Back in the mid 1970s, one of my better tasks as general dogsbody at a San Francisco club called Keystone Korner was to shepherd newcomers around town. By then, the Pennsylvania-born George Benson was already atop the jazz-guitar heap. He had been through the mill of classic organ trios, worked as a sideman for Miles Davis and others, and, most significantly, had inherited the mantle of Wes Montgomery as the cat with the killer skills to beat.
In an era of stadium rock and major-label fusion, even the top players needed basic work, and the North Beach nightspot offered old-schoolers two shows a night for five nights a week. And so it was that a fellow from that echelon was in town long enough to give a 20-something beginner like me some solid guitar lessons.
I was also able to drive him to some favourite vistas in town, and hanging out at a cliffside park by the Golden Gate Bridge with Benson, strumming his classical guitar and singing standards and pop songs for surprised strollers—roughly one year before he blew up with the LP Breezin’—is not something you easily forget.
For some strange reason, I remember all this with much more clarity than he does 35 years later. A few whirlwind decades touring the world with Grammy-grabbing hits like “On Broadway” and “This Masquerade” may have something to do with that. But when we finally connect again, for the first time since he came through Vancouver on a double bill with B. B. King in the mid ’90s, he’s as affable as always, and clearly has just as much music floating through his head.
“I’m putting a bit of everything into my concerts,” asserts the veteran performer, calling from his home in Paradise Valley, Arizona—although he has another in rural New Jersey. With a new album and a tour that takes him here and then on to Europe and Africa, he’s practising plenty and swimming a lot. (“Trying to lose a few pounds,” he mutters, as an aside.)
“There’s very little request to play jazz, though, because that part of the audience is so small nowadays I can’t cater to them without alienating the rest. It would be like going to a Nat Cole concert and never hearing ”˜Nature Boy’ or ”˜Mona Lisa’. I know I would be disappointed. That guy was so talented, there wouldn’t be enough time in the evening to hear everything he could do.”
That’s an apt analogy, because ol’ King Cole gained renown for Oscar Peterson–level pianistics long before his crooning ability was discovered. But even before Breezin’, Benson worked out strategies to mix soulful singing with dazzling chops. (His 1969 LP The Other Side of Abbey Road is still a good example.)
Now, on Songs and Stories, his debut CD for the technophile Monster Music label, he nails some savvy soft rock (“Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”), gets a little funky (“Nuthin’ But a Party”), sings country like Bobby Womack (“Rainy Night in Georgia”), and plays a whole mess o’ guitar, especially on the long “Living in High Definition”, complete with surrealistic strings that recall ’60s orchestrators like Arif Mardin and Claus Ogerman.
“Yes, that’s the track that really gives me room to improvise and put some colours in there. Lamont Dozier wrote that as a vocal, but when I heard the harmonies in there and started foolin’ around with it, I said, ”˜Man, this sounds good just as it is.’ And that’s actually Wah Wah Watson who did the crazy arrangement.”
The sweeteners come later in the cooking process. Benson mostly records the old-fashioned way, live, with all of the players in the same room—this time with guest chairs for fellow axemen Lee Ritenour, Steve Lukather, and Toninho Horta, plus superb bassist Marcus Miller, who coproduced. And that, he explains, is what keeps him interested.
“It’s the other musicians. I still see myself as a struggling musician, trying to keep some ideas flowing, and the other cats keep pushing me. I practice virtually every day, and I play enough gigs to keep my knowledge of the public, and the industry, alive.”
The 67-year-old guitarist has a long-standing endorsement deal with Japan’s Ibanez company, which recently asked him to help develop a signature amplifier. But he has lost some zeal for musical gear. Last year, he auctioned off many of his most prized instruments, and he was especially gratified that Wes Montgomery’s thumb-battered Gibson L-5 ended up with Pat Metheny.
“I still have 30 or 40 guitars,” he says with a sigh. “But I feel bad about them just sitting in their cases. I don’t like the idea of them deteriorating in there.”
At least we know that’s not happening to their owner, who still has plenty of tricks left to teach.
George Benson performs on Saturday (June 26) at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.