The Godfather of Jazz-Lite
In their dreams young musicians bask comfortably and happily in the luxury of immense success. Those REM-induced illusions can be mapped out fairly easily: Critical acclaim and financial reward have settled on them like UV rays on a sunny day, rooms packed with beautiful new friends fall hushed in silent awe when they enter, and any momentary desire can be satisfied with the snap of a finger. Of course the thicker-skinned can forgo the critical acclaim part, but still, the fact that these slumbering rock stars will pull down big bucks for shouting into a microphone or beating up on a drum kit is akin to throwing a few Franklins at a jobless drunk for helping to clear out an overstocked liquor cabinet.
The entertainment world, though, isn't quite that utopian. Eventually even the most talented musician must wake up and face his or her own rain-soaked reality: Cash flow does not increase proportionately with instrumental ability, and the critics do not automatically smile on those with the fleetest fingers. Jazz players learn this lesson as early as anyone. Some accept that sad fact and eke out a living performing musical obscurities for small but reverent groups of fans in tiny clubs until their maker mercifully relieves them of their charge. Others, such as jazz-pop superstar George Benson, jump headlong into the mainstream, then spend a lifetime struggling against the current that is their fame and fortune, hoping not to be carried too far from their artistic ideals.
The widely known, commercially motivated Benson has drifted far from his hard bop and soul jazz days of the early '60s. But even as he and his producers have channeled his music down more sedate courses -- R&B and pop influenced, for the most part -- he has maintained at least some degree of his old adventurousness. His extended guitar and scatting vocal solos have routinely polished into pop gems what would otherwise be mostly banal easy-listening elevator music.
In fact Benson can for better or worse be credited as the creative role model for what has become a hugely popular and profitable segment of the music industry -- the jazz-lite phenomenon personified today by everybody's favorite whipping boy, Kenny G. Before Benson and his late-'70s hits "This Masquerade," "Breezin'," and "On Broadway," high-wattage radio stations rarely played songs with lengthy, jazz-tinged instrumental breaks.
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Benson had the good sense to keep his chops up, however, perhaps anticipating the day when Top 40 radio would deem him old hat and the flow of multimillion-selling albums would dry up. By the mid-'80s, his E-ticket ride was largely over, though he has scored a couple of No. 1 hits on the Billboard jazz charts in the past ten years: The 1989 album Tenderly (a collaboration with pianist McCoy Tyner), and 1993's Love Remembers, both reached the top jazz album spot. His efforts to reestablish true jazz credibility after spending time as a darling of the pop world have apparently been successful, but then Benson's musical pedigree was always largely beyond reproach.
While most of its 44 minutes conform to the airy, easily digestible formula Benson has followed for the past three decades, his new CD, Standing Together, does little to harm his well-earned reputation. The album, his second for jazz label GRP (after the 1996 release That's Right), hit No. 1 on Billboard's Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart in early August; the title track is one of the most-aired cuts at smooth-jazz stations nationwide.
The disc covers all the bases in Benson's game plan -- sultry ballads, steamy love songs, an undeniable groove, and jazzy sparks of his guitar and vocal virtuosity. Five of the nine songs are instrumentals, overflowing with the creamy, rounded six-string tone that has been his hallmark from the beginning -- or at least close to the beginning.
Little Georgie Benson, as he was once called, got an early start on a musical career. He picked up a ukulele at age six and was playing guitar by the time he was eight years old. He first sang on radio in his hometown of Pittsburgh at age four and had recorded vocal tracks for RCA before his twelfth birthday. He played R&B and rock in his teens, before jazz -- in the forms of Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, and Charlie Parker -- turned him in a new direction.
Benson was a natural and by age 19 was playing soul jazz in a very popular combo led by organist "Brother" Jack McDuff. Benson made a name for himself in the jazz community with Brother Jack McDuff Live!, recorded in 1963, and The New Boss Guitar, recorded with McDuff in 1964, both for the Prestige label. He went solo in 1965, mostly because McDuff wouldn't allow him to sing. Benson, who envisioned himself as somewhat of a Nat "King" Cole -- another instrumental master given to immaculate vocal melodies -- gave up the McDuff gig in order to pursue a more lucrative vein of music.
"He hated singers," Benson says of McDuff during a phone interview from his New Jersey home. "He said, 'I don't want no singin' in my band.' But those were some strugglin' and some hard days. You're playing every night, you're not really getting anywhere, you're just barely staying alive. You're eating, but that's it. If you miss a week, you're down, which you can never make up. So who wants to live like that? You can't live like that when you've got a family. That's out of the question. You do those things when you have no responsibility and you want to get all you can get. You go out and you see the world, and you struggle."
Benson saw the world through consistent touring with McDuff between 1962 and 1965, but, when family obligations came his way in the mid-'60s, he attempted to reposition himself as an artist earning more than just praise for his blazing instrumental prowess. He recorded his first post-McDuff releases for Columbia under the tutelage of omnipotent talent scout John Hammond, with local O'Hara's jazz-club regular Dr. Lonnie Smith on keyboards. Later Benson hooked up with producer Creed Taylor, who had helped guitarist Wes Montgomery become a legend before his death in 1968, for several albums on A&M and CTI in the late '60s and early '70s. But though Taylor advanced Benson's career, he missed the point of the ambitious musician's most recognizable technique -- his vocal scat and guitar duo instrumental flights.
"I couldn't convince the producer to let me do it," he recalls with a laugh. "When I first asked him to allow me to do that, everybody in the studio said, 'Boo! Don't try it. It's not a good idea.' So we never got a chance to try it with that record company. As soon as I got a new record company, I said, 'Hey, put a microphone in front of me, I want to try something.' The new producer, Tommy LiPuma, said, 'OK, George. Hey, this sounds good, let's put one down.' And we did. One song -- 'This Masquerade.' One take. And that became one of the biggest records of that year."
The Leon Russell-penned "This Masquerade," and the title track of the 1976 album from which it was pulled, Breezin', earned Grammies for Record of the Year and Best Pop Instrumental Performance, respectively. With "This Masquerade" Benson was the first artist ever to score a No. 1 hit simultaneously on the pop, jazz, and R&B charts. The album sold millions. Benson followed Breezin' with the multiplatinum 1977 release In Flight and Weekend in L.A., the 1978 live album that spawned the hit "On Broadway." After these lofty achievements, there would be no returning to the financially unstable jazz world. Benson's place in history -- not to mention on the shelves of the chain record stores -- was assured.
Still, he regularly seeks opportunities to pick up a musical recharge. Though most of the members of his touring band have been with him for years, Standing Together was recorded with the help of mostly younger musicians, including his son Robert, who supplied drum programming to the subtle instrumental "C-Smooth." Benson also recently recorded with Mary J. Blige on her hit "Seven Days," found time to jam with the Artist, and, on a 1997 trip to Cuba, traded licks with a whole new breed of inspiring players.
"That was awesome. We had a great tour, and I sat in every night. We went clubbin' every night, and we played with some of the baddest musicians on the island -- if not the baddest. And I also did a seminar at the musical university, and that was one of the highlights of the tour."
Only somewhat aware of the obstacles Cuban musicians face when attempting to perform in the United States, Benson, a devout Jehovah's Witness and practicing minister, steers clear of political statement. "I stay away from the politics of anything. I'm not into politics at all. I'm a Bible student myself, and I conduct Bible studies. And the Bible has told us to stay out of politics, and we do. We stay out of world issues, and that's what I do. And I find that it creates a better relationship on a one-to-one basis with humans all over the Earth, so it's a good move. I relate to them as musicians only. And they are great musicians."
George Benson performs with comedian Sinbad, Sunday, September 27, at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, 305-673-7300. Tickets are $60, $75, or $150 ($150 tickets include a 6:30 p.m. cocktail party with George Benson), and part of the proceeds benefit the Miami Children's Hospital Foundation. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.
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