For George Benson’s 71st Birthday, an Interview from 2000

In acknowledgment of guitar icon George Benson’s 71st birthday, here’s the proceedings of a phone encounter from 2000 for the bn.com website on the occasion of his release Absolute Benson. He offered quite a bit of information about his formative years.

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George Benson (My Favorite Things) – (5-19-00):

TP:    On ABSOLUTE BENSON, there are a number of Latin tunes, a number of pieces that refer to the sound I remember from the late ’60s and early ’70s when your career was getting underway.  I wonder if you could tell me some of the people you were listening to seriously at that time, what records fed your attitude towards music.

BENSON:  When I entered into the ’60s, I was just starting to get serious about the guitar.  I was always a singer.  I’d done a lot of singing over the years, and was very popular locally, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  But now I was venturing out… In 1963, I left my home, and I was now a national touring…or international, I should say…I was with a touring band.  I had just been listening to out of the ’60s Sam Cooke as a vocalist; Nat King Cole, who was a musician-vocalist — a pianist… I knew all the pop singers of the time, Sinatra and even Mario Lanza way back…

TP:    Can you name one or two tracks by any of those singers that stand out for you?

BENSON:  In the case of Sam Cooke, his recording of “You Send Me” was gigantic.  But he had lots of incredible things.  He did one called “the Chain Gang,” which was quite a unique song.  But it was style and the tonality of his voice that really came through.  He could sing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and it would sell.  In the case of Mario Lanza, who was really the first Classical singer to cross over into Pop so easily, “Be My Love,” which is still a very powerful song — his performances will last, I think, a long as there is music.

But I knew all of the popular singers of our time.  And remember, before that I was exposed to a lot of R&B from the old days.  I had heard Chuck Berry’s beginnings of Rock-and-Roll, and I had heard all of Elvis’ first records.  And Elvis was a powerful singer.  A lot of people underestimated him.  Of course, the kids liked him; he was a handsome guy and he was exciting.  But there was something about his voice that was very unique, and I recognized that, too, way back then, and I became a fan then.  I was pretty universal in my listening.

TP:    It sounds that way.

BENSON:  Just to mention on the jazz side, the things that really inspired me: Jimmy Smith had just made the organ a household word — brought it to the forefront.  Before it had been considered just a unique instrument; there were no masters of the instrument who stuck out, who were commercially received.

TP:    And it created a whole new market for guitar players.

BENSON:  And he put the guitar up front, so it was a great platform for guitar players.  So that’s where I was coming from when I was coming out in the ’60s.

TP:    Was Jimmy Smith coming through Pittsburgh?  He recorded quite a bit with Stanley Turrentine, who was from Pittsburgh.

BENSON:  Yeah, that’s right!  And some of his best recordings were made with Stanley Turrentine.  In fact, some of his early recordings in the late ’50s were made with Stanley Turrentine, and just before 1960, when he came out with “Walk On The Wild Side,” which was a huge success pop-wise, which really made him household.

TP:    Do you have any favorite Jimmy Smith record?

BENSON:  I recorded one called “Ready and Able,” when I started my band which was a fantastic recording, and showed his prowess on the instrument…

TP:    That was a recording you were on?

BENSON:  I wasn’t it.  I recorded it with my own band.  Of course, his recording is awesome.  Ours was exciting, but his was an awesome performance technically.  It was a classic performance!  Anyway, I heard that stuff, and it made me interested in guitar players in a much larger way than I had before.  Because I only knew Charlie Christian and maybe Barney Kessel and some others.  But after that, when I came off the road to travel in 1963, I was exposed to Wes Montgomery, and people like Grant Green and Kenny Burrell, who was also on those Jimmy Smith records.

TP:    I know you were hearing those people coming through town or criss-crossing paths, but I have to orient this towards records.  Can you tell me one or two favorite Grant Green or Wes Montgomery sides?

BENSON:  I can explain that.  When I was about 17 we started going to jam sessions.  Every Saturday we’d have a session at a local musician’s house.  He was probably the best guitar player locally.  He would pick up records for us to listen to.  We could steal licks from these records.  The records we were listening to were Jimmy Smith’s ALL DAY LONG, and also we were listening to Hank Garland’s recording called JAZZ WINDS FROM A NEW DIRECTION, and Grant Green’s first recording called GRANTSTAND — all these people.  And the new Wes Montgomery guy!  He was just becoming famous at the time.

TP:    After ten years of being famous in Indianapolis, he was becoming famous everywhere.

BENSON:  The record that woke me up by Wes Montgomery was from an album called SO MUCH GUITAR (Riverside) which was put out I think in 1959.  It featured the song “While We’re Young,” and when I heard him play that I knew that he was more than just a guitar player.  It convinced me that he was someone very special.

TP:    On ABSOLUTE BENSON you have some covers in your style of tunes by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway.  What are some of your favorite recordings by them?

BENSON:  When I was a young man, my manager said, “George, if you listen to this guy named Raymond Charles (which is the name he used in his early years), you will be successful.  Copy him, because he is the best, and he is going to be very big.”  But after hearing his early recordings, I knew that he was incredible, and “Come Back, Baby” was one of my favorites, a very special song that he recorded years ago.  Had that Gospel feel, but it was different.  It was an honest approach that had everything in it.  It had Gospel-Blues-Pop…everything was in that one song.  So I immediately was a fan of Ray Charles way back then.

In the case of Stevie Wonder, who was very much like Ray Charles in being a prolific writer, a good musician, and excellent singer, above average in all the approaches… They didn’t specialize.  They did everything well.  If they touched it, it was done well!  So Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder in a much more contemporary…of the later days, I should say.

TP:    You play Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” on ABSOLUTE BENSON.  Are there other recordings by him that will be eternally with you?

BENSON:  Oh, yeah, let me think now.  The one Barbra Streisand recorded of his…let me see, now.  My memory is loaded down.  It’s like a computer with so much stuff in it, it’s hard to sort things out.  Let me think about that a little.

In the case of Donny Hathaway, his recording of “For All We Know” is something I sing bits and pieces of almost every day.  I’ve been doing that since it was recorded, way back.  Because it was such an incredible impromptu performance.  I even know the story behind it.  I did hang out with him a little bit to get a chance to feel him out up close and personal, so I got a chance to understand where he was coming from with it.  At one point, I was in touch with him and we were writing songs together.  I went to his apartment and gave him a song that I was working on, and I found out later that he recorded the song, although it never came out.  Then he wrote two songs for me which I never got, because he passed on before I had a chance to get those songs.  But I did hear them.  He wrote them and played them for me, and I said, “When are you going to give those to me?”  He said, “I’m finishing them up; they’re not ready yet.”  But his vocal technique was quite unique, the timbre of his voice.  Those are the things as a singer I had to pay attention to.  But he had many recordings that were great, like the album he did with Roberta Flack called BLUE LIGHTS IN THE BASEMENT.

TP:    There’s a real Latin tinge to this record also.  Have you always been attracted to Latin music and the Latin style?

BENSON:  When I moved to New York from Pittsburgh in the ’60s to play with Jack McDuff, I had a cousin who lived in Spanish Harlem.  So whenever I was in New York, which was very little during my traveling years because we were usually out on the road… But when we came home, what we called home (New York City was my home base), I would stay with my cousin, who lived on 108th and Third Avenue, which was considered Spanish Harlem.  And by the way, I have a son who is Spanish and so does he.  My cousin married a Puerto Rican girl, and my son is half Puerto Rican.

But anyway, we had a lot of association and we heard a lot of the music.  We heard the Joe Cuba records, which were gigantic — “Bang, Bang” and the song “To Be With You,” which was on the jukebox for over ten years around New York.  We were in touch with Johnny Pacheco when I started recording; he was recording with us.  We saw the whole beginning of Salsa music, how it was unacceptable at first to… A lot of Latinos around the world didn’t particularly like Salsa because they considered it a bastard music, but we saw it grow out of that, and now it’s full-grown with Santana!  So things do move.  You know, it was the a lot of the music of that era when we were living in New York.

TP:    Did you listen to très players at all?

BENSON:  Strangely enough, my office was one floor down from Tito Puente.  So my manager and he were very good friends, and he introduced me to him, and him and I became good friends, and eventually we ended up working a lot of the same gigs later.  When my manager introduced me to him, at the time Latin music was not so acceptable to persons who were not in the Latin world.  My manager introduced me to him and said, “George, this is the greatest Latin musician in the world right here.”  I said, “Yeah?!”  From that point on, I began to pay attention to the name Tito Puente.  Sure enough, the whole world has accepted him as being one of the great icons of Latin music.

TP:    Any particular favorites by Tito Puente?

BENSON:  His version of “On Broadway,” which is based on my version, which won him his first Grammy award, is a great example of what he can do.

TP:    Has Joe Sample been part of your world for a long time, or is your collaboration on ABSOLUTE BENSON a first?

BENSON:  No.  Joe and I have been on the same gig, but we’ve never worked together.  It’s usually his band and my band working different sets.

TP:    Well, the Crusaders were a paradigm of the type of band that was covering all the bases and putting them into some sort of very digestible and very musical form in the ’60s, when you were starting out.

BENSON:  That’s very true.  And when jazz music started to wane a little bit, and we had a hard time getting it played on the air, they dropped the name “jazz” from the Jazz Crusaders and became the Crusaders.  But the group was the same.  They did what you mentioned earlier.  They really connected with the audience.  They could take any tune to do that with.

TP:    Were you a fan?

BENSON:  Yeah.  I like uniqueness, and they were unique.  “The Young Rabbits” was the thing that probably… It was more jazz-oriented than anything, but it had a real feel to it.  You didn’t have to be a jazz lover to appreciate it.

TP:    Would you say that when you went out on the road in the early ’60s, your guitar concept was fully formed?

BENSON:  No.  There was a young man in San Francisco… When I decided to go out on my own in 1965, I happened to be in San Francisco, and I spent several days out there.  I was walking around the city, taking in the scenes, and by quite by accident I walked into this club, and I heard a piano player playing who was very good.  I told him who I was, and he said, “Go get your guitar.”  So I went home and got my guitar and came back.  He gave me a lesson in harmony.  He stopped playing for the public… He was a guy who had a big jar on his piano (you know the scenario) for the dollars to be dropped in, and people making requests.  Well, he stopped doing that to show me what he was talking about.  Because I didn’t understand anything he was saying to me.  He was calling off chord changes; I didn’t understand any of them.  He would say, like, “C!” I’d play a C, and he’d say, “No, not that C.”  I said, “Wait a minute.  There’s more than one C?”  And he began to explain.  And man, what I learned has been with me to this day.  His name was Freddie Gambrell.  There’s not much on him.

TP:    Was he blind?

BENSON:  Yes, he was blind.

TP:    He did a record with Chico Hamilton, one trio record.

BENSON:  Is that right?  You know a lot, man!  Freddie Gambrell, man.  He was quite unique!

TP:    In other words, you were an ear player, and as the ’60s developed and your career developed, you learned much more about theory and you’ve been able to continually apply it.

BENSON:  Yeah.  I think people began to notice me when I started to apply the theory that I embarked on after spending that little time with Freddie Gambrell.  I began to experiment.  And what I learned from him I think separated me from the normal guitar thinking.  So I think that made me interesting to other players, who used to ask me all the time, “Where you coming from, man?”

TP:    So he gave you a kind of pianistic conception of harmony which you were able to put on what you did.

BENSON:  That’s right.

TP:    What have you been listening to lately?

BENSON:  I just came back from Hawaii, so I heard a lot of Hawaiian music, and there are a lot of Latin musicians over there.

TP:    You heard them in person.

BENSON:  Yes.  Then they gave me their records, and I listened to their records.  I’ve been listening to Rodney Jones’ latest album, THE UNDISCOVERED FEW.  He’s got some new stuff happening that’s really wonderful.  So he’s reaching out and stretching out!

TP:    A couple of others?

BENSON:  I’ve been listening to a guitar player from Spain called Tomatito.  He’s the newest hot guitar player from Spain.  He’s second only to Paco De Lucia.  Everybody is into him right now.  Tomatito is the cat I’m listening to.  It means “little tomato,” I think.

Let’s see what’s in front of me.  What I do is take stuff and just throw it on.  You’re going to be surprised at this one.  I went back in my archives and put on the Anthology of Smokey Robinson.  The reason why, there’s a song on there that nobody knows about it… You ask people if they’ve ever heard this song, and they say “No.”  It’s called “Bad Girl.”  You ever heard of that?

TP:    I might have… No, I’m thinking of “My Girl.”

BENSON:  “My Girl.”  I think he wrote that, too.  I think Smokey Robinson was one of the writers on “My Girl.”  But this song is called “Bad Girl.”  And the reason why Smokey Robinson is still on my mind is because we used to perform with them.  Whenever they came to my home town, we would be on the same show with them.  That’s way back in like 1959 or the very early ’60s.

TP:    When everything was mixed up, and there would be five-six bands on one show.

BENSON:  Uh-huh.  Well, see, I had a singing group then.  We had the most popular singing group in Pittsburgh.  So they were brand-new, and he was the first artist on Motown when they came out in 1959.   But the song “Bad Girl” was one we used to sing all the time from their early recordings, something he wrote that we sang all the time.  That’s the reason  why I picked up the CD.

TP:    One more, then I’ll let you go.

BENSON:  Let me think of something  that people will recognize.  I don’t want to get too much…

TP:    We can be esoteric and right down the middle, too.

BENSON:  All right.  Whoo, boy.  Well, what’s happening now is people are going back to Django Reinhardt, man, because the French guitar players… Oh, I’ll tell you something else that’s exciting.  Jimmy Bruno and Joe Beck, POLARITY.  There’s some exciting stuff on there!  I was up with Bruno the other day.  I went up to see him at the club in New York, and they lit the place up, though Joe Beck wasn’t with him.

TP:    And you’ve been listening a lot to Django?

BENSON:  to Django, yes.

TP:    Have you heard the Mosaic Box (THE COMPLETE DJANGO REINHARDT AND QUINTET OF THE HOT CLUB OF FRANCE: SWING/HMV SESSIONS, 1936-1948)?

BENSON:  Tell Barnes & Noble to send me that!

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