Breezin’ to Pop Fame

George Benson’s jazz guitar returns to Fraze

By Khalid Moss

Some artists, be they in the field of dance, visual arts, literary arts or music, are known for pushing the envelope. Jazz/pop guitarist George Benson, over the course of his 40-year career, has managed to rip the envelope wide open.

Benson is a 10-time Grammy Award-winning musician/singer who has sustained his pop/jazz veneer through the vagaries and unpredictability of the fickle music industry.

Old timers, like myself, remember a young George Benson playing for peanuts on the chitlin’ circuit with the likes of “Brother” Jack McDuff, Jimmie Smith and Richard “Groove” Holmes. Striking out on his own in the early ’70s, his all-instrumental band featured such sidemen as organist Ronnie Foster, guitarist Earl Klug and bassist/percussionist Stanley Banks.

Benson slowly climbed the musical ladder and reached his instrumental zenith with a stint in the Miles Davis band where he shared the stage with musical luminaries such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams and Ron Carter.

Back in the day, Benson had no peer as a guitarist. The legendary Wes Montgomery has passed on too soon, in 1968, and the obvious heir to the jazz guitar throne was Benson.

Then, something happened that would forever alter the arc of his career. Benson opened his mouth.

When Benson first visited Dayton and other chitlin’ circuit cities, he rarely sang. He kept that smooth, pop-ready baritone silent as he wooed audiences with his guitar wizardry. Actually, he would maybe sing one song, “God Bless The Child,” teasing listeners who wanted to hear more. Then the album Breezin arrived and Benson’s bittersweet “Masquerade” climbed to the top of the charts. He had emerged from the smoky shadows of jazz anonymity to pop stardom. After that, there was no putting the toothpaste back in the tube.

In a 2006 interview with George Benson and singer Al Jarreau for the magazine Smooth Views, the two men reminisced about their first meeting.

“(It was) in the mid-70s,” Benson recalled. “We signed with Warner Brothers back then and did a showcase together. That’s the first time I ever met Al. That was an incredible day. Al did ‘Take Five’ and I did ‘Take Five.’ I did it as an instrumental; he did it as a vocal. I couldn’t believe how he was articulating through those very difficult lines, so he made an impression on me that I never forgot.”

Benson was asked about the numerous artists he has worked with.

“I know them all,” he said. “Herbie Hancock and I have done some really impressive things. Some of his best work was on my records.

“Also I love Stanley Clarke on upright bass. Clarke said, ‘It’s (the upright bass) been in my closet for 15 years.’ I told him to get it out and bring it over here because I love him on that instrument. He’s amazing… He’s got such an even and good rhythm like Paul Chambers used to play. He’s got a nice full sound that shows up without even playing hard.”

As the story goes, Benson began his career as a jazz guitarist and later moved into other genres as an instrumentalist and vocalist. But few are well-versed in the early years of George Benson in Pittsburgh, before he took up guitar.

At seven years old, Benson worked the corners and sidewalks of Pittsburgh with his ukulele until a club owner heard him and asked to meet his parents. Benson introduced the man to his parents and he asked them if George could play in his club. They said “Absolutely not. He’s a kid. He has to go to school.” The club owner came back with “He can go to school on weekdays and work on the weekends.” Then the club owner made his parents an offer they couldn’t refuse.

“They were paying me more every night than my parents were making in two weeks, so they went for it,” Benson said. “And it got us into a lot of trouble. The authorities came in and shut us down.”

But young Benson had dipped his beak in the water and liked what he saw. At age nine, his hands were large enough to play a full-sized guitar and he began singing and playing, recording his first album in New York City at 10 years old. But after a while, his parents tired of the music business and George returned to school at 15.

Back in Pittsburgh, George channeled his energy into learning melody, harmony and absorbing the Motown sounds coming out of Detroit. At age 19, an inexperienced Benson hooked up with organist Jack McDuff who was in dire need of a guitar player.

“I was not ready yet,” Benson said. “I had decent ears but I had no chops. Chops are when you can play what you’re thinking, articulate in and out of changes and so forth. I had no experience in that stuff. And the thing about it is I had come out on the road and nobody knew me – the kid from Pittsburgh. That’s where my guitar got off the ground.”

George Benson will perform at Kettering’s Fraze Pavilion, 695 Lincoln Park Blvd., Saturday, Aug. 11 at 7 p.m.  His special guest is trumpeter Christian Scott. Tickets are $29 to $49 available by calling (927) 296 – 3300.

Contact DCP freelance writer Khalid Moss at KhalidMoss@DaytonCityPaper.com

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