by J. Doug Gill
Now and again a recording artist will hit with an album title that proves self-prophetic or is a dead-on description of the performer’s artistry. With the October 2011 release of Guitar Man, George Benson––after more than five decades of recording––has joined that prognostic group of artists with an album that highlights the jazz legend’s unparalleled guitar work in a stronger format than many of his previous recordings.
“Maybe it was because of the old school approach,” Benson said, referring to Guitar Man’s title and its tracks. “It took years to develop what’s now known as the ‘George Benson sound,’ and I think this record really represents those lifelong artistic values.”
Those values permeate the 12 cuts that comprise Guitar Man, beginning with the solid jazz roots on which Benson has built his reputation along with the pop, soul and R&B underpinnings that have solidified that standing.
“I want people who listen to a George Benson recording to expect the unexpected,” Benson said. “Maybe that’s why this record has been so well received––even by the critics.”
For those anticipating that signature Benson sound the album delivers immediately with a solo acoustic rendition of the standard “Tenderly,” where the guitar legend dispenses the type of tasteful, emotive licks on which he has always dazzled.
“I think this record was based on my need to get back to the basics,” said Benson, during a phone interview from his home in Paradise Valley, Arizona. “We all need to go back there at some point––it keeps us from losing the very things that put us where we are.”
In this instance Benson’s basics include his unabashed love affair with the music of The Beatles; a band who has been at the forefront of many of his cover songs––including an entire reworking of the Abbey Road album from way back in 1969.
“Being a fan of The Beatles didn’t go over too well back in the old days,” Benson said with a laugh. “Especially with the serious cats who were all about being instrumentalists. You just didn’t go there, if you know what I mean.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that Guitar Man’s second track is “I Want to Hold Your Hand, ” the Lennon/McCartney teen-screamer that captured the high-energy feel of Liverpool’s favorite sons.
What is astonishing, however, is Benson’s treatment of the Fab Four classic––a rendition that is so lush and lilting that it takes more than a cursory listen to identify the melody.
“I’ve had that one on the plate for years,” Benson said, recalling the first time he experimented with the melody. “People were bugging me to finish the song but I didn’t know what to do with it until I started hearing all these classical guitar sounds from all over the world. When I added that classical sound to the arrangement I knew it was ready.”
And it’s not just The Beatles cover that unfolds in smooth and luxurious fashion, but there’s also a faithful rendering of “Danny Boy,” a sweet spin through John Coltrane’s “Naima” and a near exact interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour.”
“I took part in a tribute to Stevie a few years ago,” Benson recalled. “He came backstage and told me that I should really consider recording that song. I told him I would, so I’m basically just keeping my promise.”
“My Cherie Amour” also offers a glimpse into the other powerful element of his musical muscle: the 68-year-old performer still brings his powerful voice to bear at every opportunity.
“Well, I’ve always seen myself as an entertainer and not just a guitar player,” Benson said, as soft guitar chords were being strummed in the background. “But people need to categorize things so they know where to put them––it’s all music to me. I just want it to sound natural.”
Guitar Man certainly boasts an instinctive sound, unencumbered by layers of electronics and synthesizers so prevalent in today’s music.
“That came, I think, from that old-school approach, too,” Benson mused. “We did a minimal amount of rehearsal for the sessions and did minimal takes once we got in the studio.”
Still, this latest recording wouldn’t be called Guitar Man if it lacked the sort of crisp, six-string musicianship that launched the vocation of one of the most talented guitarists to ever pick up the instrument.
It is, after all, that prowess that launched Benson’s association with Ibanez Guitars––an affiliation that has been going strong since the ’70s. The George Benson GB-10 model––introduced in 1978––was the first artist model in the company's history, and to this day it remains the longest-running brand in the company’s catalog.
“Awww, those cats are something,” Benson said fondly. “They not only came up with a new guitar that I wanted, but also one that all guitar players––especially the jazz cats––are going to want.”
Benson admitted it took nearly a year-and-a-half to perfect the new Ibanez model that bears his name, but he was also quick to point out that the wait was more than worth it.
“Not only is it beautiful––maple body, vintage sunburst coloring––but this is one road-ready instrument,” Benson said enthusiastically about the LGB300 George Benson Signature model. “This one can take a beating and retain all its settings. This guitar does things that back in the day we could never do.”
Benson also credits the Ibanez connection for keeping his music in the ears of thousands of fans that weren’t even born throughout the first half of his career.
“I love to mentor young people,” Benson added when thinking of his youthful admirers. “The [music] industry is nothing like it used to be. Not only do you not go from street corners to clubs like you did in my day, but you now have a business that doesn’t promote creativity and vision.”
When he can, Benson likes to fill that creative void by sharing his talents with all comers––which happens to be one of the greatest pleasures the guitar great derives from his participation in the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show.
“I don’t usually play when I go to NAMM,” Benson said, mentioning that he had just returned from the annual music industry mega-convention held last month in Anaheim, California. “I just go to demonstrate my guitars. Most of the time I invite four or five folks in the audience to come up and try the guitar––some of these cats can really play, and they try extra hard to prove to me that they’ve got the chops.”
Although his touring schedule isn’t as hectic as it once was, Benson is still a hot commodity on both the festival and venue circuit.
Since the release of Guitar Man last October, Benson and his touring band––musical director-keyboardist David Garfield, guitarist Michael O’Neill, bassist Stanley Banks, drummer Oscar Seaton and keyboardist Thom Hall––have made stops in Atlanta; New York; Englewood, New Jersey; Washington D.C., and numerous other locales.
While Benson’s touring schedule often includes venues in Europe and the Pacific Rim, the 2012 Guitar Man tour will kick off in North America, visiting states from Arizona to Maryland. In March, Benson and his band are headlining the 22nd annual Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest in Reading, Pennsylvania.
“I always love going back east,” Benson said, paying homage to his Pittsburgh roots and part-time New Jersey residency.
Entering his sixth decade of excellence, Benson’s resume is one of the most impressive in the history of recorded music. The guitar virtuoso has released more than 30 albums and won 10 Grammy awards, and Guitar Man was just nominated for a 2012 NAACP Image Award (as Outstanding Jazz Album.)
“There’s nothing like playing live,” said Benson as the soft background strumming from earlier in the conversation had turned to full-blown chords. “As my career has progressed, I've never lost my desire to get out there and entertain folks. That's really who I am.”
A self-prophecy fulfilled? Probably not––especially this late in such a stellar career. Let’s just say that the guitar man is finally getting around to claiming his rightful crown.
For more information on George Benson, including his complete tour schedule,visit www.georgebenson.com.
22nd Annual Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest
Sovereign Performing Arts Center
136 N. Sixth St.
20th Annual Capital Jazz Fest
Merriweather Post Pavilion
10475 Little Patuxent Pkwy.
1964 The New Boss Guitar of George Benson (Prestige/OJC)
1965 It's Uptown (Sony Music Distribution)
1966 Benson Burner (Columbia)
1966 The George Benson Cookbook (Sony)
1966 Willow Weep for Me (Columbia)
1968 Giblet Gravy (Polygram)
1968 Goodies (Verve)
1968 Shape of Things to Come (A&M)
1969 I Got a Woman and Some Blues (A&M)
1969 Tell It Like It Is (A&M)
1970 The Other Side of Abbey Road (A&M)
1973 Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon, Vol. 1 [live] (Accord)
1973 Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon, Vol. 2 [live] (Accord)
1973 Witchcraft [live] (Town Sound)
1973 Beyond the Blue Horizon (Sony Music)
1973 Body Talk (Columbia)
1973 White Rabbit (Columbia)
1974 Bad Benson (Columbia)
1975 In Concert: Carnegie Hall [live] (Columbia)
1975 Good King Bad (CTI/CBS)
1976 Breezin' (Warner Bros.)
1977 Livin' Inside Your Love (Warner Bros.)
1977 In Flight (Warner Bros.)
1977 Weekend in L.A. [live] (Warner Bros.)
1978 Erotic Moods (Traffic Entertainment Group)
1978 Space Album (CTI Records)
1979 Take Five (CTI Records)
1980 Cast Your Fate to the Wind (CTI Records)
1980 Give Me the Night (Warner Bros.)
1981 GB (CTI Records)
1983 In Your Eyes (Warner Bros.)
1983 Pacific Fire (CTI Records)
1984 20/20 (Warner Bros.)
1984 Live in Concert (Design)
1986 While the City Sleeps (Warner Bros.)
1988 Twice the Love (Warner Bros.)
1989 Tenderly (Warner Bros.)
1990 Big Boss Band (Warner Bros.)
1991 Midnight Moods (Warner Bros.)
1993 Love Remembers (Warner Bros.)
1996 That's Right (GRP Records)
1998 Standing Together (GRP Records)
2000 Absolute Benson (GRP Records)
2004 Irreplaceable (GRP Records)
2005 Best of George Benson Live (GRP Records)
2006 Givin' It Up (Concord)
2007 Live from Montreux (Immortal)
2009 Songs and Stories (Concord/Monster Music)
2011 Guitar Man (Concord Jazz)