George Benson Interview

What a career singer / songwriter guitarist George Benson has had!

Just consider, his very first album for Warner Bros., "Breezin,"' was the first album in music history to hold the number one spots on the jazz, pop and R and B charts simultaneously. "Breezin"' won four Grammy’s, including Record of the Year for its single (and the only vocal on an otherwise instrumental album) "This Masquerade." "Breezin'" remains the Best Selling Jazz Album of all time, having sold in excess of six million copies worldwide.

To date, George Benson has received 20 Grammy nominations, and received eight Grammy Awards. George's Grammy awards in 1980 included Best Male R and B Performance, Best R and B Performance and Best Jazz Vocal Performance.

But, it's the songs and the guitar work that have made George Benson famous — songs like "On Broadway," "Give Me the Night," and "Turn Your Love Around."

We're proud to present an interview with a first class talent and one heck of a nice guy — Mr. George Benson.

Q. George, you've said you know things about guitar players that other people will never know. How would you rate Jerry Garcia's guitar work?
A. I didn't hear a whole lot from him, but what I heard, I was amazed. He had good command of the instrument. Hey, he got his point across and that's what it's all about, you know, getting people to understand what you're trying to say. He did that. I'll tell you one thing that told me a lot about him — the ties (laughs). When I saw those ties, I said what?! I had to think about him differently, because he was a Dead Head and I'm almost in the other direction. I always try to be Mr. Suave. I'm not sure I want to continue on with that craziness either. In this world, it doesn't work.

Q. Is it true that your stepfather made your first guitar out of cigar boxes?
A. Actually he made it out of my mother's hope chest It had all the blankets and stuff, this chest, at the foot of the bed. So it was all made out of oak wood. I drew the design on the oak wood top and my stepfather cut it out It took a whole day. He cut it out with coping saws, because wood cracks very easily. Once you start a crack, it's over. So, it took him a 24 hour day to cut it out. Then we had the shape, and we bought $23 worth of parts and I had my first electric guitar. The reason why we did it that way was because the one in the store — that I wanted, in the pawn shop window cost $50 which was far out of our reach (laughs).

Q. That story almost parallels Jimi Hendrix's story. His first guitar was made out of broom handles. How many people would lose interest if they couldn't get a real guitar?
A. Well it says something about making a person work for something, because I valued the instrument after that. For me, to have a guitar was a great privilege. But, if you give it to somebody there's no way they can look at it the same. There's no way they can see it the same way so I noticed that that applied in my case and in other cases I've heard about.

Q. Do you ever ask yourself where your talent came from? Is it a God-given gift?
A. You know, my mother was a singer but she never did it professionally. My father sang and played several instruments. But he never did it professionally. He did it in the Army. So, I got it honestly, but I've always had this desire to perform, to sing and dance. You know when I was a kid, I used to be a dancer too. I sang, danced and played ukulele in nightclubs, when I was seven years old. See there's that little entertainment side of me that people don't really take into account. They think about the musician George Benson. I think the rub has come in my career because people are so used to musicians being laid-back and very reserved. As an entertainer I want to be a little bit more outgoing, and entertain at the same time I play and sing.

Q. How different would your life have been if there had been an MTV when you were growing up?
A. The whole thing about that is it drives everybody into one train of thought. It's hard to be yourself when someone is saying 'Be me, be me!' You know, be like me. So I got chance to be who it is I want to emulate and that changed from time to time. I kept adding new people on. But, I got a chance to study it. It wasn't being rammed through. I think that had a lot to do with me being who I am.

Q. There was a time in the late 50's when you gave up singing and concentrated more on your guitar playing. What prompted that?
A. I had a producer who didn't particularly care about singing period and he didn't like my voice. And, he let it be known too. Creed Taylor was his name, but he was a wonderful instrumental producer. He really set some trends in the world, especially in this country. He made Bossa Nova music famous. He made Jimmy Smith the organist famous. He made Wes Montgomrery famous. He made Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd famous. So he really did a lot of really wonderful things but he just didn't like vocals. So he discouraged me from singing, and after getting so much bombardment from him and my manager at the time, I just decided OK, I don't care what people like about me, just as long as they like me.

Q. So Warner Bros, was the first label to encourage your singing?
A. Yes. Tommy LiPuma, and the reason I selected him out of all the producers they introduced me to at Warners, to do my album was because he said he heard me sing five years earlier, and he couldn't understand why that part of me was not being exploited. When he said that he stuck in my mind. I said hey that's the guy who's gonna produce my album. And. it was a great choice.

Q. And now you're with GRP Records?
A. Yes.

Q. Your new CD has just been released?
A. I didn't release anything yet. We started recording already though. What we did at GRP is all the artists at the label contributed one cut in a compilation album featuring the 25th anniversary of The Beatles. So we all did one Beatles song. My song which is 'The Long and Winding Road' is gonna be the first single from that album. I love The Beatles, their writing and their performance. I just heard for the first time the song called "Fool On the Hill." Now, I've heard a lot of renditions of it but I had never heard The Beatles' version. Man, that is light years beyond any cover of their song I've ever heard. Those guys are magnificent, and I know all the living ones. I never met John Lennon, but I know all of the other guys. They let me know way back when I did the other side of Abbey Road in '69 when I recorded it, they sent word to me that they really loved the album. So we had a relationship before I even met them. Then I met some of the guys. I was on some shows with Paul McCartney and he and I always have a nice conversation. So I feel a little privileged to be in a position that those guys appreciate my covers of their songs.

Q. What happened between you and Warner Bros. Records?
A. They actually offered me a nice deal but there were some real problems over there. They departmentalized me and when they did they hurt my career by doing it. If you ever come to my shows you know that my audiences are mixed but I have a very highly white clientele. Everywhere I go. They put me into the R and B Department so the people who come to my concerts don't even know I have a record out and I have like a number one R and B record out. But they won't know I got it out because they don't listen to those kind of stations. And so, it hurt my career.

Q. According to Rolling Stone, the mainstream jazz albums you recorded for Columbia, A and M, and C.T.I, helped cement your reputation among jazz fans but the sales just weren't there. Does that mean that jazz fans would rather hear the music "live" than buy a record?
A. I have no idea why. I always imagined that in the world there were a lot of people who loved jazz music. So there was something wrong that I've never been able to figure out. I can only attribute it to lack of promotion for jazz people. All the other music is promoted highly. Country music is promoted. R and B music is played and promoted all over the world. Jazz just doesn't seem to get the kind of promotion it needs to stay on top in people's minds. That's as close as I can come to it.

Q. Your guitar sound is especially unique in a song like "Give Me the Night." Is that something you came up with or the producer, or was it a collaboration?
A. Well, the album definitely was a collaboration. It was highly a Quincy Jones and Rod Templeton concept, but the sound of the guitar is purely my own. I invented a couple of techniques or ways of playing the guitar to give it a different feel. That little lick that's on in the beginning is just something that came to my mind, and Quincy Jones picked up on it. He’s got a name for that style of guitar, and whenever he has to record with me he always asks me to play that style.

Q. You told one paper that you play guitar everyday even when you're watching the news, because you might hear something in the background that might spark you. Like what? Most news is bad.
A. The news itself is terrible, but every now and then they'll play something, like the theme song from CNN is good. It's real good as a matter of fact. Then there's a Bruce Hornsby type thing that's really nice. It's real slick. It's really nice. Then I heard something last night on an old black and white movie I was watching. It was the most beautiful song, man. I couldn't wait to get downstairs with my guitar, man. I went downstairs and got the idea before it left my head, and that's difficult to do, to hang onto an idea, to a thought rather.

Q. Your success has never been dependent on a gimmick. If you were starting out today, how difficult would it be for you to make it?
A. Oh, it would be difficult for me to make it today. I'd have to reach for different things. I'd probably find a way because most of my stuff has come out of necessity. Hey, I'm in the music business so let me find a way to stay in the music business. The way to stay in it is to find out what's hot, and to jump on it and see if you can make it hotter. See if you can stick out.

Q. Did record companies try to interfere with the type of music you recorded?
A. Constantly. As a matter of fact I went just the opposite direction. I cut two jazz albums in a row. They kind of hurt, but I'm glad I didn't go the other way.

Q. Could George Benson record a rap CD.?
A. I think it would be out of character for me to do that. Not that I couldn't make something happen with rap music, I think I could. But there's a lot of negative things that happen in the rap world that I don't want to be associated with. I think basically there's nothing wrong with the music, but how they use that medium for their gripes just takes our kids out to a different place that I don't think they should be. Our kids don't need anything else to bring 'em down. They already live in a mean society as it is. The degrading things they talk about in some of these rap songs, they really don't need to be on the air.

Q. Wes Montgomery was your first inspiration and guitar mentor.
A. Not really. Charlie Christian was. But, West Montgomery was a very good friend. When he was alive he was the undisputed champ of the jazz guitar world. So, to know him was a privilege. To hang out with him was an extra privilege. It was like hanging out with Einstein.

Q. You recorded "This Masquerade" in one take?
A. Yes. I had a great band. It was one of the best bands I think I ever heard. The good thing about the group was it was very versatile.

Q. What's different about the way somebody becomes a recording artist today versus the way you did it?
A. There's a lot different about things today. In the old days they used to have scouts that look for people. Or word of mouth would get to a record company. I guess some of that's the same. But today, sometimes they're brought in by other artists who have set up the recording deal where they can bring in two or three artists of their own. Sometimes we get artists out of that arrangement. I'm not sure that was available way back then. That's a new thing over the last 20 years really. I notice Toni Braxton came in by Babyface's label. He brought her in because he's got a deal where he can produce so many artists for the record company in addition to his own. So a lot of people are coming in by that route. And there are other routes they come in too.

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