It’s George Benson’s birthday and we thought it would be fun to celebrate with some of our favorite songs from his albums. You don’t need a special occasion to enjoy his music, however — pretty much any day is the right day for some George Benson jams.
George Benson cut his first single at ten years old, but fell into his familiar style a few years later working for organist Brother Jack McDuff, who served as a mentor to the promising guitarist. His first LP as a leader, The New Boss Guitar of George Benson, was recorded for Prestige Records with McDuff’s band in 1964, and most of the songs were originals he’d written. As a frequent side-man on McDuff’s records Benson’s bold, downstroke-driven style shone, but he also showed the sensitivity of Wes Montgomery’s more subtle, layered approach.
From this 70s Prestige two-fer, which includes Benson’s debut as well as McDuff’s Hot Barbeque, we picked this lovely version of the standard “Easy Living” because it shows how much Montgomery influenced Benson’s style from the beginning.
With a quartet featuring organist Lonnie Smith, Benson made his heaviest bop recordings in the mid-sixties for Columbia. In addition to his two awesome albums, Its Uptown and The George Benson Cookbook, the group recorded Finger Lickin’ Good with Smith as the leader, and Melvin Sparks as a second guitarist. Ronnie Cuber plays a baritone sax with the group, giving them a grittier, swampier feel than other organ/guitar combos which usually employed a tenor.
Columbia capitalized on the success of Benson’s soul jazz hits in the seventies by collecting tracks from these albums, plus some unissued material, on Benson’s Burner in 1976. Its hard to say what fans of his mellow style made of these tracks, but we think of his bop recordings as some of his very best. “The Cooker” was the opening tune on The George Benson Cookbook.
Lonnie Smith took the band to record for Blue Note, replacing Benson with Larry McGhee, ending their successful five year collaboration and also effectively ending Benson’s bop phase. During those years he had continued to work with Jack McDuff, and also appeared on albums by Lou Donaldson, Hank Mobley and Lee Morgan.
From the late 60s on, his own albums started trending towards the style of Wes Montgomery, and away from contemporaries like Grant Green and Melvin Sparks. Its a shame his own quartet was not recorded more by Columbia, because the handful of records they did make are fantastic.
While at Columbia Benson also made an appearance on Miles Davis’ transitional album, Miles in the Sky. So far as we can recall, his was the first appearance of an electric guitarist on one of Miles’ Columbia albums, presaging the fusion phase which began in earnest with In a Silent Way (with Brit John MacLaughlin playing guitar) and providing a bridge of sorts between Benson’s soulful Columbia quartet and his own fusion-leaning albums for CTI to follow. Benson’s solo, starting shortly after the 7:00 mark, is surprisingly restrained compared to either.
Benson opened his first album for Creed Taylor’s CTI label with a Miles Davis tune (“So What”) but by the time he hit his stride there the music was far removed from the heavy fusion vamps Davis was recording at the same time. Still, Benson’s bandmates over the half-dozen albums he made for the label included, at times, three members of Davis’ second great quintet, in addition to soul jazz mainstays like Phil Upchurch, Joe Farrell and the Brecker brothers. His driven take on Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” has always been a favorite of ours.
Few things had more tragic consequences in the world of jazz than the first time Nat ‘King’ Cole began singing pop standards over sugary string arrangements — the records sold so quickly that at most sessions he stopped playing the piano, leaving the world without one of the finest soloists of a generation.
The same could be said of George Benson’s string of hit singles for Warner Brothers starting with 1977’s “This Masquerade” (below). His albums became increasingly filled with smoldering rhythm and blues numbers, and his solos fewer and further between. He had, in fact, crooned a couple tunes several years earlier on his lush recreation of the Beatles’ Abbey Road. On “Golden Slumbers” he doesn’t even play the guitar he’s seen carrying across the street.
Another pre-Breezin’ hint at Benson’s prodigious vocal prowess was an appearance on Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. where he sings some backup as well as playing guitar. His supporting role is pretty minimal, overshadowed by another guest, flautist Bobbi Humphrey — still, any appearance on one of the most revered records of all time is pretty awesome. Stevie’s masterpiece beat out Benson’s Breezin’ for the album of the year Grammy, but Benson’s single “This Masquerade” won record of the year. “Another Star” was released as a single but it didn’t sell as well as “Sir Duke” and “I Wish,” both of which topped the charts.
Breezin’ set a new standard for crossover jazz, cultivating previously unrealized commercial potential. Record collectors know this as one of the most ubiquitous seventies jazz albums, taking for granted the likelihood there’s already a copy somewhere on our shelves. Although he only sang on one song, a cover of Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade,” its success as a single became the turning point in Benson’s career. Although this was his first album for Warner Brothers, it followed the form of his CTI Records and even included some artists regularly heard on his albums there, like Phil Upchurch as keyboardist Ronnie Foster, whose solos provide some of the album’s best moments.
Erotic Moods is the orphan of the George Benson catalog, having hardly been released and even less enthusiastically acknowledged. At its raunchiest the record’s loosest jams are downright dirty, especially the enthusiastic sex sounds throughout “Sweet Taste of Love” — one of two tracks featuring the sultry sounds of Willis “Gator” Jackson’s sax. This dancefloor gem has a hot lead vocal by Ann Winley, whose husband Paul ran the label which ran the range from doo wop to pioneering hip hop. Winley also produced a sweet soul jazz album by Willie “Gator” Jackson on which Benson played some of his most R&B styled guitar. Wikipedia’s Benson discography specifically omits this one, but Erotic Moods is essential Benson.
“Smoking Cheeba Cheeba”
The live album Weekend in LA features Benson’s regular backing group: Phil Upchurch, Ronnie Foster, Jorge Dalto, Stanley Banks and the double drumming team of Harvey Mason and Ralph MacDonald. Its four sides recorded at the Roxy in 1977 are split pretty evenly between instrumentals and vocal numbers, and the band is in great form — the set also introduces “On Broadway,” the Drifters tune which Benson would sort of adopt as a signature tune. Our favorite track is tribute to Wes Montgomery.
“I Remember Wes”
Give me the Night first appeared here on the Hymie’s blog when we posted our proposal for a biopic about producer Quincy Jones, and its also a regular in our “make-out music” section. This is probably Benson’s most pop-oriented album. His take on James Moody’s “Moody’s Mood,” on which he’s joined by singer Patti Austin, is particularly silly. Still, there’s something irresistibly enjoyable about this album.
“Give me the Night”
This two volume bootleg of Benson and a new band is a mellow affair compared to Weekend in LA. Most tunes are stretched to ten minutes or more, and the solos are subdued and thoughtful. Benson is certainly a fan of Miles Davis’ modal masterpiece Kind of Blue (who isn’t?), having recorded several of its songs. This long version of “All Blues” includes some great interplay between the quartet and a memorable, extended solo by Benson. Drummer Al Harewood, who passed away around this time last year, was a frequent side-man for Blue Note in the sixties. Here he comps Benson’s solo with the same flair he showed on albums by Stanley Turrentine and guitarist Grant Green.
Benson sang “The Greatest Love of All” for the 1977 bio-pic The Greatest, in which Muhammad Ali played himself — lyricist Linda Creed wrote the song as she suffered through the early stages of breast cancer. When Creed passed at the tragically young age of thirty-seven, her song was a #1 hit as re-recorded by Whitney Houston. Another song Benson sang on the soundtrack, “I Always Knew I Had it in Me,” also had an inspiring message. It seems like the perfect place to end our tribute today.
“I Always Knew I had it in Me”