George Benson has been, you know, George Benson for so long that generations of listeners cannot imagine him being anything but a jazz-pop crossover superstar. That sound and persona made Benson the first platinum-selling jazz artist and certainly explains why he’s coming to the region Saturday to headline the Mount Diablo Jazz Festival in Concord.
That said, the reality is that Benson began his career playing straight-ahead jazz in a post-bop world. The guitarist moved toward a more overtly commercial sound, he told me in a late ‘90s interview, partly with an eye on the bottom line but also out of an earnest desire to have as many people as possible enjoy his music.
(Also let me interject here that, having interviewed hundreds of celebrities of varying stripes, Benson is easily among the most gracious and ingratiating. They don’t call him Gentleman George for nothing.)
Some background: Benson was born in 1943 in Pittsburgh, Penn., and – inspired by Charlie Christian’s work with Benny Goodman – took up guitar at age 7. As a teen, he heard a recording of Charlie Parker’s “Just Friends” and set about creating a personal guitar “voice” just as Bird had done with the saxophone on that track. Before he was 20, Benson was off to New York, where he apprenticed with Jack McDuff.
In the mid-‘60s, when Benson was looking to form his own group, he received some sobering information from his manager. The economics of jazz, he learned, were downright daunting, particularly since he could expect never to sell more than 10,000 copies of an album.
”I almost flipped, I couldn’t believe it,” Benson told me. “I mean, that’s nothing. And when the challenge came up and we started working with a lot of (non-jazz) people, my manager said, ‘No, George, you can’t do that kind of music.’”
Fortunately for Benson, jazz would undergo some seismic shifts over the next decade. The genre was absorbing all kinds of rock and R&B influences and that was fine with him – Benson established his fusion credentials by playing on Miles Davis’ “Miles In the Sky” and recorded his own take on the Beatles’ final recordings with “The Other Side of Abbey Road.” (Check out the vintage clip below.)
”I began to see that we had to branch out so I could reach out to more audiences,” he said. “That worked for me. I don’t know how it worked for others.”
By 1975, Benson has signed with the decidedly pop Warner Bros. and was working on an album. To augment his distinct guitar sound, the label encouraged Benson to sing, something he used to do with R&B groups back in Pittsburgh.
The result was “Breezin’,” a collection of cool jazz and pop featuring the top 10 single “This Masquerade.” It went on to sell more than 2 million copies while simultaneously topping the jazz, R&B and pop album charts.
The next six years brought Benson an audience Wes Montgomery could never dream of thanks to the hit singles “On Broadway,” “Give Me the Night” and “Turn Your Love Around.” The albums “In Flight,” “Weekend In L.A.,” “Livin’ Inside Your Love” and “Give Me the Night” all cracked the top 10.
The past 30 years have seen Benson solidify his status as one of jazz’s true ambassadors, a pioneer of the smooth jazz sound. That has by no means pleased jazz traditionalists but Benson apparently isn’t losing any sleep over them.
”No one can predict where the music world is going to go,” he said. “But jazz holds its own. It has an identity that is something you can’t find anywhere else. I wish for more popularity for jazz.
”I would think of myself as a survivor,” Benson added. “I’ve had the most incredible career and nothing that I’m sorry about. They told me you couldn’t sell jazz albums.”
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