George Benson started out his career as a singer, but made his mark later on as a guitar player. In the 1970s, Benson embarked on a pop-oriented solo career, and reached chart success thanks to the strength of his soul and R&B vocals. In the early 1990s, the musician started revisiting his jazz roots. Always partial to great events, he celebrated the Festival's 10th anniversary with B.B. King. In 2010, Benson was presented with the second Montreal Guitar Show Tribute Award.
George Benson was born in Pittsburgh on March 22, 1943. At the age of 8, the precocious Benson was already singing and playing the ukulele in nightclubs around his hometown. During his teens, Benson formed his own rock band with a guitar as weapon of choice. The young musician then turned his attention to jazz with the discovery of six-string masters Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery.
In 1962, Benson joined organist Fred McDuff's band. After a valuable three-year stint, he decided to embark on a solo career. The New Boss Guitar (1964), his first record as leader, offered covers along with five Benson originals.
It wasn't long before legendary producer John Hammond came knocking to offer Benson a contract with Columbia Records. Under this new label, the artist released It's Uptown (1965) and The George Benson Cookbook (1966). Both albums offered a successful blend of jazz, soul, R&B, and pop. Around that time, Benson also collaborated with other Columbia recording artists including Miles Davis for his 1968 album Miles in the Sky. Later that year, Benson moved to A&M after being lured by producer Creed Taylor. With sound engineer Rudy Van Gelder manning the desk and star players like Herbie Hancock lending a hand, in 1968 the guitarist recorded Shape of Things to Come. A few months later, Benson released Giblet Gravy, followed by Tell it Like it is the next year.
For The Other Side of Abbey Road (1970), Benson put his unique stamp on a handful of Beatles' songs from their last studio album. With Beyond the Blue Horizon (1973), he returned to pure jazz. Good King Bad (1975) showed his funky side. Every one of these efforts allowed the artist to truly show his versatility.
In 1976, George Benson ventured towards writing more commercially successful pop material, at the same time alienating many fans of his earlier work. With Warner Music, he recorded the soul-jazz tinged Breezin' with the help of arranger Claus Ogerman, while the single This Masquerade perfectly showcased Benson's vocal ability. During that period, the guitar relied more and more on the strengths of his vocals to seduce his audience.
Produced by Quincy Jones, Give Me the Night (1980) marked the peak of Benson's pop period, but a dearth of quality material prevented its follow-up, In Your Eyes (1983), from achieving the same kind of success. That very same year, CTI put out Pacific Fire, an album of unreleased material featuring recordings made a few years before his pop period. In it, Benson expertly wields the axe.
Back to Jazz
In 1989, after a few more lackluster pop efforts, Benson decided to make another U-turn. His first full-jazz album in a long time, Tenderly included good old standards like Stardust and Stella by Starlight. Pianist McCoy Tyner and bassist Ron Carter assisted the guitarist during the studio sessions. Recorded with the Count Basie Orchestra under the direction of Frank Foster, Big Boss Band came out the next year. Both albums were generally well-received.
Benson's next step was a move to GRP, where his producer Tony LiPuma had recently landed. GRP's smooth jazz approach suited the artist, who recorded That's Right (1996), Standing Together (1998), as well as Absolute Benson (2000) at the dawn of the new millennium. Conceived in collaboration with singer Al Jarreau, Givin' It Up came out on Concord in 2006, followed by Songs and Stories three years later.
P.S. Mister Benson at the Festival
In 1989, George Benson made his first appearance at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. As part of the event's tenth edition, he shared the stage of the city's old Forum with none other than bluesman B.B. King. The guitarist and singer returned to the Festival in 1992, 1994, 1997, 2001, and 2004. In 2010, Benson offered festivalgoers An Unforgettable Tribute to Nat King Cole and was presented with the second Montreal Guitar Show Tribute Award. He released Guitar Man the following year.