Talking More Music with George Benson

Part two of a conversation between the guitar legend and Marcus Miller

George Benson
George Benson (photo: Austin Hargrave)

I remember we were working together on an album of yours, and we’d been working for a month already and you were putting guitar parts down and sounding great. And you said, “You know what? I’m bringing the L-5 in tomorrow.” And we were both excited because the L-5 is the original jazz guitar—it’s what Wes played. And you started playing it and went, “Man, it doesn’t work in this music as well as my [Ibanez] George Benson model.” What’s that difference?

The L-5 has such a dominant sound. You could take 15 guitar players and have them play the same song, and after a while you wouldn’t be able to tell which one of them’s playing.

Because the L-5 dominates?

It dominates with the L-5 sound. It’ll hold them back from playing, because it sounds so good, you don’t have to play nothing.

I remember jam sessions, when you were already a huge star, at the North Sea Jazz Festival down in the basement. You would show up, always good-natured, and guitar players would line up because this album was going to make a name for myself. And George, you would shred them to pieces with a smile. You would be like, “Oh yeah, that’s cute.” I mean, you weren’t trying, you were beyond the competitive stage at this point, but it was just so clear, your depth of feeling and your ease and your technique. One more question about the technique: Did you spend hours and hours with that articulation? I mean, getting all those notes up and down the neck?

I still do. But I found out that sometimes you overwork these because some things don’t deserve all of that kind of attention. After a while it starts sounding mechanical and you’ve got to know when to play that tune and when not to. Because people already know you’ve got that, you wouldn’t be where you were if you didn’t have the credentials, you know.

At the time when I came up, as Christian McBride says, it was like you were on Mt. Rushmore. It was like, if you played jazz guitar, you had to have your Benson licks. You don’t know how many people’s lives you messed up because people figured, “I’m just going to do the George Benson; I’m going to sing and do this pop stuff.” They didn’t realize that’s where you come from. It’s not like you were a jazz musician and you just decided to put this little beat underneath it. People can tell when it’s not authentic.

I found that the things I was learning, all that harmony and stuff that I was learning, I could interchange and I could play that. “Oh, I can play it in R&B and I can play all of this stuff, and this too!” And that’s what CTI Records allowed me to do because they were looking for that modern vibe, using all modern tricks and harmonies and devices. I started playing loose on the records and Freddie Hubbard loved it, Stanley Turrentine too. And they allowed me to play all that funny stuff I was dreaming up at home, and I was trying to learn some stuff from John Coltrane, about stacking chords on top of each other and walking my way back home with the chords. I couldn’t predict what I was going to play next. And it all worked. I said, “Man, I don’t even have a right direction, I’m just going to keep doing this.” Because I’m happy doing this. I’m learning something, I’m creating something new.

And it affected everybody.

I didn’t care nothing about the critics after that. I found out the more I thought of them, the more I got dumped. The record companies were very happy, they didn’t know the difference between jazz, R&B, and nothing else. They knew what was selling, and they said, “Make this record like the last one,” which I couldn’t do because copying ain’t what jazz is all about. Jazz likes to create something new and fresh. So, records were different and they got mad at me. Well, they didn’t get mad, but—

It made them nervous.

Yeah, when Quincy gave them the album Give Me the Night, I remember they had heard me sing ballads: “This Masquerade,” “The Greatest Love of All,” and even “On Broadway,” which was quite different. But powerful! Bing, bam, pow, boom! And now I had this Mickey Mouse voice I was using.

Can you explain that “Give Me the Night” voice? First of all, I can’t imagine the song without the voice. I’m sitting there driving my car, listening to “Give Me the Night,” and I said, “Okay, George must have heard somebody sing in the demo who had a voice like that.” But you said it wasn’t the demo, you were just goofing around.

We had finished the album and I was on my way home when Quincy gave me a call: [imitating Quincy’s voice] “George, you can’t leave, man.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Rod Temperton has one more song.” I said, “Are you kidding me? I’ve been away from home for a whole month, we’ve been living in the studio every day. I’m tired. I want to go home!” He said, “George, he’s laid it all out. All you have to do is come in and do your part.” I said, “Okay, man. This is it.”

I went to the studio and they were still writing the tune. Rod would adjust things as you go, he would rewrite in bar two, you know? And after we recorded tens of times, maybe 30 or 40 times, I said, “Q, man, I’m getting wiped out. I don’t know what he’s looking for.” He said [imitating Quincy’s voice], “Try it one more time, man.” I went in one more time and went [doing a Mickey Mouse voice], “Whenever dark is falling,” thinking they weren’t going to use it anyways, and he said, “George, can you do me a whole version like that?” I said, “No! Because I know you, man—you’ll use that!” And he said, “No, I’m not going to use it. I just want to hear it!” When I got the test pressing a few weeks later, I was anxious about whether he’d used it. Put it on and sure enough, he had used it. But everything around it was good.

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.