George Benson Is Still the Crossover King of Jazz Guitar
George Benson's status as a living legend would be an easy laurel for him to rest on at this point in his life. But the day after turning 72 years-old, there wasn't a hint of complacency in his weathered voice. For a jazz guitarist to build a career on the progression of his craft and making genres collide, energy and dexterity have to be more than just elements of his playing. They have to be part of who he is. And after countless albums and tours, he's as spry as ever. This Friday, he brings his fiery licks and soulful voice to the Segerstrom Center for one night only. We caught up with him to get a taste where he's been and what's to come both tomorrow night and hopefully many nights after.
OC Weekly (Nate Jackson): You got your start playing in clubs at the age of 8. That had to have been an interesting start to your career.
George Benson: I was working in a nightclub, playing ukelele, singing and dancing in my hometown of Pittsburgh. There was a man who had heard me on the street corner playing and he asked me to take him to see my parents. He met them and gave us an offer to work at his nightclub, which my mother flatly refused, until he gave us an offer that we couldn't refuse and he said we could do it on the weekends so I wouldn't have school the next day. So it all kinda made sense until we started doing it. Then the law said no, so we had to hurry up and get out of that. But, it was a beginning.
Were you nervous performing for adults at such a young age?
No, I was used to singing for people...I was a singer first, they called me "Little Georgie Benson" in my hometown. Then I added the ukulele as a novelty. When I was nine I started playing guitar, which was another novel thing--a little tiny boy with a great big guitar in his hands. That lasted a little while until I made my first recording at 10 years old. And that led me on a trail that I never even imagined.
One of your greatest live albums has to be the recording of the CTI All Stars called California Concert--recorded live at the Hollywood Palladium in 1971. What do you remember about that show?
Seems like yesterday. I was with the great Freddie Hubbard and the incredible Stanley Turrentine and Ron Carter, Grover Washington Jr. and Johnny Hammond Smith. That was quite a show. It was called the CTI Summer Jazz Festival. I remember we almost maxed out the Hollywood Palladium, it was about 100 degrees while we were rehearsing in the afternoon and my guitar amplifier almost melted down. I remember that day very vividly in my mind.It's also an album that really demonstrates your ability to cross over into pop, folk, blues, anything--with cover versions of James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" Carole King's "It's Too Late."
It's a gift I have because I had played all different styles of music as I grew up. I started listening to the radio listening to the blues and then R&B and then I heard the voice of Nat King Cole and said "wow, I really want to be like this fellow." Because everybody loved him. He crossed over all different lines and I never heard anyone with anything bad to say about him. I joined a singing group and we emulated all the hit songs of the day and then I started singing pop music and I started listening to Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, Sam Cook, Jackie Wilson, Smokey Robinson, so I added all of that to my thinking. I didn't give it up when I started playing jazz music.
Does that fact that you've been sampled so often contribute to you learning about new styles of music from artists who use your work? I don't worry about it because what we're doing is setting up the thinking for the next generation. So if they're sampling me that means they're paying attention. So I can't knock that. Of course we participate in the payout when things like that come up and it's an honor for people to sample my music.
Have you made any plans for your set at Segerstrom?
I like to leave things open. I usually get fired up when I step out on the stage. And the audience usually tells me what they want to hear. And my repertoire is open so the guys in my band don't know what I'm going to play until I tell them. But before the show, they don't know. And I don't know until I step out on the stage and feel that audience. Then we jump on it.
You've also written a book recently, George Benson: My Autobiography. How long did it take you to write?
It took me nine years to put down enough information and dissect it in a way that would be interesting to everybody. Because I could write a book about jazz music, but my audience isn't all jazz, it's a cross section of people and they all wanna know something different. I talk about different crossover points in my career, why we progress from jazz, from where I was and where I am now. It was a gradual thing and it happened mostly by accident.
One time, my manager challenged me: One day I said "why is it whenever we do a jazz concert, they invite a pop artist to be on the show?" And my manager said "well, you're just jealous." And I said no, I can do that myself...if they wanna hear some pop music or R&B I can do that. And the manager said "No, you're just jealous George!" And I said no, let me show you what I can do. And I started singing during my sets and once people knew I could do that, then requests started coming in, especially from the women. I found that if you throw some love songs at the end of the set, they keep coming back. That's how my career got to be where it is today.
George Benson performs at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts tomorrow at 8 p.m. For full info and tickets, click here.
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