AT 72, George Benson has no plans to hang up his guitar, or stop playing the track that changed his life, writes Jim Gilchrist
When George Benson serenades the audience in Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre on Sunday, reprising such back-catalogue hits as Turn Your Love Around, Never Give Up On A Good Thing and Give Me The Night, he’ll almost certainly include This Masquerade. Not least because, as the ten-time Grammy-winning guitarist and smooth jazz and soul singer says: “People won’t let me leave until I do.”
Benson, playing Edinburgh as part of the International Jazz & Blues Festival, was introduced to This Masquerade in 1976, recording it, rather against his better judgment, on his Breezin’ album, the only song on an otherwise instrumental collection. Yet, with the hindsight of a 72-year-old still pursuing an extraordinary career, he now regards the song, written by Leon Russell, as possibly the most important thing he did, although the album itself must come a close second. The first jazz album to go platinum, Breezin’ has long since become a multi-platinum seller.
“Breezin’ was the quintessential album that catapulted my career into a place I never thought I’d achieve,” he says. “To date, I think we’ve sold about ten million copies of it. It won five Grammy awards – I won three [best pop instrumental performance, best pop vocal performance, male, and album of the year] while the producer Tommy LiPuma and engineer Al Schmidt won one each.”
It was ironic that the one vocal track would win a Grammy in its own right. “My producer introduced me to the song. I’d never heard it before but he had some inkling in his mind that it would be fantastic with me singing it,” Benson says, “but I just couldn’t see it.
“So I agreed to sing it one time. We recorded it one time and we were listening to it and he said – and rightfully so – ‘We could be here all night and we’ll never get better than that.’ I agreed with him and we left it alone and everybody who heard it said it was one of these songs you couldn’t forget once you’d heard it.”
The record label, Warner Bros, was unwilling to release the song as a single because, with the rest of the album being instrumental, there wasn’t another vocal track with which to back it up. “But once the radio people and media heard it, they requested that it be put out as a single. And that changed everybody’s lives.”
Benson had already recorded songs, as on his 1970 album, The Other Side Of Abbey Road, but This Masquerade propelled him from being a jazz guitarist who also sang, to being a jazz-soul-pop crossover artist with a five-decade-plus career and 30 albums under his belt.
He’s speaking to me from his hotel in Lyon, France, where he has been touring with his Nat King Cole tribute show, Inspiration. By the time we speak he’s already played in Ukraine and Russia, then Paris, and is about to head for Vienna, before gigs in Switzerland, including the Montreux Jazz Festival.
The Edinburgh concert, he reckons, will be his usual show, replete with his numerous hits (celebrated in his latest release, the retrospective The Ultimate Collection double album), although he’ll include a couple of numbers from the Cole show. “When I was young, Nat King Cole was the quintessential African-American singer in the United States. Everybody loved Nat. He had great variety in his music – romanticism, great musicianship – and I said to myself that if I ever became anybody in the music business, I wanted to be like that.”
Benson has sometimes been described as Nat King Cole with a guitar, a label which he says flatters him, while stressing that he in no way compares himself to Cole, who died in 1965: “I think he inspired anything good that has happened to me, but he was a very special individual and his gifts were exclusive to him.”
So far as guitar-playing goes, Benson’s fluid picking style was mentored by Wes Montgomery – who was himself inspired by the great and tragically short-lived Charlie Christian. “I can’t think of a guitarist who’s not influenced by Charlie Christian, and Wes Montgomery sure was,” says Benson. “Wes introduced us to a new concept, a new way of thinking as a guitar player. I met him as a teenager and became friends with him. He allowed me around him because I never criticised him. I always praised his playing,” he chuckles, “so he knew it was genuine and he gave me a lot of good advice about where I was heading.”
Benson made his first recording, as “Little Georgie”, aged ten, growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he was playing ukulele in a drugstore from the age of seven. However, his mother insisted he finished school before he embarked on a full-time musical career, developing his youthful chops with organist Jack MacDuff and recording his first album as a leader, The New Boss Guitar, when he was 21. A sequence of guitar-led albums followed, including White Rabbit, the title track of which was a flamenco-informed instrumental cover of Jefferson Airplane’s drug-inspired number, as well as his 1969 album of Beatles covers, The Other Side Of Abbey Road, which featured him singing on some tracks.
By this time, he’d contributed to Miles Davis’s Miles In The Sky album, and the groundbreaking trumpeter seemed likely to ask him to join his band. Benson’s career, however, was accelerating and his manager advised him against the move. “I didn’t do it because my management said, ‘George, we think you’re going to be bigger than Miles,’” he recounts gleefully. “I said, ‘But you can’t get bigger than Miles. He is the jazz music of our time.’ But what they were saying turned out to be true. My career did blow up to a degree that no-one imagined.”
Benson has always soaked up a broad gamut of music, from Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson to Davis, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan. As he courted commercial success with a soul-led crossover sound, his smooth vocals and lush arrangements underpinned by insistent grooves, some condemned him for selling out. “The critics really waded in on us at first,” he says. “Anything that wasn’t strictly in its category was criticised by people from all sides.”
Forsaking jazz for commercial fame and fortune? “It didn’t seem that way to me. Whatever we do in music, we’re looking for success in it, to benefit financially.”
He can come over as the velvet-voiced smoothie, but listen to him scatting in unison with his guitar in his funky version of On Broadway, for instance, or his unhurried deliberations on Coltrane’s Naima – or even, save us, Danny Boy. Many contemporary jazz guitarists nurse more than a sneaking admiration for Benson’s playing.
Two years ago at the Rock In Rio festival his band played to 570,000 people over two nights, and having recently cut a duet version of Higher Than The World with Van Morrison, he’s showing no inclination to hang up his guitar: “I’ve been talking about that for a long time, but it hasn’t happened yet. My fingers keep searching for new things to play.”
• The Ultimate Collection is on Rhino Records. George Benson plays the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, on 26 July. www.edinburghjazzfestival.com