Three years on from ‘Givin’ It Up,’ his Grammy-nominated collaboration with fellow soul/jazz veteran, Al Jarreau, the legendary GEORGE BENSON is back with a superlative new long player called ‘Songs & Stories.’ The 66-year-old Pittsburgh native recently chewed the fat with www.soulandjazzandfunk’s Charles Waring and talked about his new CD as well as discussing key events in a career that began way back in the early 1950s.
What, in your opinion, makes for a good song?
Well, one that when people hear it, they place themselves in the situation that the song is talking about. In the case of ‘Family Reunion’ on my new album – written by Rod Temperton – that song is talking about a situation that many people face in their life: somewhere along the way there’s a little trouble in their early stages and they need to be repaired, you know, but the most important thing is trying to keep that family together if possible.
You worked in Brazil on a couple of tunes (‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight’ and ‘Sailing’). How did that come about and what was that experience like?
I was down in Brazil a few years ago and while I was down there I caught the vibe; they are such artists down there, you know. I asked one of my friends who lives there – he moved to Brazil -‘can you put together some musicians for me? We’ll take them to the studio and let’s go in and see what we come up with.’ And we did that. The songs were outstanding but nothing that you could play on the radio here in America so I knew it was going to be a hard sell. So I hung on to it and the producer (John Burk) heard that stuff and said ‘George, you got to do something with this stuff, man.’ We got into the subject of James Taylor and we agreed to try this song and boy, when we got into the studio that morning my voice had gone and so I had no range – so I decided to go the Ray Charles approach and just keep it soulful and it worked very well. So when the producer (John Burk) heard that he said ‘George, we’ve got to fix this so it can go on the album,’ so we put Marcus Miller on the bass – he’s the only difference – and it came together beautifully.
You also do Christopher Cross’s ‘Sailing,’ which closes the album. Was that your choice of song?
No – the Brazilians (I worked with) loved the song. There was one guy there who just loved Christopher Cross and I heard them just messing with it a little while – they were practising – and he started singing and I said ‘why are we doing this?’ He said: ‘George, I can hear you doing this song.’ I couldn’t imagine me singing it because there’s something about Christopher Cross’s voice that’s so different and it draws you in he’s so raw – it’s like Joe Blow, a street guy, you know, singing the song. And I think that’s what makes him so appealing to the average person ‘cos they actually think they can sing along with him. So I said ‘well, put the tracks down and let me hear it’ and they put it down and this guy sang it, and he sang it beautifully too. His English was a little different but he did sing it and I fell in love with the track so I said I’m going to hang on to this, ‘cos one day we’re going to use this. So I played it for my producer, John Burk, at Concord Records and he said ‘George, get your guitar, man: let’s go in the studio and see what we come up with.’ And I took one of those guitars out of the closet that I haven’t played in 20 years – and man, it sung on that record. It had a beautiful sound; it was like bells, you know.
What attracted you to the guitar in the first place?
My stepfather met my mother when I was seven years old and he brought his guitar with him and plugged in the amplifier. That was the first electric thing we ever had in the house because we lived in a house that had no electricity. And we moved right next door to a house that did have electricity. Unfortunately, the people who lived there before took the light bulbs with them. So we moved in there in the early evening, when the sun was going down, and my stepfather plugged in this amplifier. I saw the wire come from his guitar cross the room to an amplifier and when the music came out of the box that was the most fascinating thing I thought that had ever happened. So I loved the sound of the guitar from the very beginning. But my hands were too small so I played ukulele for two years and then I switched to guitar when I was nine.
Who were your early influences when you were learning the guitar?
Well, my stepfather played Charlie Christian records – when he was with the Benny Goodman Sextet – and those were the first records I ever heard. And that became my standard. I judged everything else I heard by that standard and also George Shearing records. George Shearing was the hottest thing out on the piano at that time – as a matter of fact he was probably the number one pianist in the world in popularity.
Later on, in the ’60s, you joined Jack McDuff’s band.
He was the first guy who thought of me only as a guitar player, who used me only as a guitar player. Other bands I played with before that around my hometown in Pittsburgh knew me as a singer but they also knew I had a little guitar talent so the guitar started getting more and more popular. There were very few guitar players in Pittsburgh so they would call me even though I was a kid and not that good yet – I was scuffling through things, but I had decent ears.
You played on Miles Davis’ album ‘Miles In The Sky’ in 1968. How did you get the gig with Miles?
Well, just before that I had just recorded an album with Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter. It was called ‘Giblet Gravy.’ One side was very commercial; it had a big band and we were playing some very funky stuff. The other side we slowed things down and played some very jazzy-sounding things. Ron Carter called Miles Davis and said “man, you should have heard what George Benson put on this record.” So Miles called me and invited me to a session. And he was trying to get me to join his band but my manager said: ‘No, George, you can’t do that because your career’s on the upswing. There’s no telling where it’s going to go. We think you’re going to be in a very great position in the next few years so we don’t want to stop that.’ I was very disappointed because I wanted to get the experience of being with Miles Davis so I could learn.
What was Miles like to work with?
A very strange guy. I’d never met anybody quite like him but he was very frank and I appreciated that part about him – he never bit his tongue; he said what he wanted to say when he wanted to say it and a lot of times, it was very profound stuff. He told me about what he said to Jimi Hendrix when he first met him and I think what he said to him meant something, you know. He told him to play loud. I thought he was kidding me when he said that to me as well, but I got the message, ‘play loud’: that was giving the public what they want.
You had a lot of sessions as a sideman. What was your most memorable session in that role?
I like an album I did with Jimmy Smith called ‘Off The Top.’ But I’ve made some wonderful things – Stanley Turrentine’s record ‘Sugar,’ and Freddie Hubbard’s record, ‘First Light.’ He got a Grammy with it. I was pleased to be on it even though my album ‘White Rabbit’ was also nominated that year – I still was happy for Freddie when he won.
That was when you were signed to CTI Records. What was it like recording at CTI with the label’s founder/producer Creed Taylor?
Well, I knew Creed Taylor was a very special kind of guy. He had the talent that is probably most recognised when you talk about A&R – artist and repertoire. He made sure that our repertoire was something that people could relate to and then he dressed the songs up and put them in a context that sounded more pop-ish or more digestible for the audience even though I was stuck with basically jazz songs in the early stages. He turned them into pop songs. I recognised that because before me he introduced bossa nova music to the world and made it famous with Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd and Carlos Jobim. He also made the organ popular with Jimmy Smith and a song called ‘Walk On The Wild Side.’ And he also made West Montgomery big when he put him with lavish strings and they recorded songs like ‘Goin’ Out Of My Head.’ So I knew he was special. He wasn’t no ordinary producer, so I considered it a privilege to be with him you know.
But things really took off when you joined Warner Bros., didn’t they? What was the reason for that you think?
I had a little more freedom at Warner’s. Creed (Taylor) had a preconceived concept – he saw me one way, while Tommy LiPuma at Warner’s saw me another. He knew that I had potential as a singer because he had heard me sing a few years earlier before I signed to Warner’s. And the thing that made me select him as my producer was he said ‘I heard you sing a few years ago, man. I can’t understand why nobody’s using your vocal talents.’ I told my manager: ‘that’s the guy who’s going to produce my records at Warner’s.’ And he came up with the song ‘This Masquerade.’ The rest is history.
George Benson’s ‘Songs & Stories’ is out now on Concord. Read the review at www.soulandjazzandfunk.com