Breezin’, Livin’, Laughin’: A Conversation With George Benson

The legendary guitarist and vocalist talks Miles, Stevie, Quincy, his new live album and much more.

by
Credit: Carl Hyde/Press.

Looking back on his more than six decades in music — including his latest album, Weekend in London, out November 13 — the guitarist and vocalist George Benson, 77, discusses nearly getting fired. He talks losing money on an international gig. He remembers being manipulated by a producer. And he recalls almost joining one of the most important jazz groups of all time. But he lays it all out with an easy laugh. After all, these are the same missteps that led him to Top 10 hits like “On Broadway” and “Give Me the Night”; Platinum albums like Breezin’ and In Flight; collaborations with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin; and a reputation as a positively dangerous six-stringer. With credentials like these, there’s little room for humility. But Benson remembers where he came from, and he understands how a full story is far richer than a tidy one.

Unsurprisingly, the joyous live document Weekend in London, recorded at Ronnie Scott’s in 2019, also paints a complete picture. With a warm, funky band behind him, Benson is able to stamp everything from a jazz standard to a James Taylor song to his own inimitable tunes with his trademark buttery vocals and ecstatic guitar soloing. The vibe is classic Benson: feel-good sounds with romance and spirit to spare. Currently based in Phoenix, Benson chatted with TIDAL recently via phone, covering his soul-jazz beginnings with organ great Jack McDuff, his thorny studio date with Miles Davis, his extraordinary crossover success in collaboration with Quincy Jones and much more.

Let’s talk about Weekend in London. What is it about small clubs? Can you talk about the special connection that performers have with audiences there?

We’re talking about Ronnie Scott’s. Ronnie Scott’s is considered the number-one jazz club in all of Europe. I played there many, many years ago, probably more than 45 years ago. I went over there with a quartet and I lost money going over there. The airfare cost more than I made on the gig, you know? [laughs] So that part was not great. But there was a guy, and he [claimed he] was born in the palace in Edinburgh, Scotland. He came down with his recording equipment, and he recorded me and [guitarist] Earl Klugh at a rehearsal we had one afternoon. He wanted four songs, and that was all the profit I made out of that gig. It wasn’t big money, but it was some money. So he salvaged that gig for us with that recording. And we got another salvage out of that: That recording helped Earl Klugh get a recording contract with another record company, ’cause we used that as a demo to show the other record company how talented he was.

I was especially glad to hear songs by Roberta Flack [“Feel Like Makin’ Love”] and Donny Hathaway [“The Ghetto”]. 

Oh yeah. No doubt about it, man. Wow. What an artist he was. He was my friend, and I had the privilege of writing a couple of songs with him, way back when he was living in Midtown Manhattan. And I learned a lot of things by just being in the same room and getting his vibe. Because he was from the gospel world, and he was born with an incredible voice. And he selected, I believe, a great person to mimic, and that was Mahalia Jackson. I think that was his star in life, the one person that he revered. His voice sounded very similar; his approach was similar. But boy, when he opened his mouth to sing, everybody listened. And that’s what I wanted to do, [to] be able to do that, you know? [laughs

The band on this album is really killer. How do you put together a band? What are you looking for in bandmates? 

It started many years ago when I was hand-selecting musicians. These people I’m getting ready to mention were on the album Breezin’, and they were on the album Weekend in L.A. [among other Benson LPs]. There was a kid from [Buffalo, New York], his name was Ronnie Foster, and when he was 15 years old, he was like a grownup, man. His approach to harmony and everything was right on the money. He had chops coming out of his ears. He could play anything, you know? [laughs] But his ideas were very bizarre, and I think that’s what I appreciated the most. He never played what I thought he was gonna play. He played something different, and that was valuable, especially for improvisation.

And then I ran into a guy named Jorge Dalto. Jorge was from Argentina. He came to America to play jazz, but in his country he was a folk player. He played keyboards. Now, I had almost a dilemma. I had two keyboard players. Very few bands had two keyboards in them in those days. I got the idea from Stevie Wonder, who used two-keyboard combinations in his recordings. And so I said, “I wonder how that would sound on the road” — two improvising geniuses on the same show. So I took them out on the road and tried it, and boy, did it work well. Every night, they both got standing ovations, all night long. So I knew I had made the right move. Just about that time I signed with Warner Bros. Records, and we took that band into the studio. And man, everything good that could happen happened on the Breezin’ album.

And you played with Stevie Wonder, on “Another Star.”

Oh yeah. Well, I didn’t play but I sang with him. I sang that part. [sings the hook from “Another Star”] So that was a privilege, ’cause him and I were very good friends. He used to come to all my shows that were close enough for him to get to, and one time he surprised us on a live TV show. He just came out of the back curtains and jumped on the set of the show. [laughs] He came from nowhere! Nobody knew he was coming. And he said some nice things about us on live television. That’s how good of friends we were, and we still are. [laughs]

You grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Can you tell me a little bit about that? That’s where Stanley Turrentine was from. And the Crawford Grill was located there.

Crawford Grill was the jazz club in Pittsburgh. It was built right in the heart of the ghetto. Now, that wasn’t a problem early in the history of Pittsburgh. But as things got worse in the Hill District and got a little more dangerous, drugs took over and made it hard to get to that place; you had to be careful. So a lot of the audience was afraid to go in that neighborhood. But it was always exciting. Once you got in that door, the club was an up-to-date, beautiful club with a lot of improvisational art on the wall — some sculptures, some paintings. These nice booths that looked like they were from the ’20s or ’30s. And the stage was in the center of the room, but it was high up. It was like four, five feet off the ground. So when you came in, you walked by the bandstand, you saw Wes Montgomery up close and personal. John Coltrane, whoever was there. They were all incredibly close, and you could vibe along with them, stand there and just watch them do their thing. That was a great club.

Wow, so you saw Coltrane there?

I didn’t see Coltrane there. I know he played there. You remember Chico Hamilton group? He had Charles Lloyd. Art Farmer/Benny Golson band came through. Dave Brubeck, along with his great saxophone player [Paul Desmond] and his great drummer, Joe Morello. Mannn. The best of the best came through that club. 

Can you tell me a little bit about getting serious on guitar? Who were your early guitar heroes?

I never thought about myself as a guitar player, ’cause I was too young, but I just loved the sound of the instrument. The first guitarist I heard that I knew was special, that was Charlie Christian with the Benny Goodman Sextet. Those were some great recordings they made. So I was in love with that sound. I knew that if I ever played the guitar, I wanted to sound like that. I wanted to sound like Charlie Christian. I think a lot of people wanted to do that, too. Kenny Burrell, a lot of guitar players. Charlie Christian set the pace. He set the standard for jazz guitar in America.

Benson performs in Harlem in 1967. Credit: Val Wilmer/Redferns/Getty Images.

How did you start with Jack McDuff?

At a very crucial time in my history, in my life. I had just gotten married a year earlier, maybe less than that, and I was having big problems in the brand-new marriage that had no money, no nothing. We got in trouble right away — the big arguments, and then got wrapped up in court cases and everything like that. And Jack McDuff came through Pittsburgh. I had heard his band before, and I thought they were one of the best bands I ever heard, ’cause Jack was always trying to do something different. He wanted to make this quartet sound like Count Basie Orchestra, and he did some good things in his search for that vibe. He needed a guitar player. He had a great one with him; I couldn’t understand why he wanted to trade and get another guitar player. But he wanted to put soul in the band.

I went and sat in with him, and he had me meet him down at the hotel the next day. And he called his manager up and said, “Man, I just discovered this kid. He’s only…” He said, “How old are you, boy?” I said, “19.” He said, “He’s only 19 years old. I’m bringing him to New York.” And I said, “Oh, man, Mr. McDuff, I’m not that good a player, man.” And he’s, “Aw, you good enough,” and he took me on the road with him that day. At the end of that night, he fired me. [laughs] He said, “Well, I thought I heard something there. I guess I was wrong. But you can stay with the band until we get to New York. You know what? There’s a guy in New York I think would love to have you in his band.” I said, “Well, that’s good, Mr. McDuff.” Because he had already saved my life by taking me on the road. The judge felt sorry for me and let me off of the case I was on. I didn’t have to go to jail; I went on the road. So I was happy.

When we got to New York, his manager said to him, “Did I hear you say you’re gonna fire this kid?” And [McDuff] said, “Yeah, why?” [The manager] said, “You can’t fire him.” [McDuff] said, “What do you mean I can’t fire him?” [The manager] said, “Your band sounds 10 times better than it did when you left here. I suggest we go in the studio and make a record with him.” And we did, went in the studio and made the record and it was a little, small hit [“Rock Candy,” off 1963’s faux-concert LP Brother Jack McDuff Live!], bigger than anything else he had had out. So that was the beginning of my recording career as a guitar player. 

I want to fast-forward to 1968, when you recorded with Miles Davis. Can you talk a little bit about working with Miles? I think that music shows a different side of your playing that maybe people don’t always know about.

I was trying to live up to the expectation that he had, ’cause I never knew exactly why he hired me. I know I had just made a record, and Ron Carter was on that record, along with Billy Cobham — I think it was the first record Billy Cobham ever made. It was called Giblet Gravy. [Most of it was] R&B with a big band and [some of it] was a small group: Ron Carter, Billy Cobham and Herbie Hancock. And a percussionist [Johnny Pacheco] … he was very, very good. I think that Ron Carter called Miles and said, “Man, you gotta hear what George Benson played on this record!” So Miles called me and asked me to record with him.

I went down to the studio, and the first day was a disaster. He came in and he played two notes, and then he packed his horn and he got out. He left. We didn’t make a record. Second day, a repeat of the first day — came in and played three or four notes, packed his horn back up and walked out on the session without one word. So on the third day, he called me up. He said, “George, you coming down to the studio?” I said, “Miles, I can’t take your money like that, man. I won’t do that. I won’t be down there.” He said, “Come on down, we gonna make a record!” So I went down. I didn’t think we would, but we ended up actually making a record that day.

And it was a song [“Paraphernalia,” included on Miles in the Sky] written by his great saxophone player — I can’t think of his name right now.

Wayne Shorter.

Wayne Shorter. And Miles got mad at him, said, “Man, I think you writing these songs just to see if I can play ’em! You have to get so sophisticated, man? What kind of song is this?” [laughs] And he got mad at Tony Williams. Tony Williams would try to tell me what to play, how to approach the song. He said, “Tony, shut up, man. Play your drums. On second thought, move your drums over there next to the wall. You’re too loud.” … He moved him [to] the other side of the studio. But you know, [Tony] was just a kid. Tony Williams was a brilliant young fellow and could play the crap out of the drums. But he was loud. He was very dynamic. I kinda liked it; I like that kind of energy. But it was loud, that’s for sure.

So we got around to playing this crazy song, and I was surprised that he used it, ’cause I didn’t think he liked it at all. But he actually liked it. So that was my chance at playing with the greats. And then they told me that Miles was getting ready to call me, ’cause he wanted to hire me to be with his band. But my manager put a but with it. He said, “But you can’t join his band.” I said, “Wait a minute, man. This is Miles Davis, the baddest cat in the world. What do you mean I can’t join his band?” And he said, “Everybody at your record company says you’re gonna be bigger than Miles.” I said, “Man, what fool said that?” [laughs] You know? ’Cause it sounded so irresponsible that somebody would even come up with a statement like that. He said, “That’s what they’re saying. They’re saying they think you’re gonna be bigger than Miles.” So we never got around to me working with Miles. 

Quincy Jones and Benson c. 1980. Credit: Echoes/Redferns.

You got together with Quincy Jones for Give Me the Night.

I always knew that I was gonna do something with Quincy; we just didn’t know when or where it was gonna happen. And so it finally happened in 1980. He asked me one question. He said, “George, do you want to make the greatest jazz record in the world, or do you wanna go for the throat?” And with the success he was having with Michael Jackson, and me now being considered a vocalist, I laughed lightly; I said, “Man, go for the throat!” [laughs] And he laughed, too.

So he brought his A-team out, as he called them: [keyboardist] Greg Phillinganes, [drummer] JR, John Robinson, and whoever else was on that team. And his top writer, Rod Temperton. Mannn, what a formula that was, from top to bottom. We were in the studio just about every night for a month. I just finished the album, and I woke up, I was getting ready to go to the airport, and Quincy called. He said, “George, you can’t go home, man.” I said, “What do you mean I can’t go home, man?” I said, “Quincy, I been in the studio every day for a month with you.” I said, “You mean to tell me we’re not finished?” He said, “Rod Temperton wrote one more song, man. He thinks this song is gonna be important in this album.” I said, “Man, no, no. I ain’t got the energy.” He said, “George, it won’t take that long. We’ll have everything ready to go when you get there; you just go jump in the studio and do your part.”

I said, “Man, Q” — that’s what we called him, Q, and he called me “Joints Benshin.” Every night, when I came over to pick him up and take him to the studio by car, his daughter — she was only 5 then, her name is Kidada — she said, “Dad, is Joints Benshin coming over tonight?” [laughs] And so Quincy’s been calling me that ever since, man: “Hey, Joints.” He said that made her so sad, ’cause she knew she wasn’t gonna see him no more that night if Joints Benshin came over.

So I went in the studio, and the song was “Give Me the Night.” We had Lee Ritenour playing that line with me. He did an octave below or an octave above [sings the guitar part], and man, he got off to an incredible start. It was a tricky tune. Didn’t know what category it was in. I didn’t even try that. And here was the key: A few weeks later, Q sent me a test pressing of the album, and he had already tricked me into using this strange voice. He heard me messing with it that day. When I got tired, I started going to my little Mickey Mouse voice: [sings] “Whenever dark has fallen.” He said, “Could you put one down like that?” I said, “No, man. No way in the world. ’Cause I know you, Q, you’ll put that on the record.” He said, “Nah, I’m not gonna put it on the record. I just wanna hear it.”

You know I knew better, right? When I got the demo at home in Hawaii a few weeks later, I put it on to see if he used that vocal and sure enough, he used the vocal. But here’s the kicker. After hearing it three or four times, I took it off. And my young son, who never, ever commented about my music, he came over to me and yanked on my pants. “Dad? Can you play that song that goes, ‘Alright tonight.’ Can you play that again for me?” I said, “Well, I will be doggone. I know this song’s gonna be big. My kids never ask me anything about music, ever.” When that happened, I knew I had something special on my hands. 

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