Few artists have earned the term legend next to their name. George Benson has. Over a forty year career Benson has succeeded as one of the world’s greatest guitarist and traveled across the jazz, R&B and AC music genres.
To begin at the start of the Benson career we have to go back to 1963. That was the year he released his first album. He is still making records. The latest captures his hit career with Warner dating back to the mid 70s when he grabbed worldwide attention with an album titled Breezin.
To tell the story of a remarkable career, the legend himself George Benson spoke with Paul Cashmere.
Paul Cashmere: The last Australian trip must have been great for you. The fans came from everywhere.
George Benson: We had a ball. It was really great. I had a chance to visit a lot of people. As I come down I meet new friends and they all want to be nice to us so we had a nice time.
PC: After a 40 year career it must be difficult putting a setlist together for you.
GB: Now it has become more like reason. I have been doing music all my life so everyday when I get up I expect music will be part of it so we are doing what comes natural to us.
PC: How many hours a day do you play guitar?
GB: When I’m not working I usually put in an hour or two. Not because I call it practicing. I haven’t done that in years. I never called it that really. It is just something that I do everyday. I spend time with my instrument and I think it has really been good for me.
PC: What do you play?
GB: I try to practice things that I don’t know to pick up new information. For some reason I have found myself going back over things that I thought were together, having to sharpen them up and bring them up to date. That kind of thing, updating. It is dabbling into the future.
PC: Do you listen to a lot of other guitarists, study what they do and sometimes even practice their work?
GB: I listen to other guitar players, yeah. It gives me new concepts and shows me where the instrument is going for the future and it is going some places. There are some musicians who are really putting out a good vibe with new theories. I try and keep up.
PC: Who do you class from today’s musicians who you admire and would think have the potential to become legendary like yourself?
GB: I never think of it in those terms. I just listen to them because I like the music. I don’t hear that much because I’m in America and they play mostly American artists. The shame of that is we miss the rest of the world. There are people all over the world who are great artists. The greatest guitar player in the world today for me is Paco de Lucia who is actually Spanish. There are many, many great guitar players and America has their own too. I remember being in Australia and hanging out with Ike Isaacs, who has produced some fine artists himself. He is no longer with us but I still enjoyed myself hanging out with him.
PC: Are their musicians outside the jazz and R&B genre who you listen to? What about rock guitarists?
GB: I have not heard a whole lot of the rock genre. I tell you what knocked me out though. I was in Holland and I went to a Robbie Williams concert. There were 50,000 people there. That was an eye-opener. He put on a great show. There were some learning experiences there about the new mentality, where people are today and how simplicity works. Robbie is a master at it. I really enjoyed myself at that concert.
PC: I’m sure people reading this would like to know the circumstances of how George Benson happened to be at a Robbie Williams concert.
GB: One of my fans who had been at my concert a couple of days before said she had tickets to his concert. I had heard his name but didn’t know what he did because I don’t live in Europe. I knew he signed a contract for $80m so somebody loves him and there is a reason why. People don’t pay that kind of attention to someone who doesn’t have great talent. I was happy that she took me to the concert and we ended up seeing a great show. It was really fantastic.
PC: Let’s go back to 1964, the year the first album under your own name, The New Boss Guitar came out. Do you still have a copy of that record?
GB: Yes I do have a copy of it. It is hard to listen to because it was in the early stages of my career and a lot way to go but it was a beginning.
PC: You had just come off the back of working with Jack McDuff at that point. How influential was he to your career?
GB: He was very important because he gave me the first criteria for getting over to the public. He turned me on to something that I had never really thought about. He said “the blues is very basic and essential to music. If you play the blues people will understand you all over the world. No matter what you play if you include blues into the picture you will get on much better”. You know, when he first told me that I didn’t understand it but as my career moved on I began to realize that what he said had validity and it was true.
PC: If we jump forward 10 years we get to the ‘Breezin’ period. This was when the name George Benson started to become a household name. You had 13 years of being a musician until that first chart break through came through.
GB: That is true. The first three years was spent with Jack McDuff and then 10 years with my own band moving around the world but mostly in the USA playing every kind of venue there is, but mostly smaller places, clubs mostly. I was trying to find out where I belonged in this world. Music was changing. Jazz started taking a back seat, all the other music started rising and rock music went to the head of the class. R&B music became gigantic with people like Marvin Gaye and Barry White and Curtis Mayfield who became superstars. We tried to find a place where Jazz belonged because we didn’t sell records. Jazz artists didn’t have the numbers and end up in the households. That’s where I wanted to be, in people’s households. Trying to figure that out took me 10 years to do.
PC: Do you consider ‘Breezin’ one of your benchmarks?
GB: The way I look at, like with every album I do, is that I try and do my best. We played what we thought we could get over. That album went light years beyond anything anybody had imagined. Even the record company who thought it might turn gold if they worked hard enough were shocked to see it sell 3 million copies. Now it is about 10 million copies worldwide. Nobody could predict that.
PC: Let’s talk about ‘Weekend In LA”. When you performed that show you could not have imagined how big it would become as a live album. Your version of ‘On Broadway’ is now considered a classic. What was on your mind the day your drove to the venue?
GB: It was in the middle of Hollywood and the club was relatively small. Because of the size of the place we figured we could get a decent recording because we had a great engineer who was meticulous. What I noticed on the day before we went to the sound check and rehearsal to make sure everything was right and I saw people lining up and sleeping on the sidewalk. I said “what are these people doing out there” and they said “hey George they are waiting for tomorrow”. I said “TOMORROW?”. He said “sure, they want to make sure they have a seat”. That was an embarrassing thing for me because I never saw people sleeping on the sidewalk for a show. The next day when we recorded the second show which is where ‘Broadway’ came from, the second show on a Friday night, I took that tape home and I could not believe what the band had come up with for that show. I knew it was going to be something special but I just didn’t know how big.
PC: One of the songs around that era was ‘The Greatest Love Of All’. Again, tell me how you came by that song. It was used in a movie, it became a big hit for Whitney Houston later as well. It has become a classic.
GB: You know “The Greatest Love of All” was written by a man named Michael Massur and also a young lady from Philadelphia called Linda Creed. She has since passed away. He was writing the movie for Muhammad Ali called “Muhammad Ali : My Life Story”. Mumammad was going to be the star of the show. I knew it was going to be an important film and when he selected me to sing the theme I considered it a great honour. We worked so hard. Everybody was trying to get that song. People who were bigger than me at the time in the industry, I thought they would wrestle it out of my hands, you know. We ended up on the soundtrack and it became a milestone in my career.
PC: A couple of years later, the music changed slightly in style. You got into the R&B and disco that was happening at the time with songs like ‘Give Me The Night’, ‘Turn Your Love Around’ and ‘Love X Love’. Can you tell me about the decision to change your sound at that time and if it was a difficult decision for you?
GB: Don’t forget the late 70’s was dominated by people like the Queen of Disco Donna Summer and everybody who was in that bag. We were already in dance mode, the Bee Gees were out with the most fantastic record the world had ever heard so the world was in the mode. Anything outside of that mode was secondary. Certainly jazz was at the very bottom of the genre. I had already had momentum going so I benefited by staying in the genre. Quincy Jones came up with the album ‘Give Me The Night’ which was a powerhouse. It catapulted me into the 80s.
PC: The album ‘The Very Best of George Benson, The Greatest Hits of All’ is now out. How does it feel seeing your career encapsulated onto one disc?
GB: I will tell you it is amazing. My whole career from the early 70s on has been mind-blowing. I didn’t imagine in my life that I would ever be considered a guitar player first of all because I started off as a singer. Then to make smash records that are universally accepted and to be able to go to any country in the world and be considered a major artist is just light years beyond anything I imagined originally. This album really says it all. I think they have put together a wonderful package.
PC:. You had a scary incident recently on The Concorde. Do you still think about that?
GB: That scare on the Concorde? (laughs). I was with one of my good friends Tony Bennett and he didn’t seem to be afraid at all. I thought maybe I was overplaying this. We are talking about aeroplanes and in the world today with today’s mentality you don’t know what is going to happen. I was very glad that fortunately for us we had great pilots and people knew what they were doing. We landed in Canada, switched planes and made it to New York but I will never forget the trip as long as I live.
PC: Did you ever get on another Concorde?
GB: No. They gave me a free ticket. They said I could have a round trip ticket to anywhere I wanted to go and I said I’d think about it.
PC: Finally, your next album and writing with Joshua Thompson.
GB: It is a fantastic record and I know you are going to enjoy it. We just finished the album so it is a matter of the record company getting it out.
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