The term ‘legend’ gets banded around like a packet of digestives at a Weight Watchers meeting, but for George Benson the term ‘legend’ surely applies. The jazz guitarist turned soul singer, and ten-time Grammy Award winner, is back once again for another UK tour next year.
It’s an understatement to say that George Benson is one of the all time greats. Respected by fans and fellow musicians alike, Benson truly is a legend in his own time. Born in Pittsburgh in 1943, Benson was encouraged to take up his interest in music from a young age by his stepfather, who had built a guitar for Benson to learn on. As a young boy he would perform on street corners earning money for his Mother. Inspired by musicians Jack McDuff and Wes Montgomery, it was the stardom of Nat ‘King’ Cole that Benson was drawn to the most.
In 1961 Benson got his first proper gig with the great jazz organist Jack McDuff, and remained with McDuff for four years on the road and in the studio before he began his solo career. He formed his own band, the George Benson Quartet, and was signed by John Hammond to Columbia Records in 1965. At Columbia he recorded several jazz albums, including It’s Uptown and Bad Benson, making a name for himself as a talented guitar virtuoso.
Yet it would be the signing to Warner Brothers in 1975 that would really launch Benson to superstardom. He released the album Breezin’ and it would go on to be the best selling jazz album of all time, and led to the development of ‘smooth jazz’. The album was largely instrumental – the title song, a Bobby Womack composition, is stunning – yet the real beauty of the album came with the eight minute version of the Leon Russell song ‘This Masquerade’. The song was done, incredibly, in one take and for the first time highlighted Benson’s incredible vocal ability. It also was the first real example of Benson’s scat singing in tandem with his tasty guitar licks.
Despite the immense success of the album, and bringing more people into listening to Benson’s brand of jazz, critics pounced on Benson’s turn to the pop world, claiming he had betrayed his jazz fans. Fortunately, Benson continued unabashed: in 1976 he released a stunning version of Nat ‘King’ Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’, and in 1979 he released the brilliant Living Inside Your Love album that featured the pop-R&B song ‘Love Ballad’, originally done by the group L.T.D. Then in 1980 Benson teamed up with Quincy Jones, the first artist to sign with Jones’ new record label. Together, along with Yorkshire-man Rod Temperton, they put together the classic Give Me The Night album, with the title track and single ‘Love X Love’ being smash hits, propelling Benson ever further to the dizzying heights of pop fame.
By this point in his career, Benson went forth with his pop hits: he sang the original version of ‘The Greatest Love of All’, as well as ballads ‘In Your Eyes’, ‘Nothing’s Going To Change My Love For You’, plus duets with Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack. While jazz fans were annoyed with Benson’s musical blasphemy, Benson’s fan base continued to grow larger and larger, with R&B/soul hits such as ‘Turn Your Love Around‘, ‘Never Give Up On A Good Thing‘, and ‘Lady Love Me (One More Time)‘.
That’s not to say Benson hasn’t returned to his jazz roots: since the nineties he has treaded the line between jazz and pop-R&B. In the past ten years he has released several excellent album: one with friend and fellow great Al Jarreau, a brilliant R&B/soul album Songs & Stories, and a great jazz album Guitar Man. In 2013 Benson finally released a full album of Nat ‘King’ Cole covers, Inspiration, another stunning album vocally and musically.
In between all this Benson has remained on the road, performing shows across the world, from concert halls to the prestigious jazz festivals of North America, Asia and Europe. And next year, once again, Benson will be back on tour in the UK – taking in dates in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle and Bournemouth. Tickets go on sale Friday, and can be purchased via the link below.