Music interview: George Benson '“ '˜I was knocked out that Miles Davis even called me let alone asked me to record with him'

Veteran jazz, R&B and soul singer and guitarist George Benson's latest tour stops off in Yorkshire next month. Duncan Seaman reports.

Friday, 23rd June 2017, 9:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 18th July 2017, 8:29 am
George Benson

Next month is set to see George Benson’s first ever visit to Scarborough and the jazz, R&B and soul veteran sounds happy to oblige fans eager to hear some of his best-known songs.

“We know that people came for certain things and we’re certainly going to put a lot of those in,” says the sunny-sounding 74-year-old guitarist and singer famed for hits such as Give Me The Night, Love X Love and Turn Your Love Around.

“We’ve added a few new things that will not disrupt the party flow – as a matter of fact they add to the party flow – so we know we’re going to have a good time and we know we’ve got a lot of fans in England so I’m looking forward to the trip.”

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Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Benson made his first steps in music at the age seven, playing the ukulele in a corner drug store. By the age of ten he had cut his first single, She Makes Me Mad, under the name ‘Little Georgie’.

Reflecting on his early heroes, Benson says: “Well, there were a lot. There was a new guy, his name was Raymond Charles – we know him as Ray Charles today – and there was a great guitar player by the name of Charlie Christian, he used to play with Benny Goodman’s band, my father was a great fan of his so he made me listen to him all day long and that’s how I got into the guitar.”

In his early twenties Benson began working with such jazz luminaries such as Brother Jack McDuff and Lonnie Liston Smith. “Wow, what an experience that was,” he recalls. “Jack McDuff was one of the top organ players of his time in R&B, jazz and swing music.

“When I put together my first band – I was 22 years old – the man we now call Dr Lonnie Smith, he was a new organist from Buffalo, New York, I went and picked him up with the organ with a trailer on the back of my car and we went off to New York City, the Big Apple. We had a manager who promised us that he would find us work and he did, so our career started there.”

Such was Benson’s renown in jazz circles, the trumpeter Miles Davis sought him out to play guitar on the track Paraphernalia on his 1968 album Miles in the Sky. Benson describes the experience as “unbelievable because we never imagined those things could happen to us”.

“When Miles Davis called me on the phone I was knocked out that he even called me let alone asked me to record with him. Those were very good days for me and they really added a lot of knowledge to what turned out to be my career.”

At the turn of the 1970s, with eight albums under his belt, Benson signed to Creed Taylor’s CTI Records and began to make inroads into the mainstream charts.

“Creed Taylor was a man who knew how to connect his artists to the public,” Benson says. “He was very successful in making bossa nova music famous around the world because he introduced Charlie Byrd to Stan Getz and he recorded the first worldwide hits by Carlos Jobim. He also took an organ player from the streets and the nightclubs on the chitlin’ circuit, his name was Jimmy Smith, and he turned him into a household word with an album called Walk On The Wild Side, and he took a guitar player from Indianapolis, Wes Montgomery, and he turned into a household word. That was Creed Taylor who did all those things so it was an honour to hook up with his new record company.”

The guitarist’s big crossover came in 1976 when he turned sang lead vocal on the track This Masquerade, on his first album for Warner Bros., Breezin’. “We had one vocal on that album and it turned out to be the powerhouse of the record,” Benson remembers. “Breezin’ the instrumental was a hit but This Masquerade was gigantic. Because it was a vocal it got a lot more airplay and it catapulted the album up to Number One on the pop charts and the R&B chart and the jazz chart at the same time, so it was a breakthrough album and they gave credit to This Masquerade, which was a vocal, so it turned me into a vocalist.

“After that they insisted, ‘Oh no, we need more vocals, come on, George’,” he chuckles. “When you record three or four vocals one of them is going to catch on, so that’s what happened to us. We started having nothing but a string of hit vocals after that.”

Benson worked with Minnie Riperton and Stevie Wonder and also recorded the first version of The Greatest Love of All for a Muhammad Ali biopic before being paired with producer Quincy Jones for the album Give Me The Night.

“He was putting together albums with Michael Jackson that were super successful and were going beyond expectations so we figured that an album with myself and Quincy Jones could only be successful and the record company was right about that,” Benson says. “They hooked us up together and we came up with the album Give Me The Night which was tremendously successful, it sold millions of albums and is still selling today.”

It seems Jones could be quite a hard taskmaster in the studio. “He could be if things weren’t going the way he thought they should he let it be known. ‘I hear it like this, can you do a little more of that?’ I’d say, ‘I’m doing the best I can’ and he’d say, ‘No, we got to go beyond that’. It was very trying but very rewarding at the same time.”

Among the many honours bestowed on Benson over the last half-century, having his own signature guitar, manufactured by Ibanez, was among the most pleasing. “It had my name on it and I actually designed it myself because I studied commercial art in high school and they built it pretty much to my specifications. There was only one thing on there that I didn’t particularly design, and that was the tailpiece, by the rest of the guitar was a George Benson design. It was called the GB10 and then the other one was called the GB20 but now they’re classic guitars so I’m very proud of them.”

The Jazz Master Award he received from the National Endowment of the Arts also occupies a significant place among his trophies. “I didn’t realise how powerful that was because I had so many awards in my life to do with music. But after I got that award people started calling to congratulate me and I’m thinking, ‘On an award? I’ve got a lot of these’ but no, it goes beyond that because it’s the National Endowment of the Arts so I’m considered important as an artist and that is quite an honour. I’m still benefiting from that.”

Four years ago Benson recorded a tribute album to Nat ‘King’ Cole. “He was the major inspiration of my vocal career,” Benson says. “What he accomplished in his time was almost impossible but he showed that anything could be done. He was a master musician, he knew a good song when he heard it and no one could put over a song like him – well, there were a few, but he was in that class of musician, at the very top.”

George Benson plays at Scarborough Open Air Theatre on Saturday July 1.