George Benson has played the field so well and for so long, it’s hard to picture
him as anything but a star.
This Thursday he will pack ‘em in at Caesarea
with a top grade 7- piece band, playing material from across a successful
international career that is nearing its half century mark.
In fact, the
68-year-old first performed in front of an audience over 60 years ago at the
tender age of seven in his home town of Pittsburgh.
“I was playing
ukulele on the street when a nightclub owner saw me, and he wanted me to play at
his club,” Benson recalls in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. There was,
however, a hurdle to overcome before that could happen, although a bottom line
was eventually agreed on.
“He went to speak to my parents about it. At
first they said no, and then he made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.” The
rest is unadulterated, 24-carat gold musical history.
Today, Benson is
known around the world for his polished instrumental and vocal abilities, much
of which can be attributed to his childhood nightclub experiences, even though
his musical direction has followed something of a meandering line over the
Besides agreeing to the youngster’s stint at the night club,
Benson also benefited from other kinds of parental assistance. “My natural
father was a musician, mostly jazz. He played all kinds of instruments – piano,
trombone and drums. I wanted to play guitar but my hands were too small. My
stepfather found an old cracked up ukulele lying around, which he fixed and
added some strings to, and that was that; I had my first instrument.”
jazz element, it seems, got to Benson via the genetic line.
was a jazz musician and he met [legendary founding father of modern jazz,
saxophonist] Charlie Parker. I heard a Charlie Parker record when I was 17, and
I finally understood what my father had been trying to tell me all the time. I
didn’t live with my natural father, but every time we met, we’d talk about
music; he’d always say ‘be like Charlie Parker,’ and when I finally heard
Parker, I realized my father was right.”
BY THAT time Benson had set up a
teenage vocal-based band, which played numbers made famous by some of the
leading lites of the soul scene at the time, including singer Sam Cooke and
R&B and rock n’ roll act Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and had also
fallen under the spell of iconic figures from a slew of other genres, including
gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, and
blues-jazz-soul organ player Jack McDuff with whom Benson played.
McDuff who propelled Benson’s instrumental skills to another level by
encouraging him to concentrate on his guitar playing rather than his vocal
“Jack said he didn’t like singers. He said they got all the
attention, even if they were bad. So I focused on my guitar playing. Jack is the
reason I became a jazz guitarist.”
Mind you, not everyone was happy with
Benson’s focus on instrumental work.
“People in Pittsburgh mostly knew me
as a singer. I left my hometown when I was 19 and came back to perform there
three years later as one of the top jazz guitar players in the country,” notes
“My hometown people didn’t like that at all. They knew little
Georgie Benson the singer who happened to play a guitar, but was not a guitar
player. I came back [to Pittsburgh] and I was playing all these tunes and they
kept begging me to sing. They’d say ‘Georgie, when are you going to stop playing
and sing something?’ But I liked my new status as a guitarist.”
standing in the music business went through the roof when he released his record
Breezin’ in 1976.
“Yes, that album sold almost 10 million copies,” says
Benson with undisguised pride, adding that the LP was a culmination of the
artistic experiences of all the members of the band at the time.
“I had a
band of great musicians at the time. We were all young, and we had this new
concept of music, music that we had grown up with. We had the soul music side,
hanging out and listening to Charlie Parker and all the other great musicians we
heard when we were growing up.”
“It all came together. I wasn’t afraid to
let it out; I wasn’t trying to prove I was a great jazz musician or anything
else. I had this ability to create, and I could turn anything into a creative
piece of music – R&B, blues – and improvise on it and give it a whole new
meaning. That was something I’d learned from all the experience I had over the
Benson says that Breezin’ was popular, despite incorporating some
nonmainstream material too.
“I think it was my singing experience, as a
kid, that helped with that, but I am basically a product of all the great
guitarists I heard – like Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow and Grant Green – and I am
first and foremost a guitar player.”
At the time of the interview Benson
had not decided on the program for the Caesarea concert and says he will
probably go with the flow.
“I’ll play a bit of everything that people
know us for, and I’ll add a couple of new vibes. I’ll just see what feels right
with the audience on the night, then I’ll just strike up the
band.”George Benson will play at the Caesarea Amphitheater on July 21 at
8:45 p.m. For tickets: call *2274 or go to www.hadran.co.il