Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Guitarist George Benson's polished style emerged out of the innovations of Wes Montgomery, and took him from the organ trios of the 1960s to the very top of the pop charts. Benson’s albums have consistently showcased his abilities as a singer and entertainer, while never sacrificing his refined jazz sensibilities and technique.
Benson was born on March 22nd, 1943 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and grew up in the city's "Hill District," an African-American neighborhood with an active jazz scene, which also gave birth to musicians such as Billy Strayhorn and Kenny Clarke. He started out as a child performing ukelele-inspired vocal numbers with his stepfather, and has stated that his goal from a young age was to learn how to entertain people. As an adolescent, he was given an electric guitar as a gift, and began to play local Pittsburgh clubs. On one occasion he met his hero, Wes Montgomery, who encouraged the young player to continue his efforts.
Benson moved from Pittsburgh to New York in the early 1960s and quickly caught the ear of organist Jack McDuff, who featured him in his group along with saxophonist Red Holloway. Benson’s recorded his first album, The New Boss Guitar, for Prestige Records in 1964, which also featured McDuff. Benson was soon signed to Columbia Records by producer John Hammond. With Hammond at the helm, Benson recorded a string of jazz albums for Columbia.
His first album for Columbia, Benson Burner, was recorded in 1965, and he released It’s Uptown with the George Benson Quartet later that year The recording featured Dr. Lonnie Smith on organ. Benson followed this recording up with The George Benson Cookbook in 1966.
In 1967, Benson recorded with trumpeter Miles Davis resulting in several songs including “Paraphernalia” which appeared on Davis’s 1967 Columbia release Miles in the Sky. After his stint with Columbia Records, Benson recorded albums for the Verve label which included 1967's Blue Benson and 1968's Giblet Gravy with Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Billy Cobham on drums.
For the rest of the 1960s, Benson recorded with organist Jimmy Smith for 1968 Verve release The Boss. This album featured the trio at an unnamed club in Atlanta, playing such songs as “This Guy’s in Love with You." Also that year, Benson was featured with Dr. Lonnie Smith on alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s Blue Note album Midnight Creeper.
Benson released one of his more adventurous albums in 1969 with The Other Side of Abbey Road, which found the guitarist, like many jazz artists of the era, including his idol Montgomery, reworking Beatles songs. This album was one of the first to feature Benson's vocals, on the song “Here Comes the Sun.” In 1970, Benson toured with Lonnie Smith, with whom he can be heard on the song “Scream" from the Blue Note album Live at Club Mozambique. Benson also recorded with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard for his album Straight Life and provided a lush chordal background on the song “Here’s That Rainy Day."
In the 1970s, Benson towards more pop and funk-oriented material, although he did record several jazz albums, which included 1973's Witchcraft. Benson signed to Warner Brother Records in the mid-1970s, and with help from the label, crafted the most commercially successful album of his career. In 1976, Benson released Breezin’, whose instrumental title track was a hit on both FM and AM radio. The song featured musicians including drummer Harvey Mason.
However, it was the song “This Masquerade” which became Benson's breakout hit in 1976. The song, written by Leon Russell, was Benson’s first number one hit, and the first record to top Billboard's pop, jazz, and rhythm-and-blues charts simultaneously. The song introduced Benson to an entire new audience and won the 1977 Grammy Award for Record of the Year. The Breezin’ album eventually sold over ten million copies, an unprecedented success for a jazz performer.
Benson followed up the success of Breezin’ with the live album Weekend in L.A., an extended live recording which documented Benson’s shows at Los Angeles’ Roxy Theater on September 30th, October 1st, and October 2nd of 1977. The album was produced by Tommy LiPuma and featured the hit song “On Broadway,” which displayed both Benson’s smooth vocal delivery and his guitar scatting. “On Broadway” reached Billboard's top twenty, and the album reached number five on the album charts.
In 1980, Benson teamed with producer Quincy Jones to create the album Give Me the Night. The title track reached number four on the pop charts. The album reached the top five of the Billboard hot one hundred. In 1981, Warner released a greatest hits compilation by the guitarist. To add interest to the release, a song entitled “Turn Your Love Around,” was written for the compilation and also reached number four on the Billboard top one hundred.
Benson’s string of hits began to dwindle in the 1980s. The guitarist had some interesting collaborations, including several songs with fingerstyle guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins and an album with fusion guitarist Earl Klugh, which reached number one on the jazz album charts. In the 1990s, Benson recorded more albums for Warner Brothers and continued to tour. Beginning in 2000, Benson released Absolute Benson, a compilation of his work over the course of his career. Included on this album is Benson’s cover of Donny Hathaway’s song “The Ghetto."
Benson has returned to his roots in jazz in the new millennium. His recent albums include 2001's All Blues and 2002's Blue Bossa. In 2006, Benson and jazz vocalist Al Jarreau released Givin’ It Up for Concord Records. Featured on the album are bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. The album includes the Miles Davis song “Four."
Benson continues to tour and record, and lives in Englewood, New Jersey. His musical legacy is one of a rare ability to combine sheer talent and unfaltering musicality with commercial success. Even if judged solely on the basis of his technical abilities, he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as his forebears Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery.
Select Discography as George Benson
as George Benson
The New Boss Guitar (Prestige, 1964)
The George Benson Cookbook (Columbia, 1966)
Giblet Gravy (Verve, 1968)
Breezin’ (Warner, 1976)
In Flight (Warner, 1977)
Weekend in L.A. (Warner, 1978)
Give Me the Night (Warner, 1980)
Givin’ It Up (Concord, 2006)
with Miles Davis
Miles in the Sky (Columbia, 1967)
with Jimmy Smith
The Boss (Verve, 1968)
Contributor: Jared Pauley