Music: George Benson on the future of jazz
American jazz legend and international star, George Benson looks back on his rich career.
George Benson scored number one, performed with musical greats such as Miles Davis, Minnie Riperton and Stevie Wonder, and has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
But right now, the 78-year-old pioneering jazz-soul guitarist and singer cares about one thing and one thing only: getting back on the road.
“I started traveling when I was 19,” he says from Paradise Valley, Arizona.
“It was go, go, go. But it was the most interesting thing because I had the chance to see different parts of the world and discover different types of music, different attitudes.”
Benson tells me he’s found it difficult to be punished for the past two years. But in June he will return to the UK for a tour which will include a performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Such a prestigious venue is no big deal for Benson, who has extensive experience in shoebox jazz clubs and sprawling stadiums.
“Not only is it a very fancy hall for all sorts of fancy uses, but ordinary people, people in the music industry, normal people that you meet every day – they love going to the Royal Albert Hall “, he said with audible excitement. .
“For me, it’s like a second home, musically speaking, of course.”
Over the course of his six-decade career, Benson has moved from the ukulele in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to pop, rock, funk, disco, soul and jazz.
This chameleonic streak has seen it occur in many different settings.
“I’ve played all kinds of venues – Carnegie Hall, they have two other massive venues in New York, we’ve played all of them.
“We’ve played Blue Note, we’ve played Birdland, Village Vanguard and Village Gate over the years.
“Each one is a lesson because you have to relate to people on a different scale.”
Benson is a lively conversationalist with an infectious laugh and, unsurprisingly, has a catalog of fantastic stories at his disposal.
His biggest gig was in 1985 at the Rock In Rio festival, where he says he played to a quarter of a million fans.
Around 1.4 million people attended the 10-day festival, which featured Iron Maiden, AC/DC and Yes among its lineup.
“I had never played in Brazil before, so I was playing in front of different audiences.
“In fact, they were protesting against me at the airport. And because I didn’t understand the language, I didn’t know they were protesting against me.
“So my manager beat us to the back of the airport, the limo took me to the hotel and there were hundreds of people outside the hotel protesting against me.
“I thought they were welcoming me because this concert was already sold out – 350,000 tickets were gone. So I was like, ‘These are my fans here.’ They told me later that they were protesters.
“The show was called Rock in Rio and they had the best rock bands in the world – some of them. Whitesnake and people like that. And we weren’t rockers. So that’s against that. they were protesting.
“But when we finished the show, they were downstairs screaming, ‘George Benson!'”
His manager at the time explained the about-face of the demonstrators: he had included Brazilian musicians in his show.
“I had an orchestra of 30 or 60 musicians – I can’t remember – and I used Ivan Lins, who was a local star, and he was on my album ‘Give Me The Night'”, recalls- he.
“He was a nice guy and he could write fantastic songs, so we had a great time on the show.”
Give Me The Night, the international hit released in June 1980 which gave its name to the album, remains Benson’s calling card.
Benson tells me he wasn’t initially sure which vocal delivery super-producer Quincy Jones coaxed him into the studio.
Until his young son heard the track, that is.
“The most awesome thing was when Quincy Jones sent me a test pressing for Give Me The Night,” he recalled. He sent it to my house in Hawaii.
“I took him out and was worried about the new voice he had me play on it, because he wanted attitude. He wanted one of those crazy voices.
“After playing a few times, I felt comfortable with it, I said, ‘It’s not that bad, the voice is fine’.
“My 10-year-old song walked up to me and said, ‘Daddy, can you put on this song that’s okay tonight?’ and I knew it was going to be huge.”
Musicians often have complicated relationships with their greatest songs – but not Benson.
“I promised myself many years ago that if I ever got a hit record, I wasn’t going to rob people,” he offers. “I was going to play that hit because it was a hit because of them.
“They fell in love with it and made a hit out of it. I got a good rating with them and that was precious.
“So I promised myself. And I came to that conclusion because a lot of my friends in the music industry had made records over the years, and they weren’t going to play their hit record.”
Playing a funny impersonation of a stroppy star, he adds, “I’m sick of playing this song…I’m not playing it anymore!”
In recent years, Benson has bolstered her own production by collaborating with contemporary stars such as Mary J Blige and Gorillaz. He credits his children for keeping him in the loop.
“The good thing about my life is that my sons are in that category you were talking about earlier,” he says when asked about his motives.
“They bring new music into the house with them. They don’t care much about my music because they’ve heard it all their life. It’s not new to them.
“But they keep me updated on everything that’s happening on the street.”
Deep down, Benson remains a jazz guitarist and has high hopes for the future of the genre. Does he think the genre’s popularity will ever fade?
“I’m not afraid of that,” he said confidently. “Jazz music is like classical music. It’s going to last a very, very long time.
“There are so many creative people out there with great stories and great ways to tell those stories, both instrumentally and vocally.
“There are great bands putting out music that captures your imagination and makes you jump and dance. Jazz isn’t going anywhere.”
George Benson is touring the UK in June 2022. More information is available at www.georgebenson.com