As an all-time icon and Grammy-winning giant of jazz, we have grown used to seeing George Benson on the stages that befit his sky-high status. During a six-decade career marked by awards, acclaim and Billboard-topping output, the Pittsburgh, Hill District-born veteran has earned his place in both the history books and the biggest venues around the world. Guitar Interactive's Jonathan Graham talks with the music icon about his latest album 'Weekend In London,' his long-time love affair with the guitar and much more.
Last month, jazz icon George Benson released 'Weekend In London,' an electrifying new live album capturing his 2019 performance at London's (intimate 250-seat) Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club. To find this megastar going nose-to-nose with the breathless capacity crowd at one of London's most prestigious venues is a real treat, not only for a handful of lucky fans were present as the lights went down that magical night in 2019, but also for George himself. "I like that kind of intimacy," says Benson of his flying visit to the Jazz Club, captured on the electrifying new live album. "I can feel the love when it's up close and personal." Fast forward a year, and Kevin Shirley's dynamic production is your invitation to slide onto Ronnie Scott's red velvet banquette, call for a scotch on the rocks and catch the sparks as Benson's honeyed vocal and fluid guitar licks drive the finest live outfit in modern jazz.
"We captured a lot of the atmosphere on Weekend In London," he says. "It was very crowded like it always is at Ronnie Scott's, no matter who's there. We were almost touching as we were playing, people all up on the bandstand. But I'm always happy to be in those surroundings. A lot of big Benson fans were there – and some of the screaming ladies. It was a fantastic night."
'Weekend In London' brings Benson full circle. This seasoned performer estimates that almost a half-century has passed since he first played at the fabled Soho club, touching down in London as the hottest property on the US jazz scene of the early-'70s. "That week, we had everybody come see us," he remembers. "People we never heard of, and some we did hear of. The great John Williams, who at the time was the number-one classical player in the world. John McLaughlin was the up-and-coming master of jazz guitar, and he came almost every night to hear me play. Ronnie Scott introduced us every night, and he wouldn't put up with any shenanigans. He'd tell the audience: 'If you go outside, you can talk as much as you want. But in here – be quiet!'
"I still love the club," Benson continues, "for what it represents and its longevity, the clientele and the atmosphere. It's an incredible place, to be and to play. I've been there for big bands. I've seen Buddy Rich there. I've heard some masterful music in that joint over the years."
The 2019 show that became the new album was another fabled night to go down in the club's folklore. This hard-bitten jazzman might prefer spontaneity to setlists, but this latest live album nods to many of his countless career peaks, whether he's opening with the deathless groove of 1980's US #4 smash "Give Me The Night," revisiting fan favourites like "Love X Love" and "In Your Eyes," or breathing fresh mojo into classic covers like Dave Bartholomew's "I Hear You Knocking" and Donny Hathaway's "The Ghetto." "We don't plan the show out in advance," explains Benson. "But we know there's things we gotta play, and if you leave too many out, you're in for a troubled night. We know what people have come to hear. So I've got half the battle won."
For there are, of course, part of the appeal lies in the improvisation – and 'Weekend In London' furthers Benson's reputation as the best in the business. "Basically, the whole show is improvised except the melody itself and the ensemble playing," he explains. "We play the arrangements, to remind the audience what song they're listening to, but then we can go crazy and do all the improvisation."
If Benson sounds utterly at home on Ronnie Scott's cramped stage, that's because it's how he started out, all those years ago, before fame came calling. From the age of seven, the kid with the golden voice known as 'Little Georgie Benson' was a regular fixture at the street corners, drug stores, jazz joints and R&B houses of his native Pittsburgh. "I played every nook and cranny that was available to me," he recalls. "Most of my joints were the 'B' and 'C' houses, in terms of quality. But that's how I got my beginnings, and it allowed me to experiment, let me know what I could get away with. If I'd played a major nightclub in those days, I would have failed that test, badly."
Yet the young man swiftly rose up the rankings, from taking requests from punters ("Little Georgie, come over here, man, take this quarter and sing this song for us") to cutting his first sides with RCA, still aged just ten. An early tutelage with jazz-organ great 'Brother' Jack McDuff tightened his chops and immersed him in the genre, before he spread his own wings on 1964's solo debut, The New Boss Guitar. "I took chances, stretched out and put out what I do," he remembers. "By the time I got to New York at the age of 26. I was the number-one jazz guitar player – and I couldn't believe it."
By the late-'60s, as an instrumentalist, Benson's name was already mentioned in a reverential whisper amongst the jazz genre's connoisseurs. He was even one of the few musicians capable of keeping up with the brilliant but prickly trumpeter Miles Davis. "He was everything I expected him to be," says Benson of guesting on the track 'Paraphernalia', from 1968's Miles in The Sky album. "In the studio, he always did things his own way, and when he got tired of getting people to understand him, he just put his horn back in the case and walked out. But there was a lot about him to admire."
But everything changed when Benson released 1976's chart-topping Breezin' as his first album for Warner Brothers, its tracklisting home to a glorious reading of Leon Russell's 'This Masquerade'. "Until then, I'd only played guitar on my records," he says. "They didn't even know that I sang. So my producer, Tommy LiPuma, he only allowed me one chance at singing on 'This Masquerade'. So that one take is the only take that exists. And it went to #1. It became Record Of The Year at the Grammys. It changed my whole life. It changed the lives of many people."
Benson had a golden touch in that late-'70s period, whether recording the original 1977 take of 'The Greatest Love Of All' (later covered by Whitney Houston) or delivering an all-time-great live album with the following year's 'Weekend In L.A.' ("That had the song 'On Broadway'," he reminds us, "which became a big hit"). But these flirtations with the mainstream were all leading to 1980's all-conquering 'Give Me The Night': a scat-singing, disco-flavoured smash, written by the late-great Rod Temperton, whose global sales swept up a fresh generation of Benson fans. "'This Masquerade' was a very mature song," he considers. "But 'Give Me The Night' was a powerhouse dance tune, and it gave me some longevity."
The momentum has never left him. As Benson's ageless career has crossed over the decades, he's walked a perfect tightrope, still commanding a fierce respect amongst the most discerning jazz audiences, while firing off hit singles that are loved the world over, from 'Turn Your Love Around' to 'Nothing's Gonna Change My Love For You'. Never losing his early taste for collaboration, he's worked with everyone from Rod Stewart (on 2005's The Great American Songbook, Volume IV) to Damon Albarn's Gorillaz (on 2018's "Humility" single). All the while, the Ibanez GB signature guitar he co-designed and first used for 1978's 'Weekend In L.A.' continues to fly off the shelves – but nobody plays it like the man himself.
Even in the past decade, at a time when most living legends would step back, slow down and bask in their royalties, there's a creative curiosity about Benson that has kept the veteran jazzman active and forging ahead. In 2013, he reinvigorated the covers-album format with the fresh takes of Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole ("I knew that stuff ever since I was a baby"). Next, having signed to the Mascot label in 2018, he opened his account in style on last year's Walking To New Orleans, masterfully reinterpreting the hits of Chuck Berry and Fats Domino – and sounding better than ever in the hands of producer Kevin Shirley, famed for his work with Joe Bonamassa, Iron Maiden and The Black Crowes. "The record company supplied me with a great band from Nashville," remembers Benson. "I wanted to give those songs everything they deserved, without overdoing it."
It's been a long and winding road from the juke-joints of Pittsburgh to the beating heart of the London jazz scene, and George Benson has been great company every step of the way. Now, with 'Weekend In London,' the same club that hosted that young hotshot back in the early-'70s welcomes back the older, wiser legend to burn down the house. Perhaps the compère says it best: "You don't get stars this big in rooms this small very often, ladies and gentlemen. Please be prepared to be dazzled – Mr George Benson…!"
'Weekend In London' is available worldwide via Mascot Label Group.
'Weekend In London' by George Benson Tracklist:
For tickets and more information on Alter Bridge, please visit: georgebenson.com