Breezin’ with Benson

Legendary jazz guitarist George Benson has played his way through more than 60 years of history.

Benson 311 (photo credit: Greg Allen)
Benson 311
(photo credit: Greg Allen)
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 years.
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.”
The jazz element, it seems, got to Benson via the genetic line.
“My father 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.
It was McDuff who propelled Benson’s instrumental skills to another level by encouraging him to concentrate on his guitar playing rather than his vocal prowess.
“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 Benson.
“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.”
Benson’s 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 years.”
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