George Benson Jazz Legend comes to Miami!
By Don Valentine
Seventy-four year-old Jazz icon George Benson will be performing at the Arscht Center in Miami on Friday the 16th of February. This is a do not miss event to witness Jazz history. Most likely his last tour and your last time to experience the man once called the Nat King Cole of Jazz guitarist.
As you know he is a 10 time Grammy award winner and N.E.A. Jazz Master. He made the transformative move to merge.
Jazz into the pop world with his vocals on his signature song “This Masquerade”. That song launched his marquee album “Breezin” to be the 1st ever Jazz album to go platinum.
Most critics laud one of his attributes to be his creative improvisation. Be it on the guitar or in vocal “Scatting”. In a recent interview with the Westside Gazette, Mr. Benson said this about his improvisation style: “I learned it from Jack McDuff. He told me, “George …they don’t know if your making a mistake or not” so I ran out of ideas one day. I couldn’t think of nothing slick to play, so I played the sound of a chicken on the guitar. The crowd went crazy!”
Improvisation, interestingly enough, is how Mr. Benson’s musical career began at the tender age of 7. As he tells the story, “I was sitting on the stoop of our house in Pittsburgh, you know serenading my little girlfriends on my ukulele when I remembered it was time to go out and sell my newspapers. Man I had a bad day I only sold 1 paper that day. I went into the neighborhood drug store to get some candy with the 5 cents I earned from the paper. One of the customers said to me “Georgie” play me a tune. I started playing away and man before I knew it I had a bunch of people listening to me. My cousin who had come with me to the store pulled off his baseball hat and started taking tips. I made almost $20 that day. Which was a hell of a lot more than the five cents I made from selling the paper!”
That serendipitous after noon launched what would be the musical career of the world renowned George Benson. He has gone on to perform with the likes of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Bobby Womack, Benny Goodman, Hubert Laws, Carlos Santana, Phil Upchurch, Jonathan Butler, Stanley Turrentine and Quincy Jones to name a few.
His first national tour began at the age of 22 leaving Pitts-burgh to head to the Big Apple. Mr. Benson tells the story “When I put together my first band – I was 22-years-old – the man we now call Dr., Lonnie Smith, was a new organist from Buffalo, New York, I went and picked him up and put the organ in a trailer on the back of my car and we went off to New York City, the Big Apple.”
Mr. Benson’s first hit was “On Broadway” . When he heard the old Drifter’s tune he knew he could turn it into a hit. “Well, we recorded at the Roxy in L.A. I remember it be-cause my grandfather was there, Aretha Franklin and Chaka Kahn, plus a lot of movie stars and producers. It was the second show and we had played it on the first show but it was too slow. You’ll notice on the record it starts off real fast, and I said that’s too fast and watching the audience they gave me the vibe for the right tempo.
Spontaneity and improvisation are the linchpin for Mr. Benson’s career. He first met Whitney Houston by chance when she was a young teenager in New York. “I bumped into her at the Empire State Building in New York. I used to take my kids down to get haircuts, and she was getting her hair done or something. She saw me on the sidewalk and grabbed her mouth. I said, “Uh-oh, here we go.”
“George Benson! My favorite artist!” I liked hearing that, you know. “My favorite artist and my favorite song is “The Greatest Love of All”!” And I’m saying to myself, “Why?” And then she told me, “I’m gonna record that song.” And when I heard it on the radio, I said, “I wonder if that’s the same kid, you know, I was talking to on the street corner?”
Michael Masser called me and said, “George, I found the greatest singer in the world.” I said, “You say that about everybody And when I heard that, I said, “I know that’s the girl. I know that’s her” and she tore it up. First album, 14 million copies.
And I found out I knew her folks, you know. Her mother was Cissy Houston and every-body knows her and loved her in New York. So it was a nice hookup and I’m glad that she was the one to benefit and she was everything they touted her out to be.
Mr. Benson’s break out hit “Breezin” started out as a fluke. The writers thought they had a bad record. Then because of the genius improvisation of Mr. Benson… “ Gabor Szabo had recorded it with Bobby Womack. They wrote it together, actually. And Gabor didn’t think it was gonna be no hit. He was like me. So he never asked for his part of the writing. If he had, he would have made a lot of money. Bobby cleaned up.
You know something, though? I think that was my friend, Phil Upchurch, that played that first lick on the song because Bobby Womack introduced it.
But they erased Bobby’s part because he was slightly out of tune when he came to the studio and my producer was a perfectionist. So he had Phil Up-church replay that lick, but that became the song. It’s an in-credible story, you know. I didn’t like that song.
It’s like a scale. Do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do. Come on, man, I’m better than that. I’m gonna get tarred!
But then I remembered it was a hit twice by Bobby Womack and then a hit by a group called The Hip-Hoppers. I said, “Well, people like it, so maybe I better try this out. Let me do something different. Can you get Bobby to come down to the studio?”
And the only difference be-tween his version and mine was my guitar play. He said that what’s he always wanted to do with the song, but he never got a chance to do it. So I said, “Man, that’s slick. Let’s do it” and now that is the song. When people hear that, they know it’s “Breezin’.”
For more great highlights of this brilliant career read the book “Benson-The Autobiography.