George Benson: From Chitlins to Chateaubriand to Caviar


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Producer Tommy LiPuma had a problem because the instrumentals were going along so great. He didn
In the summer of 2004 guitarist George Benson sat down unnoticed at the Baton Rouge Bar in Montreal and asked for a margarita. The Baton Rouge is a great restaurant haven for jazz goers and musicians attending the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, aka The Montreal Jazz Festival. It just so happened that, as my family and I sat down at the bar for an afternoon brunch, I looked over to my left and recognized Benson as the gentleman ordering a drink.

Benson was there to play at Place des Arts' Salle Wilfred Pelletiere, and I said to him, "Welcome—Live at the Front Room—Brother Jack McDuff with George Benson, Joe Dukes, and Red Holloway. George fell out laughing saying, "Hey, were you there? I said my mom had brought the album home in 1963 and played "Rock Candy, with a burning guitar solo from the then-nineteen year-old Benson.

We took pictures, laughed and talked. We even talked about our brief acting careers. I had been his stand- in when he guest-starred on Mike Hammer in 1985.

George Benson and his guitar have been Circuit Court Riders (CC Riders), traveling from town-to-town spreading the jazz word both vocally and musically. They've sung and strummed their way throughout the whole Chitlin' Circuit. Chitlins to Chateaubriand have been Benson's diet for the past forty years, and now he's tasting the Caviar Elite venues around the world: the festival shores of Newport to North Sea, Umbria, Montreux and Toronto. From the Front Room to the Hollywood Bowl to Montreal's Wilfred Pelletier.

At the time, Benson was finishing an exhausting six-week tour of Europe. He had the Montreal Jazz Festival, North America's phenomenal eleven-day tour-de-force festival, and Los Angeles' new Kodak Center as his final stops before taking a well deserved three week vacation. He said that he was getting a little tired of touring, and was possibly considering slowing down.

He's played with Jack McDuff, Lou Donaldson, Hank Mobley, Jimmy Smith, Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Herbie Hancock and others. He's sung with Al Jarreau, Jon Hendricks, Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie. Benson's singing talents are known world-wide, but it's his guitar playing that scorched the vinyl grooves of Prestige, Blue Note, CTI, A&M, Columbia, and Warner Records in his early days.

Unbelievably, Benson had never heard his million-seller "This Masquerade," nor had he heard of the song's composer, Leon Russell. Most fans have never heard "Rock Candy, Lou Donaldson's Midnight Creeper (Blue Note, 1968), Alligator Boogaloo (Blue Note, 1967), Freddie Hubbard's First Light (CTI, 1971) or Sky Dive (CTI, 1972), or Stanley Turrentine's Sugar—music where Benson's guitar played an integral part.

George Benson's 2004 Montreal Jazz Festival interview reveals secrets about his love for the guitar playing that was his bread and butter before his singing prowess became renowned worldwide.

Some unique ironies have occurred throughout Benson's. Back in Pittsburgh when he was seven years old, Benson picked up his dad's guitar and tried playing it when told not to. His dad bought one for him to learn on, and soon he was confident enough to play at parties and in church for a few dollars. Word spread fast and by nineteen, Brother Jack McDuff heard through the grapevine that a teenager in Pittsburgh could play guitar so well that everyone said he was singing through his strings. And soon after, he began singing with his voice as well.

Benson has a magnetic camaraderie with his audience and quickly establishes it by show-casing his guitar virtuosity—singing on his strings and gradually blending his voice into his numerous golden hits, including "Give Me the Night, "This Masquerade, "On Broadway and "Moody's Mood For Love. Smooth jazzers know these songs by heart and recognize the music melodies as those of the singer/guitarist's signature collection. Benson performed them all at Montreal's Salle Wilfred Pelletiere in Montreal. Dressed in silver slacks with a red shirt and combination red and black satin jacket, he had the Pelletier audience ensconced in guitar rhythms and songs

After his stunning two-hour performance, Benson, his manager and I "Breezed" thru a retrospective time capsule of his career, first as guitarist, and then more successfully as a world class vocalist.

All About Jazz: George, we go back to about 1962 and your first experiences with Jack McDuff ..You were twenty years old. Here we are in 2004, what was that experience like?

George Benson: I was just nineteen years old. Actually, it was 1963 when Bro Jack McDuff took me to New York and I made my first guitar record with him as part of his group—Jack McDuff Quartet. And it was an incredible experience, man. Jack was a very tough bandleader—He stayed on my case all the time, just kept putting pressure on me. He said to me, "You ain't doing this right. You need to put a little bit more blues in your playing. Your tone is too thin and your rhythm ain't as good as it should be.

But by the time I got to New York his manager heard the band, and when he said, "Man, your band sounds better...I think we ought to go into the studio and make a record. So we went into the studio and recorded this record that had "Rock Candy" on it---Live At the Front Room (Prestige, 1963). And man, Jack had another career. It made us famous to do the Chitlin' or jazz organ circuit.

AAJ: I was going to say from Chitlins to Chateaubriand to Caviar. You moved on to Blue Note in a sense, working with Lou Donaldson.

GB: That was really great. After we got a reputation [with Jack McDuff], it seemed like every record I was on, we got a lot of airplay. Lou Donaldson got wind to that and plus he wanted Lonnie Smith---Dr. Lonnie Smith on organ. So we went into the studio with Lou and recorded that exciting Alligator Boogaloo, which was an off-the-cuff kind of thing. Lou made the stuff up in the studio. But Lou was a natural, a jazzman from his heart, had a lot of blues he was playing and he knew how to swing. And me and Lonnie specialized in swing. So that made a great combination and it put us on the map around New York and around the country. People didn't know who we were until that record, and then they started to pay attention.

AAJ: You then went to CTI and Creed Taylor, working with a house band including Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Garnett Brown, Billy Cobham, Ron Carter, Hubert Laws and Deodato. That experience..?

GB: The stint with Creed Taylor's CTI label was a tour de force with White Rabbit (CTI, 1969) and The Other Side of Abbey Road (A&M, 1969), and performing as house guitarist on several successful albums with Hubert Laws, Garnett Brown, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson. Actually, Creed Taylor produced them for A&M Records, but he started using his logo.

That was one of the problems they [A&M] had with Creed. They didn't want him to use his logo; something like that..He started his own record company and we ended up doing White Rabbit, which was really his label; and I had all those great people on my record. And so it was an amazing house [band] we had, and on the road too.

AAJ: So you then went to CTI working with a tremendous house band.

GB: We took that band on the road. The CTI Summer Jazz Festival—or Summer Jazz Tour— and man, every place we played was packed to the brim with people; and I had not experienced that before; that put us on another plane. The only thing that was missing from my career was a hit record. I mean a big one. We had small hits---White Rabbit and a couple of others. And then we ended up with the last record I made for them. Actually, the last one I made for them was Good King Bad (CTI, 1975). Before that, the one that got Warner Bros. interested in me was called Bad Benson (CTI, 1974).

Then Phil Upchurch came into the picture. I went on to Columbia and A&M and did some things, and did some singing on The Other Side of Abbey Road and "Old Devil Moon on Benson & Farrell (CTI, 1976), with Joe Farrell.

AAJ: A transition went from CTI To Warner Bros., and someone presented Leon Russell's "This Masquerade to you. What kind of experience was that?

GB: Tommy LiPuma sent me that song. I hadn't heard of him before and I had never heard that song. I called my sister and asked her about it. She said, "You haven't heard it? It's beautiful. So it was Tommy LiPuma who sent me that song. I was getting ready to work with him. I had selected him as my producer at Warners because he had said something to me when I first met him. He said, "I heard you sing five years ago and I cannot understand why they are not using your voice on records.

When he said that, I told my manager, "That's the guy I want to produce my albums. My first record for Warners.' And that's how that happened. He started sending material and he sent me "This Masquerade. I didn't pay much attention to it; it was a nice song, but I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to it. Then he called me and asked me "How do you like that song? I said, Which song? He said, "You know the song, "This Masquerade. I said, "I got to find it, 'cause I put it in a bin somewhere.

So, he sent me another copy and I checked it out. While I was listening to it, Jorge Dalto, who was my keyboard player, knocked on the door at my house, and he and his wife came in and she said, "Oh, my favorite song. That's Leon Russell's song. I said, "How do you know these people and I don't? She said "I'm telling you, that song is bad. I said, "Maybe I better learn this. So I did. I learned it, but at the last minute Tommy LiPuma had a problem because the instrumentals were going along so great on the album [Breezin' (Warner Bros., 1976)]. He didn't know if he wanted to put a vocal on the album. I said, "Man, you made me learn this tune let's do it one time. And we did. We did it in one take."

AAJ: Well, the other day at the bar reminded me that it was me [then at KAGB-FM], OJ, and Ahmad Rashad who presented you that gold album for Breezin'. You performed it at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (in Los Angeles) in 1976. And if I'm not mistaken, it was your first gold album.

GB: That's Right.

AAJ: I'm going to wrap it up. I'm gonna say "Breezin' —Gabor Szabo, Bobby Womack [High Contrast (Blue Thumb, 1971)].

GB: Amazing record. To me that record is the epitome of funk. There are many wonderful things there: the acoustic guitar sounds of Bobby and the electric of Gabor. They co-wrote it; and you know nobody got rhythm like Bobby Womack. That brother can bleed out some rhythm...

AAJ: My home boy from Cleveland.

GB: That cat is awesome. So anyway I asked for him to come into the studio and add something else to the record that was not on the first one—you know, to make it different; and he came in with "Duo Duo duo duo do duo do duo do. That was not on the original by him and Gabor.

So he brought that into the song, and it made a difference. It became an identifying mark and separated it from all the other versions. It was first done by a group by Sammy Somebody and the Hip Huggers. That's what they were called.

AAJ: I still have the original by Bobby and Gabor.

GB: Wait till you find the one by the Hip Huggers. It was bigger than that. That's what was not on the first version. Bobby brought that into the song and it made a difference.

AAJ: You still got Grant Green's Guitar? 'Cause I interviewed Grant on his last recording Live at the Lighthouse (Blue Note, 1972), and I heard you got it.

GB: Is that right, man? Yeah, I was there for that gig at the Lighthouse. He drove all the way out and picked me up. Yes I do. I have the one that was made for him by D'Aquisto, the foremost acoustic/ electric guitar maker. Not too long ago, he passed away. I became good friends with him before he died. And I came across Grant's guitar in a store and I had to have it, man.

It's been a long journey from Pittsburgh, Newark's Front Room and the Chitlin' Circuits to Montreal. Like Magellan's journey around the world, George Benson's guitar has taken him around the globe many times over. George has shown the world that his musical circumference is well-rounded in verse and music, as evidenced in his exquisite guitar playing and lyrical songs. Long live Good King Bad---the Baddest Benson. Ambassador of Song and Guitarist Extraordinaire.

Selected Discography

George Benson & Al Jarreau, Givin' It Up (Concord, 2006)
George Benson, Irreplaceable (GRP, 2004)
George Benson, That's Right (GRP, 1996)
George Benson, Big Boss Band (Warner Bros., 1990)
George Benson, Give Me The Night (Warner Bros., 1980)
George Benson, Weekend in LA (Warner Bros., 1977)
George Benson, Breezin' (Warner Bros., 1976)
George Benson, Body Talk (CTI, 1973)
George Benson, White Rabbit (CTI, 1971)
Lou Donaldson, Alligator Boogaloo (Blue Note, 1967)
George Benson, The George Benson Cookbook (Columbia, 1966)
George Benson, The New Boss Guitar (Prestige, 1964)
George Benson/Jack McDuff, George Benson/Jack McDuff (Prestige, 1964)

Photo Credits:
Top Photo: Marianne Hamann-Weiss
Other Photos:
Ben Johnson

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