Benson, George (Contemporary Musicians)
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 Geòrgie 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 knowne 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.
From Jazz to Pop
Benson's guitar stylespecially his octave playing and soft toneeflects 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.
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."
Return to Jazz
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 guitars in his performance with Benny Goodman on public television's Soundstage Tribute to John Hammonde 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 trademarkcat singing a line identical to the melody he plays on the guitaras 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 Beats 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 Kemfeld, 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