who do you think will follow in your wake in the jazz world?
There are a lot of guitar players I like. Norman Brown and Jonathan Butler. They’ve got guitar players all over the world. There’s a guitar player in Hungary I like. His name’s Paul Lakatos. He plays guitar like breathing.
How often do you practice?
Virtually every day. My practice keeps me familiar with the instrument so there’s nothing that can disturb me while I’m playing.
Way back, Wes Montgomery was like a mentor to you, wasn’t he?
Yeah. To everybody (laughs).
What was he like?
Just like his music sounds. That’s what I’d like to be like. No different than what my music presents me to be: warm and creative, easy flowing, no hard edges. Creativity, yeah, but the hard edges just for the sake of it? Make a noise? No. It has to be musical. Montgomery was the most musical cat. But he was decidedly a jazz guitar player. I didn’t have the fortune that he had. He grew up in the era when jazz was King.
Was that an era that you would have liked to have been born into?
Who really knows? But would I be here today if I was? That’s another story. So perhaps I was born at the right time. I got a chance to stretch out the ideas that Montgomery first introduced and used some of his ideas to add to my own vision of music. He inspired me a lot. When I knew I couldn’t play he would say “oh, your great, you’re going to be fantastic.”
Were you self-critical then when you were starting out?
I already knew what great was because I hung out with great people. You can’t be great unless you know great people and I hung out with all the great cats. When I got to New York I went up under the baddest cats. I knew Barney Kessel and Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery was my friend. Tal Farlow loved me, Chet Atkins loved me and we had great times together. So how could you not play with that kind of company? It was just like going to school. It was my Juilliard (laughs).