We were very excited when Marcus Miller agreed to visit George Benson in his Arizona home and interview him for the cover story of the July/August issue of JazzTimes. We knew that the two musicians shared plenty of history and sensibility as contemporary jazz players with both chops and commercial success. We expected a freewheeling and in-depth conversation. They delivered all that and more. We should have also expected that, like two old friends getting together after being apart for a few years, Miller and Benson would go long. Really long. Like 15,000 words long. The thing is, it was all great: incredible detail from George about his early life as a musician, his creative process, his favorite vocalists, and so much more.
Unfortunately, it would have taken dozens of pages in the issue to include the entire interview. Not wanting to leave any good material on the cutting room floor, we decided to break the interview up into two parts, the first in print and the second here online. Enjoy this fascinating look at the life and music of one of the most influential guitarists in modern jazz. —Lee Mergner
MARCUS MILLER: I don’t think people know about your gift of mimicry. The first time I checked it out for myself, we were doing an Aretha Franklin date. Arif Mardin was the producer, and you and Aretha were thinking about doing a duet together for this album. And you stopped by the studio just to say hi and talk about what kind of song you all might be looking for, because Rod Temperton was there and he was hoping to write something for y’all. You were goofing around and you started singing like Aretha in front of Aretha, and I was like, “No! That’s incredible!” I mean, it’s one thing to sing like Aretha when she’s somewhere else, in another country, but when you’re singing in front of her that means you know you sound like Aretha.
GEORGE BENSON: There’s only one sound I associate with her and that’s the only sound—if it don’t have that vibe, then it’s not her. In my brain, you have those elements in it. You say, “Aretha Franklin,” all the elements gang up and come out of here. Same with all those singers, from Frankie Lymon to Smokey Robinson. Nat Cole, even. I would have done it better if I was younger; when I was younger, I was closer to Nat’s voice. When I did that album [Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole in 2013] I was 65 years old. Nat was 25 years old when he did all of his great stuff.
When did you discover that you could just—I don’t even want to call it mimic because it makes it sound cheap—but that you could become these different people?
I’ve always been a fan of all of these people. Those are the people, they are the ones who made things happen, so you either have that or you have nothing. I fell in love with all of them—Frankie Laine, a gigantic star. When I was coming up he was bigger than Sinatra. Because I heard more of his hits, he had hit after hit after hit and then when you went to the movies, cowboy movies, “Mule Train” and all that dumb stuff. And Mario Lanza—I used to win a lot of contests singing his material, except one contest I came in second. A guy beat me to the punch at the rehearsal, he sang “Be My Love” so I couldn’t sing it. They said, “Oh, that’s already taken,” and I said, “Aw, man,” so I came in second place. Walking home from the theater that night, I had won the second-place award, but I was moping and sniffing and carrying on. I’d never lost before—every contest I ever entered, I always came out number one. It was just the cuteness of a little boy with a ukulele in his hand and he’s singing grown-up songs, you know? That’s a natural thing.
The guys who really represented excellence for you—I know Nat Cole’s in there, who else?
Billy Eckstine. Frank Sinatra. Tony Bennett. Jackie Wilson. And even that young Frankie Lymon, with phrasing and clarity of tone, and his intonation was incredible. I like Louis Bigalle today. And the other one who used to be married to J.Lo, Marc Anthony. I like his delivery, incredible. Don’t forget, from LTD, Jeffrey Osborne. Can’t ignore that beautiful voice he has, and his way of approaching things, he’s a magnificent singer. And a few more of them whose names escape me right at the moment, but I pay attention to those guys. Peabo Bryson. He was teaching us something, something people had forgotten about music.
What about Donny Hathaway, did he register?
Man, Donny Hathaway was one of the great teachers of our time. He came from that gospel background, but he played it elegantly on the marketplace. He added new poetry to the stuff. When you think of a song like [singing] “We’re flying high on a velvet sky to the …” Man, it was completely new, fresh. And the stuff that Ashford & Simpson wrote—Donny Hathaway took their songs and went to the moon with it. I mean, he really interpreted it well. And the stuff he did with Roberta Flack, prior to that, just excellent.
A lot of young musicians now come out of church, because there’s not a lot of music education in school. They learn with their ears, and their ears are tremendous. They go to a school like Berklee when they get of age, and they come to me and say, “Do you think I really need to learn how to read music?” And I say, “Well, it wouldn’t hurt.” They say, “Well, I heard that George Benson’s not a big reader.” And I go, “Yeah, but he’s George Benson. That’s a whole other thing.” Because you said that your ears have always been pretty good, but I know for a fact that your ears aren’t just “pretty good”—if a fly is taking a pee on toilet paper, you can hear that. So tell me: If someone had come up to you when you were 12 and said, “I’m going to teach you how to read music,” you would’ve taken them up on it, right?
I tried that. When I got to New York, I ran into the greatest drummer of all time, Papa Jo Jones. And he said, “Oh, you say you can’t read music? Sit down in that chair over there.” He drew on the board a whole note in the C position. I said, “Well, everybody knows what that is.” He said, “What is it?” I played it, and he put a stem on it and I said, “That’s a half note.” So he said, “Play that.” And he just drew some bars on it, then he went to the quarter notes, then he started tying them together—20 minutes later I was reading the chart. He said, “You say you can’t read music?”
See, it’s so intimidating to people who don’t read. But I remember you on that Frank Sinatra date. Do you remember that date we did? Quincy Jones was the arranger and the conductor.
L.A. Is My Lady .
And there was one song, and Quincy was handing out the charts, and he handed you one. You were looking at it and I said, “George, you cool?” And you said, “Man, Quincy, you remember I don’t have the best eyes.” I looked at it and I said, “You’re going to kill this.”
The first time we came to it I saw on the music it said “Solo,” but I didn’t think it meant me! I looked back and said, “Wait, it’s my turn, who else could it be?” But it says “Solo.” So when it came down they were swinging, and then “Bop!” You could hear the crickets outside.
I remember that, on the first rundown.
[Laughs] And I said, “Oh!” And there was Frank Sinatra’s best friend [guitarist Tony Mottola], he grew up with him, and Quincy tried to fire him from the date because he just wanted me to be on the date, but I said, “No, you can’t fire him.” He said, “Why not?” And I said, “He’s reading all my music.” He told me, “George, you see that part that says ‘Solo’? That’s you.” I said, “Oh!” The next time they got to that solo, I tried to play a thousand notes per second.
I was there for that and it was blistering. I tell these kids the story and I say, “Look, being able to read music just would’ve made George feel a little bit more comfortable during that first take. That’s all.”
The great advantage for me, I think, is the communication with musicians all over the planet Earth. You might not be able to talk to a guy in his language but you can play music together. I go to those foreign countries with a 60-piece orchestra, and all of them read more music than I do, but I can communicate with them with even the little bit that I understand about music. I see the bars and they’ll explain to me where this bar is, and I’ll say, “Okay, change that one right there. That bar.” So that is the first gigantic advantage of being able to read music—it’s to be able to communicate, because it is a language. The disadvantages? I find, by going to different schools around the world, that when you go out of what is normal, you’ve got a problem. Because the first thing they’ll say is, “That’s not part of the theory,” or “No, you can’t play that with that!” You see, no one ever told me that when I was coming up.