By Todd Beebe
George Benson is a true gentleman of the music world and an icon in his field. When the top jazz artists of all time are listed, you are sure to find George Benson on that list. What makes George different than so many others is his chameleon-like ability to work his magic in so many other fields. From Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder to great pop hits, Benson has forged out a career that sees him cross over into many genres, while still retaining his status as a jazz icon. What makes him even greater though, is his humble personality and gentleman-like stature. I had the pleasure of speaking with George recently and he was as gracious as they come. George has a new album out, Walking to New Orleans, which pays tribute to the great Chuck Berry and Fats Domino’s music. The album is amazing, so make sure you pick it up! We discussed the new music, his early years, and his ability to excel in so many genres. Such an honor to talk to this man! I once asked the great Les Paul who he thought THE top guitar player was. His answer: “when all is said and done, you can’t beat George Benson.” George makes reference to many of his favorite artists being “highly intelligent” and “down to earth”, and those words truly describe Mr. Benson himself. To speak with a pioneer in his field, who is such an approachable, special human being, was beyond an honor for me. There are very few people who are in a league with the great George Benson. Thank you for a great interview George. Thanks for all of the amazing music and inspiration through the years, and thanks for showing the world what a true gentlemen of music is.
Todd Beebe: Hi George! This is such a great honor for me. Thank you so much for talking to me today!
George Benson: Yeah man! What’s goin’ on today?
TB: Well I’d like to congratulate you on your great new album, Walking To New Orleans. It’s amazing! I’d like to talk about that and look back at your early years and your amazing career. GB: Sure!
TB: What are your actual first memories of music? Not necessarily jazz, but the first thing that really caught your ear that you remember? GB: Well I was always involved in music because my mother was a singer. Never a professional, just sang around the house and she was known around the neighborhood as a singer when she was a kid going to school. So I guess I bounced from that. She took me to a lot of shows, theater, so I saw some of those tearjerkers that had those great arrangements and orchestration in them. And that stuck in my mind. But I didn’t really get started until she met my stepfather when I was 7 years old. And he was a guitar player. So he plugged in this electric amplifier, and it was an amazing thing that this wire came from his guitar and went through this box and came out on other side of the room.To me that was a miracle! So I used to put my back up against that amplifier and let the vibrations go right through my body as my stepfather played the guitar. And I was too small to play a guitar then, and he knew I wanted to play so he found a ukulele in a garbage can. And it was all smashed up, and he glued it back together, put some strings on it, and he taught me the first few chords. And then my career was off the ground! (laughs)
TB: Now, when did you actually hear jazz, so to speak? Did you hear blues first and that led you to jazz? What was some music you were exposed to, early on? GB: My first records were of my father’s favorite musician, Charlie Christian. At that time they were still playing Charlie Christian along with the Benny Goodman Sextet. Those were some swinging records! Benny Goodman was known as the King of Swing. So he had all those swinging records featuring Charlie Christian, sometimes Lionel Hampton and all those great musicians he had with him. So those were my early records. And at that time also there was a great musician from London, George Shearing. Have you heard that name before?
TB: Oh sure! GB: My stepfather played his records a lot too. So I had that beautiful sound in my ear, and that kind of shaped my thinking about music. It set the standard I should say.
TB: I know you’ve stated that Hank Garland was a big influence on you. He was a country player, but also went into jazz. Was country music an influence on you at all? GB: Well country music’s always had it’s place, cause it featured a lot of great technicians. And they had that very homely sound that you could understand, you know? But they featured a lot of somebody done somebody wrong attitude, so they had the standard life experience in their music. But I was mostly blown away by their approach to music. There was no fear in it, they had a lot of technical prowess. And their harmonies were simple, but very effective. But Hank Garland was a special man. He had a lot of trouble, because he introduced jazz down there. He wanted to play jazz and the country people didn’t want it. They didn’t like anything that infected country music. So he was not so well loved by the country artists at the time, but he was respected though. They respected him as the great musician he was, but it wasn’t easy you know? It’s like me coming up, wanting to be Nat King Cole, in a world full of everything else! (laughs)
TB: Were you influenced by rock n roll at all? This new album, Walking To New Orleans has Chuck Berry and Fats Domino’s music, which of course, they were both father’s of rock n roll. Were you right there in that scene, when it hit in the ’50’s, or did you kind of have to warm up to it? GB: It was part of the progression of music at the time. These guys were superstars, and they were crossover artists. Although that word was never used in those days. They were great crossover artists. They had fans on both sides, white and black, and they sold gobs of records! So they were very desirable as musicians. Their success was something you had to pay attention to! But yeah, that music was part of my growing up you know, so I was well aware of what was going on there! I remember that Chuck Berry was loved by everybody, and Fats Domino, his records sold so well, cause he had a different way of approaching things- that little vernacular that he had when he spoke. So different than the speech I knew in the streets, you know!? (laughs) He use to destroy some of the English language, as far as I was concerned you know (laughs), but he got his point across though! He was very effective!
TB: There’s the stories about you starting on Ukulele at age 7, playing in the drugstore, and then at 8 you started playing in nightclubs. So you started playing gigs fairly young obviously? You got started right out of the gate pretty much? GB: That’s right, yep! 7 years old. I sold one newspaper in my whole life! It was a day I took my ukulele to the paper stand with me and I sold one paper. But I got a 20 cent tip, so that was five times as much as I would have made if I had sold all five papers! So I was amazed myself that people loved the idea that a little kid could play ukulele and sing, cause that’s all I’ve ever done, you know is sing, all my life. So they knew me as Little Georgie Benson you know? And boy I picked up that ukulele, and it just changed the name of the game, cause they had not seen a kid with a ukulele in his hand singing and playing at the same time! (laughs)
TB: What are your memories of Fats Domino and Chuck Berry? Were you friends with those guys, and did you work with them at all? GB: I met Chuck much later in life. I met him in the late ’70’s and had a very, very brief conversation with him. I asked him one question. I said “Mr. Berry, in my show I do the duck walk. I wonder if you mind that I’m doing that in my show?” And he turned around quickly and looked me in the eye, and he asked me one question, he said “can you?” That’s all he asked me. (laughs) It was so funny! Everybody that was there and heard that laughed! I had an opportunity to join Fats Domino’s band when they came through my hometown of Pittsburgh. A couple of guys in the band I guess it was, heard me playing at a nightclub. I guess I was about 15 or 16, I can’t remember now. And they said “man would you be interested in going on the road?” And my immediate answer was “no!” First of all, I was scared to death of going on the road, because I’d never been on the road before. And when I saw guys coming from on the road come from out of town to play locally, they didn’t look like they had very much, you know? (laughs) So I didn’t see any advantage of going on the road. And then I found out that Fats Domino was losing his guitar player. The guitar player was getting ready to go to Hawaii to play with Don Ho. He had found a gig with Don Ho, and he was an excellent guitar player! I remember that much, I remember that he was left-handed. And then I listened to the latest recording he had out, and this guy had a solo on it that was magnificent! He was not a ordinary guitar player, he was an exceptional guitar player! That’s another reason why I couldn’t imagine me taking his place! (laughs) So that never happened. But I was a big fan of Fats Domino, and I saw where he was very special, and then I found out about all the records he had sold. At one point he was up there where with Elvis Presley in record sales, selling 3,4 million records at a time.
TB: This new album is great George it’s all I’ve been listening to lately! GB: Thank you brother!
TB: I guess this is something a bit different for you. But you’ve proven, once again, that George Benson can cross genres and go into everything! When did the idea for this album come about? Kevin Shirley is known more as a rock producer. Do you think that brought a different edge to it? Was that a direction you were looking to go with? GB: They came to me with the idea of doing this record. And I thought it was pretty crazy, you know?! (laughs) At first. I said “wait a minute now! Nobody can mess with Chuck Berry man, leave Chuck alone!” (laughs) But the truth is man, when I got involved in the project, once I started on it, I saw some great potential there you know? I said maybe we’re reminding people of how great these artists were! We don’t have to imitate them or emulate them! Just remind people that there was a Chuck Berry and a Fats Domino, because their music speaks for itself. And the good thing was, they left great material behind. The songs that they had were very simple, but very effective! People can relate to them, cause they’re everyday stories that people go through in their everyday life. So it’s still relevant today. So for that reason I was glad when we hit Nashville, Tennessee, and those great musicians were sitting in the studio I didn’t have to tell them nothing! They asked what key I wanted it in and that was it! (laughs)
TB: That’s interesting, and goes right along with your legacy. A lot of people that are known as jazz artists seem to kind of get pigeonholed into just that category. But George Benson has always been able to kind of go all over the place, into all kinds of different fields like with this new album. But yet you’re also known as one of the kings of jazz as well. So what’s your trick there? How are you able to do that but other artists don’t seem to be able to? GB: Well, I guess the greatest thing that happened to me was that I wasn’t commercially successful until I was in my early thirties. And by that time I had gained a lot of experience! I remember talking to all my heroes, and hanging out with them. Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow, Hank Garland, Grant Green and people like that. Jim Hall! And the Count Basie Orchestra, and Count Basie himself. And I remember that every time they got a hit record, there would always be complaints! You know, (mimics critics voice) “well, it’s commercial! This record is commercial, I don’t like it!” But the thing that got me the worst was when I saw a one-star attributed to a Wes Montgomery record. This critics gave him one star! He couldn’t do a one-star album if he tried! (laughs) But I knew then that there was a problem, and I said well, if I’m ever fortune enough to get a hit record, I’m going to give it back to the people who made it successful. Because that’s who makes records successful, the public! So I started thinking like that. I made a statement many years ago to John Hammond, one of the greatest A&R men in history, if not THE number one. In my book he’s the number one man. ,And he told me that my first record, when I asked him out right , “John, how many records do you think we’ll sell?” He said “Well, you’ll sell somewhere between 3 and 6,000 albums. Maybe.” And I said “is that it?” He said “George, jazz music, jazz records, don’t sell well. The greatest jazz artist in the world is Miles Davis, and he only sells like 20,000 albums!” I said “no, that’s ridiculous! Man, there’s, at that time, three and a half billion people in the world, and we can only sell 20,000 albums?! That’s ridiculous!” And I made a statement and said “I think if you put something on that record that people want to hear, they’ll buy it!” Simple as that. And many years later, 10 years after that, John Hammond came back to me with that. He came to my house to do an interview in New Jersey and he brought a crew with him. They filmed it. And he said “George you were right!” And I said “what do you mean?” He said, “if you put something on that record they want to hear, they’ll buy it!” And at that time, On Broadway was out and selling like crazy! It was a double record set. So we were in good shape! (laughs)
TB: Wow, that’s a great story and a great philosophy too. I was going to ask you what your memories of interacting with Wes Montgomery were? He was known for his great thumb technique on the guitar. You go back and forth between the thumb and pick. GB: He took the fear out of that. I played with my thumb when I was little, but I thought there was going to be a problem, if people saw I was playing with my thumb they were going to reject it, you know? I didn’t have the prowess that he had. I don’t think nobody does! You know? But when I met him, he was a great source of inspiration. He told me I was not going to be ordinary. He said “no, you’re not going to be an ordinary guitar player.” Every time I’d come in the house, in a place where he was playing, he would holler it out over the mic “well my friends in the house!” I would give him a signal “no Montgomery! No!” But I knew what he was gonna do! “Alright, come up here and play something with us!” He would make me play you know? But I knew that I wasn’t there to battle him. It wasn’t about that, cause nobody could battle him and survive! (laughs) But he gave me a lot of encouragement. We used to go to breakfast at Wells in New York City and have chicken and waffles! This is what musicians used to go to bed on! That place didn’t come alive until after the musicians got off of work at 4:00 in the morning! And we’d go by there and eat chicken and waffles and then go to bed! Man! (laughs)
TB: Yeah you can’t be chicken and waffles! (laughs) GB: But anyway, him and I, we were very good friends. He used to tell me things that he would never say in public, or out to anybody else. He knew I was in his corner and I always praised him. And I just told the truth to him every time I heard him play. I’d tell him what I thought about his playing and how incredible an impression he makes on people, when he plays. It was all true, they knew that too. But I let him hear it out loud, from me, because I always wanted him to know that I was his biggest fan!
TB: Yeah, Wes was amazing! Am I right about that, you do occasionally go to using a pick when you play? GB: My recordings are about 60/40. 60% with the pick, 40% with my thumb. Yeah it changes my thinking when I switch over to the thumb. I think a little more intricately, and I don’t worry about technique when I do. The pick forces me to think technical. The thumb gives me a warm vibe, and I can reach for some emotion. You know? So they both have their advantages.
TB: I know you played with Miles Davis as well. Tracks like Paraphernalia are so great! Was Miles very driven and focused in the studio? Or was it a very loose and more laid-back kind of a vibe? GB: It was very laid-back, but he insisted on quality. Wayne Shorter supplied that with his crazy songs. I use the word, “crazy”, cause Miles used it! He said “man, where do you get these songs man? I think you’re writing them just to hang me up! Just to see if I can play them!” (laughs) They were actually magnificent songs! But Miles mentioned that he thought that Wayne was writing them just to see if he could play them? And I almost had the same vibe when I tried to play Paraphernalia! It was a challenge! But Miles himself was a highly intelligent cat. He was very docile. Most of the time. Until you riled him up! Then he’d go off the other end, and he’d go off the deep end. And I didn’t want to be nowhere around then. Cause I thought he might go to his “boxing mode”, and I didn’t feel like fighting nobody! (laughs)
TB: (laughs) It’s so great to hear these stories straight from yourself George! GB: (laughs) I forgot to mention a statement about blues. You know, I got introduced to it in my neighborhood. I lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the Hill District, which is a multiracial neighborhood. But there was a lot of blues on the radio. All kinds of music, but blues was dominate, because it was a black neighborhood basically. And so I heard a lot of that, and all those attitudes were in my mind all my life. But I knew that I wanted to break the mold so I could set another example like Nat King Cole. But you couldn’t miss the blues, cause it was built in! When you heard the radio, you knew for sure you were gonna hear some blues! It was automatic! When they mention blues to me, my mind goes back to those days, and all that. The memory is so vivid, you know? I can call up a batch of ideas at a moment’s notice. And that’s what happened when we were doing this album! I was not practicing blues at the time, but the memories are in there. They’re indelible in my mind. And that’s how we got the wave to put together this album, and keep it simple. I wasn’t going to try to be B.B. King or Buddy Guy on this record! (laughs) But we got just enough to remind people that blues is important!
TB: Any memories with Buddy Guy? GB: He’s a very gifted fellow! There’s only one person in the world like that, and his name is Buddy Guy! He is magnificent man! He is highly intelligent, but he keeps that down to Earth vibe right in front of the people to let them know that they’re just as good as anybody else and he loves them, and just stay who you are!
TB: Yeah Buddy’s great! And you know what George, you do that as well, and we appreciate it. It’s so great to have somebody that remains humble. A lot of people don’t in this business! It’s so great to see a legend like yourself, who’s still approachable and down to earth. So thank you for that! GB: Well thank you man, I appreciate that.
TB: How do you feel jazz, as an art form, will go on? Does it need to stay traditional as we know it, or does it need to expand to stay alive? How can we assure that jazz will stay alive for future generations? GB: I think we need to all move towards the center man. Because that’s where the people are. If you move left or right of where you are, you’re gonna bump into some people. But you move toward the center, that’s where everybody’s at! That doesn’t mean you’ve got to give up your love of life. If jazz is your love of life, it’s going to live no matter what, because you’ve got people who love jazz music and love to play it and who love to hear it! So you’re always going to have an audience. How big it is, depends on where you are. And what time period we are in, in life. At one time jazz used to be the talk of the town, because it was the language that people were speaking. There are no more Nickelodeon’s. We called it a jukebox, and they’ve got other names today. But when you hear the song Put Another Nickel in the Nickelodeon, you know that’s from another era! (laughs) And bebop has a specific time period and an era. It represents something all together different in jazz music. It’s an intellectual side of jazz. And then the other music that came after that was modern jazz, they had chaotic jazz. It started when John Coltrane started playing atonal music, stuff that was completely different than what we had ever heard before. They were reaching into the future. Somebody’s got to do that! Otherwise we’ll never get there, you know?! (laughs) No jazz, it ain’t going nowhere! But if you want to benefit by the jazz experience or the jazz knowledge….and that’s what happened in my case! I started going to jam sessions, and I saw the potential of the harmonies. I said “well wait a minute, I played this same stuff when I was playing R&B!” The only difference was the language. The language is in the rhythm. So if I play a 4/4, and I see these same harmonies and chords, I can use the same knowledge that I gained from jazz and inject it into R&B, pop music, you know?! It didn’t make any difference to me? I started doing that, and it worked beautifully!
TB: It sure has! Well thanks so much for talking to me today George! And congratulations on a great new album! GB: Thank you, my pleasure brother!
Pick up the new album, Walking To New Orleans, and keep up with George Benson on his website and Facebook: