George Benson in Montreal: Singing with his Strings

Interview with noted guitarist and singer

The Baton Rouge is a great restaurant haven for Jazz goers and musicians attending the Festival de Jazz de Montreal aka The Montreal Jazz Festival. It just so happened as I sat down at the bar for some afternoon Brunch of ribs and chips, I looked over to my left as this gentleman ordered a margarita. I recognized George Benson who was there to play at the WilfredPeltierrer that Friday and said to him, 'Welcome--Live at the Front Room ---Bro 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 19 year old George Benson burning guitar solo.

I was in Montreal a couple days before his Festival International de Jazz de Montreal performance at the Wilfred Pelltiere. We took a picture, laughed and talked. We even talked about his acting---I'd been his stand-in when he guest starred on Mike Hammer in 1985.

George Benson and his guitar have been CC Riders. They’ve sung and strummed throughout the whole Chittlin Circuit. The Circuit Court Rider or CC Rider went from town to town spreading the word around vocally or musically on mandolin. Chittlins and Caviar to Chateaubriand have all been part of Benson’s diet for the past 40 years. And now he's arrived into the caviar elite seats of venues around the world. Traveling from the shores of New Jersey, to New York, Newport, North Sea, Montreal, Toronto, L.A. From the Front Room to the Hollywood Bowl to Montreaux, Kodak Theatre, and Montreal’s Wilfred Pelltiere. George was finishing an exhausting 6 week tour of Europe. He had the Montreal Jazz Festival and L.A.'s new Kodak Center as his final stop before taking a well deserved 3 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, Herbie Hancock, and sung with Al Jarreau, Jon Hendricks, Sarah Vaughn and Count Basie. Benson’s singing talents are known world-wide but it's his guitar that scorched the waxes of Prestige, Blue Note, CTI, A&M, Columbia, and Warner Records. Fans have never heard "Rock Candy", "Midnight Creeper", "Alligator Boogaloo" "Plum", "First Light", "Sugar" nor "Sky Dive"; music that his guitar has led or was an integral part of playing with Lou Donaldson, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Smith, and Stanley Turrentine. Benson’s singing talents are known world-wide, but it's his guitar that scorched the waxes of Prestige, Blue Note, CTI, A&M, Columbia, and Warner Records.

George Benson’s last Montreal Jazz Festival interview gave way to secrets about his love for his guitar playing tThat surpassed his world wide singing prowess: "Give Me the Night", "This Masquerade". The Smooth Jazzers know these songs by heart and even recognize the music melodies as those of singer guitarist George Benson. George performed them in Montreal along with his collection of “On Broadway”, “Moody’s Mood For Love”. George had a lot of fun with the audience. Dressed in silver slax with a red and black satin jacket and red shirt. George has a magnetic camaraderie with his audience and quickly establishes it by show-casing his guitar prowess---singing on his strings, then gradually transfusing into the more recognizable singing of his numerous gold record hits.

Some unique ironicisms have occurred in the career of George Benson. A guitarist since the age of seven, having picked up his dad’s guitar and playing it when told to leave it alone. That was back in Pittsburgh years ago.

Benson reflected back to his youthful days in Pittsburgh learning guitar from one bought by his father, and becoming confident enough to play at parties and in church for a few dollars.

By 19, Brother Jack McDuff had received word through the grapevine that a teenager in Pittsburgh could play guitar so well that everyone said he was singing through his strings. Mc Duff contracted the young Benson to play in his group that also included Joe Dukes, drums, Red Holloway, sax, McDuff on organ. They made a live recording in Newark called “Live at the From Room” in 1963.

Benson said his guitar playing experience with McDuff, Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Smith, Stanley Turrentine and the CTI group of Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Hubert Laws, Ron Carter, Garnett Brown, and Joe Henderson, was a memorable experience. Bluenote, Warner Bros., and Columbia also recorded his guitar playing.

Tommy Mattola brought him to Warner Bros for both his guitar and voice and presented a song to him written by Leon Russell. George said, “I didn’t know who he was (Russell) nor had I heard the song before. My sister took me aside and played it for me. I loved it, memorized it, then went into the studio and recorded it .

George loves to play Montreal and the people love him as was attested to the 3000 plus who came to hear his singing and playing---displaying the Benson genre to all’s delight--- “On Broadway”, “Give Me the Night”, “Love Times Love”, and his nom de plume ---“This Masquerade”. Singer, musician, actor. George has done it all. Many grammys and many Platinum albums .

After his stunning 2 hour performance, George, his manager and I breezed through a retrospective time capsule of his career, first as guitarist and transitioning into world class soloist.

ED: George, we go back to about 1962 and your first experiences with Jack McDuff ..You were19 years old and Bro. Jack McDuff had received word through the grapevine that a teenager in Pittsburgh could play guitar so well that everyone said he was singing through his strings. What was that experience like?

George: “I was just 19 years old . Actually it was 1963 when Bro Jack McDuff took me to NY 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 ‘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.’ He said to me. But, by the time I got to NY, 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". And man, Jack had another career. It made us famous to do the Chittlin' or Jazz organ circuit."

ED: I was going to say from Chittlins to caviar to chateaubriand. You moved on to Blue Note working with Lou Donaldson.

George: "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 in to the studio with Lou and recorded that exciting “Alligator Boogaloo” which was off the cuff kind of thing. Lou made the sfuff up in the studio. But Lou was a Natural, a Jazzman from his heart, had a lot of blues he was playing, and he knows how to swing. And me and Lonnnie specialized in swing. So that made a great combination. It put us on the map around NY and around the country, because people didn’t know who we were until that record, and then they started to pay attention."

ED: You then went to CTI and Creed Taylor; working with a house band of Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Billy Cobham, Ron Carter, Hubert Laws..Deodato that experience? The stint with Creed Taylor’s CTI label was a tour de force with "White Rabbit" and performing as house guitarist on several successful albums with Hubert Laws, Garnett Brown, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson.

George: " Creed Taylor produced them for A&M Records, but he started using his logo CTI which was really his label. 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" that had all those great peolple on my record--- Hubert laws, Bob James, Airto, Billy Cobham, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock. And so it was an amazing House (band) we had. We took that on the road..The CTI Summer Jazz Festival or Summer Jazz Tour; and man it packed every place we played to the brim with people. I hadn't experience that before, and 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”. Before that, the one that got Warners interested in me was called “Bad Benson”. Then Phil Upchurch came into the picture."

ED: ”Transition went from CTI To Warner’ and someone presented Leon Russell's “This Masquerade” to you--What Kind of Experience was that?

George: ”I hadn’t heard of him before and I had never heard that song..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 had met him. He said, “I heard you sing man 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 'How you like that song?' I said which song? "This Masquerade". I said, I got to find it 'cause I put it in a bend somewhere. So he sent me another copy. I checked it out and while I was listening to it, Jorge Dalto who was my keyboard knocked on the door at my house. He and his wife came in and she said, 'Oh, my favorite song. That’s Leon Russell’s song' and 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. And at the recording session the instrumentals were going along so great but Tommy Lipuma had a problem. 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 it in one take."

ED: Well, the other day at the bar reminded me that it was me, OJ, and Ahmad Rashad who presented you with that first gold album. You performed it at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (in L.A), 1976. And if I am not mistaken, it was your first Gold album---"Breezin".

George: ”That’s Right.”

ED: I'm going to rap it up..I’m gonna say “Breezin”---Gabor Szabo, Bobby Womack.

George: ”Amazing Record. To me that record is the epitome of funk. There are many wonderful things there; the acoustic guitar sound, and you know nobody got rhythm like Bobby Womack. That brother can bleed out some rhythm."

ED: My home boy from Cleveland..

George: ”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 on (Womack and Szabo). You know. To make it different he came in with 'Duo Duo duo duo do duo do duo do.' That was not on the original."

George: ”No. 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.”

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

George: ”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.

ED: You still got Grant Green’s Guitar? I interviewed Grant on his last recording at the Lighthouse.

George: ”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 Decristo, the foremost acoustic electric guitar maker. Not too long, he passed away. I became good friends with him before he died. And I came across Grant Green's guitar in a store and I had to have it man.

*****

It’s been a long journey from Pittsburgh, The Front Room of Newark, through the Chittlin Circuits of the south---to Montreal. Like Magellan, George Benson’s trip has taken him around the world. George has shown the world that his musical circumference is well rounded in verse and music, as evidenced by his ecquisite guitar playing and lyrical vocals. Long live 'Good King Bad'---the 'Baddest Benson'. Singer, Ambassador of Song, and guitarist extraordinaire.

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Ed Hamilton