George Benson Tells Marcus Miller Like It Is

A freewheeling conversation between the two master musicians

George Benson
George Benson (photo: Austin Hargrave)

I love hanging out with George Benson. He loves music and he loves life. And he unapologetically enjoys the finer things in life. Walking through George’s estate outside of Phoenix, Arizona, you marvel at the material signs of his success: gold and platinum records hanging on the walls, the Maybach car in the garage. But you also marvel at the fact that no matter where you are in the house, there’s always a guitar within reach. George practices all the time. This is one pop star who never stops working on his craft.

For the jazz community, George Benson represents possibly the most dramatic version of what happens when one of its major figures “crosses over” and becomes a part of general popular culture. Other artists like Louis Armstrong, Wes Montgomery, Herbie Hancock and, more recently, Robert Glasper come to mind, but I think the closest comparison to GB would be one of his heroes, Nat King Cole. Like George, Nat was an incredibly influential musician, performing instrumental jazz for years with his King Cole Trio before he made the “mistake” of opening his mouth to sing a song. His vocal gift was undeniable, creating a world of unimagined opportunities for a musician from Montgomery, Alabama in the 1940s.

In speaking to George at his home, the similarities between his story and Cole’s were striking. They both achieved true superstar status after making their initial mark as jazz instrumentalists. And they both faced criticism from the jazz world for choosing to follow the pop path. Phrases like “abandoned jazz” and “sell out” were freely tossed around. But in this interview, you’ll hear George’s story from his perspective. I think you’ll discover some things you didn’t know that will allow you to appreciate his incredible journey. 

And as I tell every young jazz guitarist: You may think of GB as a crooner, but you better wear some protective clothing if you encounter him at a jam session. Otherwise you’ll end up getting smoked by one of the greatest guitarists the jazz world has ever known. 

Note: This interview had to be cut severely for the print edition of JazzTimes. To read even more of Marcus Miller’s interview with George Benson, go here.

MARCUS MILLER: You were telling me stories about playing ukulele and singing for change on the corner in Pittsburgh as a kid.

GEORGE BENSON: Yeah, my cousin with his baseball cap came along at just the right time, and they filled it up with quarters and 50-cent pieces.

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This was in the early ’50s—what were you singing?

Whatever was on the radio. Every now and then I’d throw in a Nat King Cole song, like “Mona Lisa.” And Eddie Jefferson’s stuff. I remember he wrote the lyrics to “Moody’s Mood.” I didn’t sing that, I sang “I Got the Blues.” I sang it faster than him, though.

Did Eddie ever hear it?

Yeah, he rolled on the ground. Him and his buddy gave me a quarter and said, “George, sing that song, ‘I Got the Blues.’” I didn’t know he was the guy that wrote that.

How old were you?

About seven. I knew the guy that was with him because he taught me how to play ping-pong and pool, he worked at the recreational center. And that’s how I got Eddie to know that I remembered that day when I met him years later. Because he said, “You won’t remember this, George, but when you was a little boy, about seven”—and then it all started to come back to me and I thought, “Oh, I sure hope he’s not going to tell me that he was the guy who rolled on the ground.”

He literally rolled on the ground?

He did. Both of them! Fell on the ground and started rolling around. [Imitating wild laughter]

You could sing anything that you heard on the radio?

Yeah. And my stepfather had just taught me to play the ukulele. I wanted to play guitar but my hands were too little. So he found this ukulele in the garbage can—somebody had smashed it up—he glued it back together, bought some strings, and painted it, and he taught me the first few chords. I found out I could play most of the songs I knew with those first few chords. And my ears have always been decent. So that was the beginning of my career, man.

You never learned the names of the notes or the chords?

No. There was no place I could go to learn those things. I learned from watching other cats play. Later, in my mid-teens, I started going to hear cats when they came to town and they would allow me to hang out. They knew I was little Georgie Benson—I was famous in Pittsburgh. I didn’t have nothing but…

But you were still famous?

Yeah. They said, “Little Georgie, stand over there by the door now. Don’t come in near the bar.” So I’d stand there and hear all these great musicians.

George Benson, January 1966
George Benson (with producer John Hammond behind him) recording It’s Uptown, his first album for Columbia, January 1966 (photo: Don Hunstein/Sony Music Archive)

You got hired by Brother Jack McDuff in 1963 because he’d heard you on some gig playing a jazz solo. But then he got you on the gig and he realized that you could play like a jazz guitarist because you’d been hearing jazz guitar solos in the middle of pop songs and you could figure out how to play them, but you weren’t completely familiar with the jazz vocabulary yet, right?

I had just started going to jam sessions maybe a year before that. I had an R&B band that played whatever was on the jukebox. One guy in my R&B band, I used to ask him, “Man, what is it that you’re playing?” I could tell he was an excellent musician because he was so confident when he played, but I didn’t know what kind of music it was. He said, “I’m playing Charlie Parker.” I said, “Who’s that?” He said, “You don’t know who Charlie Parker is?” One day I had to drive him home—we lived way out on the other side of town—and he said, “Man, don’t drive back. Get a cup of coffee,” and then he put on Charlie Parker with Strings, “Just Friends.” And that changed everything.

Blew your mind?

Now I could see an instrument doing the same thing a vocalist does: telling a story. You could see the picture while he’s playing. He could make you relax or he could make you jump. I began to see the instrument as a different thing altogether. I started going Saturday afternoon to my friend Chad Evans’ house. He’d invite a few guitar guys over, and he had all the latest records—Jimmy Smith, The Sermon!, Thornel Schwartz, Eddie McFadden, Hank Garland, Grant Green—and he’d explain to us what was being played on the records: “Right here they’re playing blues and the chord that he’s playing looks like this.” So we were actually learning something. We didn’t have no technique, and that was the problem when I started with Jack’s group—I had good ears, but some of that stuff I had never heard before. He liked to play swing tunes, but some of them were very sophisticated. He had to have a three-part harmony with it and he would stick me in the middle of the harmony. I didn’t play the melody—that would’ve been easy. But I still didn’t have chops yet. I was 19. And he’d be calling out chord changes while he’d be playing. “C7!” “C7?” “D-flat 9!” “D-flat 9?

“D-flat 9, what’s that?” Wow.

That’s when he started saying, “You know, George, I don’t think you’re going to be able to make it with this band.” And the rest of the guys in the band harassed me.

But that was part of the experience, wasn’t it?

He made me do something I had hardly ever done: practice. I started just playing simple stuff, and I thought I was getting along pretty well until I passed through my hometown and my stepfather, who had first given me the very beginnings of the guitar—I thought I was going to show off in front of him, playing fast. But he said, “I see what you’re doing with this, but I can’t hear what you’re doing.” I said, “What do you mean?” and played again. He said, “You’re playing fast notes, but you ain’t playing them right. You’re missing stuff in between.” And then I started breaking them down, one stroke at a time. And I found out, yeah, I was missing, I was cheating. So I straightened that out. Pretty soon I was going up and down, hitting every note. I remember Kenny Burrell asking me that question: “Are you playing every note?” And I said, “Ain’t that the way it’s supposed to be? I don’t know!”

Where does Wes Montgomery fall in the picture for you? When did you discover him?

When Eddie McFadden and Thornel Schwartz came to my hometown, I hunted them down; they were the early teachers for me. We’re talking about the late ’50s. They used to talk about the guitar and they’d say, “No, you ain’t heard no guitar yet. You haven’t heard Wes yet.” That’s the only thing that I could remember. They might’ve said his whole name, but I remembered the word “Wes.” Nobody else had that name that I knew of.

A few years later—1960, I think it was, ’61—[Wes] was playing at the number-one jazz house in Pittsburgh. I was playing in Mason’s Bar & Grill across the street. When they put his picture on the window in that club, I was walking by in the afternoon. I saw his picture and it had his guitar strap like a cowboy, the strap went up to where the tuning pegs were, not down on the body of the guitar like we do today. I said, “This cat can’t play.”

George Benson
George Benson (photo: Austin Hargrave)

He doesn’t look like he can play.

I said to myself, “Oh, no. But that name Wes, I’ve heard that somewhere before. I’m going to come by at night and check him out.” When I came by that night, the place was packed and a guy who I only saw on television was there. He was the best guitar player in Pittsburgh and his name was Joe Negri, he used to play on Mister Rogers. When I saw him in the place, I said, “Oh, this guy must be good.” And then Wes started to play. His brother [Buddy] played vibes and the other one [Monk] played Fender bass. It was the first time I heard an electric bass player play jazz, and it was one of the best sounds I’d ever heard in my life. The guitar was so different than what I had heard: clean as a whistle, big sound, and all those wonderful chords he was playing that I couldn’t recognize. Not one of those chords did I know. I said, “Man, this cat is a monster!”

I tried to get him to show me something. He told me, “No, I can’t show nobody anything, man.” I said, “Why not?” because nobody had ever said that to me before. He said, “I’m too busy trying to learn how to play myself!” I thought that was strange. I understand that now. Cats come to me all the time—cats who can play, too—they want me to sit down and show them something. But I say, “You already got the basics. Send your ear out, listen to everything.”

That’s hard for people to understand, that you never consider yourself a master, where it’s like, “Now I’m done. I’ve learned everything there is to learn, now let me give it to you.”

That’s right.

That’s not how it works.

No, I’ve seen a few cats that have done that and a few years later they’re like Neanderthals.

Let’s talk about the ’80s for a second. You had incredible pop success. And what you represented for us, George, was a jazz musician who wasn’t going to limit himself by what other people think he should or shouldn’t be doing.

I learned that. The good thing is that it happened to me when I was mature. If that had happened to me when I was young, I probably would have been influenced by all of the people who like to bring you down. In some people’s minds, you ain’t number one until they become number one.

How old were you when “This Masquerade” hit?

I was 33.

So you were a full-fledged adult.

I had heard all the stories.

What stories do you mean?

About cats who suffered from bad publicity just because they cut a hit record.

Who are we talking about here? Nat Cole?

Count Basie’s orchestra, with “Elephant Walk.” Wes himself. I said, “I don’t care who you are. People, if you let them, are going to say stuff ain’t right.” I was recording for CTI Records before we got to “This Masquerade.” Critics would say things like, “He’s an okay player, but he can’t play no blues. He plays nothing funky.” So we made an album that was all funky. And that same critic: “Yeah, he can play funky but he can’t play pretty.” I said, “Oh my goodness!” Then I saw an article by Peter Frampton—I didn’t know who he was, I had never heard of him before, but all of a sudden he was big. Boom! So I picked up the article after people had told me about it and he said, “I listen to George Benson’s music.” I said, “If he sells millions of albums and he’s listening to me, let me check out what he’s doing.” So I check out his album and I said, “Wow, okay. He’s got a wah-wah pedal in there and he’s got some percussion. Let me try that.” So I cut an album and they called it Bad Benson.

Wait, Peter Frampton was the inspiration for Bad Benson?

Can you imagine that? Uh-huh. So I used percussion and, man, it was the first record that the company recognized sold over 100,000 albums. But not only did they recognize it, Warner Brothers [Benson’s label after CTI] said, “Man, if that had been with us, we would have sold 200,000 or 300,000 albums.” The critics had been calling me all kinds of names all my life, so I got used to it.

That sums it up, doesn’t it?

Stanley Turrentine straightened it all out for me. They were doing an article and they asked him, “Stanley, you could play jazz, why do you play all that other funny stuff?” And he said, “Because I want to. This is my horn and this is my mouth. I’m playing it because I want to.” And that was the end of that.

You’ve told me that a common sentiment when you were coming up was that black guys play with soul and white guys play with technique. You don’t hear that as much now.

No, but it was real, because we never got a chance to show what we could do. There was only one guitar player that was dominant that was African-American, and that was Charlie Christian. We didn’t have anybody after that till Kenny Burrell and then Wes Montgomery, many years later. The king of the guitar for years was Barney Kessel. And rightly so, he was a brilliant guitar player. One of the greatest experiences of my life was going on the road with him. It was a trio with me, him, and Jim Hall. And man, all I did was listen. I didn’t play that well, except on one date when they had a free-for-all and I let it all hang out, and Barney Kessel said, “You know? I like what you’re doing.”

What was the most impressive aspect of Barney Kessel?

His dexterity. He didn’t have the greatest chops in the world, but he knew how to use them. He used them expediently. You can’t be great unless you know what great is, and those cats were great.

When I first got here today, your wife Johnnie was here. I asked how long you’ve been married and you said …

I always say it like this: “Fifty-four years,” because people who’ve been married a long time know what I’m talking about.

But in this business, George, that’s a rarity. And you seem so solid. And your boys, I’ve known them all my life basically. Do you keep your career separate? How does it work for you?

My wife mentioned that she liked to sing and I said, “No.” Because that could be a problem. In this profession, it is not congenial for a husband and wife to be on the road together. Unless they are tied on the stage doing the same thing. Otherwise one person’s trying to get her over here doing this gig, and the other person’s trying to get you over there to do that. There ain’t enough trust in the world for that. But I think the thing that made us work so well was, first of all, I liked her personality, and I made her some promises—I knew how difficult it was for her to even think good about a musician.

She said her sister cried when she heard she was going to marry a musician.

[Laughs] I don’t blame her. I remember meeting her sister, the one who she was staying with when I met her. I had two dollars in my pocket and I was taking her out. What do you do with two dollars, man? Even in 1965. And here’s what you can do with two dollars: We went to the theater, that was about 55 cents each, and then after that we went and had some hot dogs right next door to the place. And I don’t know where we got the streetcar fare, which was probably about 25 cents. But those are the kinds of numbers we’re talking about when I met my wife. She thought I had money, except when I came to pick her up and she came down with a dress—she always dressed nicely, and she had a little parasol because it was sprinkling—she said, “Where’s your car?” and I said, “I ain’t got no car.” That should’ve been her out right there. [Laughs]

Tell me about your new album, Walking to New Orleans.

At this time in my life, I realize you can’t cut the same record over and over again, and I realize people have a certain expectation of me. They used to call me the “king of smooth jazz,” which was just a phrase. But I certainly contributed to that market for many years. I didn’t want to make another smooth jazz record. It’s a very crowded market right now. I knew that if I signed with an American record company, that would be the first thing [they’d want] because it’s easy for them. So we went to Europe, found a little record company that’s based in Holland, called Mascot Records. They came up with an idea that was pretty strange. They wanted me to record the music of Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. I said to myself, “What?”

That was your first reaction?

I said to myself, “Do they expect me to do the duck while I’m playing?” [Laughs] But the thing most dominant in my mind was that there’s only one Chuck Berry and one Fats Domino, and their characters are super-strong. When you hear it, you know exactly who you’re listening to and what to expect, and you can’t step on that without gaining some terrible criticism. I didn’t want to try to trample on the good reputation they have out there, and I didn’t want people to think I’m capitalizing on their popularity either. But I wanted to honor them, like we did with the Nat Cole thing [2013’s Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole].

What’s the biggest challenge now for you?

Trying to be worthy of that image that it took me all my life to create. Everything I do should reflect the experience that I’ve had and the abilities I have in creating improvisations and interpretation of song. It should be evident from bar one, even if they didn’t know who it was singing it. It’s got to be elegantly done so that it represents what you’ve always represented. Good music, well played.

Are you still digging it, still enjoying playing when you’re on the stage?

When the band is happening, when we’re doing something creative, or if we’re making people happy. That’s what they hire us for. I don’t have no problem with that. I don’t make no excuses about making people happy.

That’s the business you’re in, right?

Yeah, that’s what we’re doing. Ain’t nothing greater.

Read more of Marcus Miller’s interview with George Benson.

Marcus Miller

Marcus Miller has played bass on more than 500 albums. The artists with whom he has collaborated in the past four decades include everyone from Miles Davis to Beyoncé. His latest album as a leader is 2018’s Laid Black, released on Blue Note Records. He is also a veteran film-score composer and the host of Miller Time on SiriusXM’s Real Jazz channel.