The virtuoso and the pop star

By Sergio Ariza

When Wes Montgomery died on June 15, 1968, the jazz world didn’t have to look very far to find his substitute, some months before George Benson had released his 3rd solo album, Giblet Gravy, and his refined, melodic style made him the deserving successor to the crown as the new king of the jazz guitar. This was also what the heavyweights of the scene saw, like Miles Davis who had recorded with him. Over time he would not only retain the title, but also became the biggest ‘crossover’ star in jazz history, becoming one of the most successful musicians in the late 70s and early 80s, thanks to his pop hits like This Masquerade, On Broadway, and Give Me the Night, where he also used his expressive voice.  

Born in the Hill District in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on the 22nd of March, 1943, George Benson was a child prodigy who at 8 was already playing in clubs, and by 10 had recorded and released his first song, She Makes Me Mad, an R&B number where he also sang. His early dedication to the entertainment business led him to bad company and he missed a lot of school, which made his family confiscate his guitar. However, after spending some time in a juvenile delinquent center his stepfather decided to straighten him out by putting another guitar in his hands. It turned out quite well, and soon he was singing and playing in a rock & roll band. HIs fine ear for music was enough for him to play anything but that all changed when a record by Hank Garland changed his life forever. The country guitarist, who had recorded some songs with Elvis, had delivered his first jazz record called Jazz Winds from a New Direction, together with Gary Burton on vibraphone, bassman Joe Benjamin, and drummer Joe Morello, and the Benson’s world turned upside down. This was what he wanted to do and he was going to do it come hell or high water.    

For a time he was regularly listening to records by Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, in addition to studying all the guitarists who passed through Pittsburgh, names like Grant Green, Eddie McFadden, and Eddie Diehl, whom he peppered with questions about chords, improv methods, strings, amps… Soon he began to assimilate the new jargon, and in late ‘61, when the organist Jack McDuff came to town, Benson got on stage to play with him, leaving him so impressed that he signed him then and there.     

McDuff’s quartet was into the popular soul jazz of the day and before long Benson was opening all eyes. By the time they played in the Antibes, in 1964, he was already an absolute star. Despite his preference, like all jazz guitarists, for the ‘archtop’, on this occasion he played a 1960 Les Paul plugged into a Fender Bassman. By then he had moved to New York, and that same year he would record his first solo record, The New Boss Guitar of George Benson, on which McDuff plays as well. He was just 21 but chose to go solo and look for his own group to lead. Shortly after, in ‘66, his 2nd work as leader appeared, It’s Uptown, with musicians like Lonnie Smith on keyboards, and Ronnie Cuber on saxophone. It’s a fantastic record, still in jazz-soul territory, yet with an incredible maturity, in addition to playing guitar, he sings 3 songs, Summertime, A Foggy Day, and Stormy Weather. But the best bit comes with the solo in Willow Weep For Me, a sensual melodic piece of great beauty.  

The George Benson Cookbook came out in 1967, with the same players and the same result. His name kept climbing positions in the ranks and came second behind his great idol Wes Montgomery. Up until then, he had used various archtop models, from the Super 400 to a Gilded Artist Award, and on to an L-5 (over time he wound up getting one of the models played by Montgomery himself, and eventually it would be acquired by another Montgomery admirer, Pat Metheny) or a D´Angelo New Yorker with which he recorded his best known songs of the 70s.


The fact is Benson had become the fashionable name in the jazz world, something that was confirmed when he got that first call from its main man, the man who had led various important movements of the genre, Miles Davis. It was January of 1968 and Benson was somewhat intimidated by his presence. Nothing happened on the first day, on the second, Davis came, played a couple of notes and left, on the 3rd Benson approached him saying that this wasn’t working and it’s best if he let it go, but suddenly the stars showed up and began to play fluidly, the outcome was Paraphernalia, one of the best songs on Miles In the Sky. Davis was so pleased he invited him to play in his band, and Benson was all for it, but his manager told him, don’t do it, you will be more popular than even Miles. He wasn’t wrong.

Benson was signed by Verve to replace the void left by Montgomery, and Giblet Gravy emerged, which appeared on the market just before the sudden death of his idol. Not long after he signed with Creed Taylor, becoming one of the biggest names of the label CTI. The first record he made for Taylor was Shape of Things to Come, which reunited him with 2 members of the Miles Davis band, the extraordinary Herbie Hancock at the piano, and Ron Carter on bass. In 1970 he put out another of his best records, The Other Side of Abbey Road, in which he gave a twist to the legendary Beatles album, just a few weeks after its release. On it, apart from Hancock and Carter, appear other heavyweights such as Freddie Hubbard and Ray Barretto.     


The definitive album of this time, possibly the most brilliant of his jazz stage, was Beyond a Blue Horizon, where his most celebrated guitar piece can be found, the beautiful Ode to a Kudu, besides his homage to Montgomery, with the use of octaves included, on All Clear. Benson had reached perfection of technique, but still had one last feat: to attain massive success.

The guitarist and Creed had already flirted with pop and funk but in 1976 the perfect result would come with Breezin’, an album where Benson gets back to singing, especially in the cover of This Masquerade by Leon Russell, which became an absolute hit, making it the best selling album to date in the history of jazz, reaching a million copies in just the USA. The title song is also included here, an instrumental in which his D`Angelo New Yorker shines with strength. It was nominated for album of the year at the Grammys but lost to the brilliant Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder, a record on which Benson also appeared, lending his guitar to Another Star.

Benson had become a complete pop star and continued in that vein, with Weekend in L.A., released in 1978, a live album which included his popular version of On Broadway. Around that time he would begin his relationship with Ibanez who would make several of his Signature guitars. In 1980 his fundamental record of his pop and funk stage came out, which was Give Me the Night, produced by another fearless figure to experiment with different styles, Quincy Jones. The producer had just made the iconic Off the Wall together with Michael Jackson, and decided to bring along the composer Rod Temperton, who had made Rock With You and Off the Wall for Jackson (in the future he would also write Thriller), who composed the magnificent title song Give Me the Night, where Benson shows again his amazing voice. 


The 80s brought more hits like Turn Your Love Around, but little by little, he was fading from the charts in the early 90s. In recent years he has been closer to his jazz roots, giving reasons to those who think he is the best guitarist of the genre alive, but never having forgot his feeling towards pop music, as seen in his recent collaboration with Gorillaz on the song Humility, taken from The Now Now, the album from last year by Damon Albarn and company. 

It is difficult for many to reconcile the two faces of George Benson, the amazing virtuoso of Ode to a Kudu, with the pop star of Give Me the Night, but for Benson it isn’t like that. He knows that music is too broad and vast to try to label it. George Benson can thrill the connoisseurs but also make the neophytes dance, his music isn’t jazz or pop, it is delicious music played by an absolute master.