Jazz may be receding from the popular artistic mainstream, but George Benson maintains a career many pop artists would envy. His 1976 album Breezin’ and 1978 double live album Weekend in LA soared up the charts. Breezin’ went to #1 on the pop and R&B charts and won multiple Grammys. Since then, Benson has gone on to place 4 songs in the top 10 and continues to win Grammys. Last year, recording for Concord, he released Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole.
As he turns 70, Benson is as busy as ever. His latest project is Benson: The Autobiography. The book is a rags-to-riches tale of a talented young singer who grew up in gritty, urban Pittsburgh and emerged as one of the most popular jazz guitarists of all time. And he could sing! Other than Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole, no other jazz instrumentalist could make the claim to such a degree.
“I didn’t plan it that way,” began Benson, speaking about his talents. “I just happened to be a singer first. And I think it helped me tremendously with my guitar because I think lyrically—I think like a singer when I play guitar. I know how important the melody is and how it’s always in my ear. I hear the melody and play around it or improvise with that in mind.” It took years for Benson to be recognized as an important guitarist. He played with many groups, but it was with organ legend Jack McDuff that he really learned his craft and was able to “see the possibilities” of mixing jazz, blues and R&B.
The McDuff group was a proving ground for great jazz guitarists, like Grant Green and Kenny Burrell before Benson and Pat Martino later. Benson’s turn from 1963-1965 took flight in 1964. Just 21, he recorded his first album for Prestige Records: The New Boss Guitar of George Benson, which featured the McDuff group as backing band. It was also a time when many of his major influences—Barney Kessel, Jim Hall, Tal Farlow and especially Wes Montgomery—coalesced into something unique. “They were very, very different in their approach to guitar. Those are the guys who stay around; the ones who, when you hear them, you don’t forget them; you feel their message and it sticks with you.”
But Benson always kept his first guitar inspiration, Charlie Christian, in mind. “I wanted to be like him,” said Benson of perhaps the first jazz guitar great. “He was a single-line genius. He played a guitar like a sax, one line at a time, one note at a time. And not a lot of chords.”
Benson also talked about how it can sometimes be difficult to be a jazz singer and instrumentalist. “How do you divide your time between two things you love that much?” he wondered, adding, “the competition is heavy in both fields. That’s the tricky part.”