Unexpected inspirations fuel George Benson's latest songs
For years, George Benson’s fellow musicians have marvelled at the way he’s managed to combine hard-swinging jazz authenticity with million-selling pop success. For most performers, it would be an uneasy balancing act, but the 69-year-old guitarist makes it work with the aplomb of a Wallenda, and has ever since his soul-jazz heyday in the 1960s.
But now the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival headliner’s popularity can be explained: he has a secret weapon—and it’s his wife.
Benson’s latest release, Guitar Man, is in some ways a return to his earliest solo efforts, on which his impressive six-string prowess took priority over his singing. But it’s not without pop appeal, and one of the catchiest tunes is also one of the most unlikely: a downright bubbly version of the bar-band standard “Tequila”. Apparently, we have Mrs. Benson to thank for that.
“I’ll tell you how I got it down: just about every morning, ’cause I practise just about every day, I’ll be playing songs while my wife is cooking,” he explains, reached at home in Arizona. “I started experimenting with ‘Tequila’, the original version, and she started dancing! She didn’t know I was looking at her—she had her back turned to me—and every time I came back to it, she started to dance some more. And I said, ‘Man, there’s something going on here I need to pay attention to. Maybe I should put this on the record to see what happens.’ So we did.
“If she likes a song,” he adds, “it’s because it touches her in the two areas that it should: it sounds good, and it feels good.”
Another unlikely success is Benson’s solo version of “Danny Boy”, which also has a family connection. It’s a tribute, he says, to his grandfather, who was of mixed Welsh and Irish heritage. But there’s more to it than that: it also pays homage to an unsuspected inspiration in the form of violinist Fritz Kreisler, a classical-pop crossover star when Benson was a boy.
“I loved his phrasing,” Benson recalls. “And so to capture it, ‘Danny Boy’ was a good way. His pianist’s harmony was impeccable, so I had to combine [Kreisler’s] solo, single-line version, with all of that wonderful phrasing, with that harmony part. Man, what an experience! I picked up a lot of good things by listening to Fritz Kreisler.”
It seems there’s a story behind every song on Guitar Man, to the point where it’s almost an autobiography in music.
“That’s a good way of looking at it,” Benson says. “It might be subconscious on my part, but it does have a bit of history there. So, yeah, it’s got bits and pieces of all of that, and the guitar is up front, where it used to be in the earlier part of my career. A lot of my fans wanted to hear me play more guitar—and I thought that, before my chops go away, I should do a few things like that.”
George Benson plays the Orpheum on Saturday (June 23) as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.