Though most people would first think to categorize George Benson as a jazz guitarist, (despite the fact that he has sold millions of records as a soulful pop singer)the term that best describes the man is entertainer. Since the age of 4 when he sang and danced for pennies on the streets of Pittsburgh as “Little Georgie Benson: The Kid From Gilmore Alley” (later recording on RCA’s short-lived X imprint at age 10), he has relished putting a smile on people’s lips by working every angle of his musical charms. This new GRP Records CD, The Best of George Benson Live, captures his essence in a richly satisfying 10-song microcosm that gives audiences a taste of everything that has made George Benson among the most internationally sought after performers for three decades now.
The music was taken from the Eagle Vision DVD, George Benson: Absolutely Live, which documented Mr. Benson during his 2000 tour for his third GRP Records release, Absolute Benson. Recorded live at Waterfront Hall in Belfast, Ireland, the set features seven of Benson’s greatest hits along with three selections introduced on Absolute Benson featuring special guest Joe Sample on keyboards as well as the BBC Big Band and members of the Ulster Orchestra. Benson’s touring band at this juncture consisted of Musical Director / pianist David Witham, second keyboardist Thom Hall, rhythm guitarist / background vocalist Michael O’Neill, drummer Michael White, percussionist Dio Saucedo and his longtime bassist Stanley Banks (who was present back on Benson’s classic 1977 live album, Weekend in L. A.). Of course, Mr. George Benson is front and center singing and wearing out his custom Ibanez hollow body electric guitar. And the sound was handled by Benson’s long-standing Grammy-winning associate, Al Schmitt.
The CD kicks off with George laying into his 1981 R&B chart-topper “Turn Your Love Around” (a Best R&B Song Grammy-winner for writers Jay Graydon, Steve Lukather and Bill Champlin – all guitarists as well), then slips smoothly into the chestnut that changed Benson from a jazz legend to a pop sensation, “This Masquerade” (penned by rock great Leon Russell). Benson’s now classic arrangement was originally conceived by saxophonist David Sanborn, but Tommy LiPuma – who was producing them both at the time – convinced Sanborn to let Benson run with it as the sole vocal of his Breezin’ album. Benson nailed it in one astounding one take and became an overnight vocal sensation. Audiences never let him leave a stage until they hear his tandem guitar / scat soloing on this gem…as you can hear on the magnificent new live version here.
Next up is George’s instrumental classic “Breezin’,” the title track of his multi-million-selling 1976 album (which was written by soul legend Bobby Womack, who originally recorded it as a duet with Hungarian guitar great Gabor Szabo). But that duo didn’t have the delicate balance of grace and groove that Benson and company brought to it, making it one of the last instrumental melodies to scale the charts and capture the imaginations of listeners around the world. It is followed here by “Love X Love” (pronounced “love times love”), the mid-tempo boiler from George’s platinum smash album Give Me The Night (produced by Quincy Jones and written by English songsmith Rod Temperton).
The concert detours into jazzier territory once George introduces a special guest to the stage, Joe Sample: a jazz legend known as a founding member of influential soul / jazz pioneers The Crusaders as well as a composer / performer in his own right. One of the special angles of George’s Absolute Benson album is that Joe not only was a guest performer on the record, he composed four of its nine numbers as well. They start off with one of those in “Deeper Than You Think,” featuring Joe on acoustic piano. Then they segue into George’s burning rendition of the late great Donny Hathaway’s funk classic “The Ghetto” (which Hathaway composed in the early `70s with his then-Howard University roommate Leroy Hutson, who also became a mid-level soul star).
Next up is bit of uplifting advice in the realm of love titled “Never Give Up On a Good Thing,” a single that was a Top 20 R&B hit in the U. S. and a much bigger “across the board” pop smash throughout Europe – thus it’s inclusion on the set here in Belfast. It gives way to the evening’s jazziest highlight, “Hipping the Hop,” an infectious and playful romp that Joe composed, emphasizing the root similarities (as opposed to polarities) of jazz and hip hop at their cores. It still stands as among the “freshest” pieces Benson can pull out of his trick bag to flash the chops his jazz fans are ever eager to hear.
The set’s final two numbers find Benson and his band jammin’ on two of the fiercest cuts in his catalog. First up is “Give Me The Night,” another Rod Temperton-penned marvel that the group stretches past the 7-minute mark.
Leavin’ `em anticipating an encore, George returns to tear the roof off with the The Drifters’ 1963 classic “On Broadway” (penned by the famed Brill Building quartet of Barry Mann, Cynthia Weill, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller) that he song-jacked in the summer of `78 on his live album, Weekend in L. A. Benson’s original recording was an anomaly as one of the rare live songs from the late `70s on to become a crossover smash. It was #2 R&B for two weeks straight and peaked at #7 pop. And since it is the one song on this new live CD that was already a hit in a live version, Benson goes all-out to make his already fresh rearrangement of the gem even more thrilling. He adds a call and response audience participation section to the mix, a vocal percussion scat a la Al Jarreau in the middle, then whisks the audience off on a Latin escapade before slammin’ back into the lockstep R&B groove to bring it on home.
And you can be sure that at the end of the show, Benson snatched his guitar from around his neck, holding it in one hand while stretching his arms out wide as if to say, “I have just given you 200% of the very best of me, I love you all, good night!”
Across five decades now, George Benson has proven himself to be one of the finest all around musicians the jazz and pop music worlds have ever known. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on March 22, 1943, he didn’t begin playing guitar seriously until his teen years…and THEN only to take over from the guitar player of the vocal group he was in, The Altairs. But he swiftly blossomed into a player of uncanny speed, precision and feel. From juke joints to jazz halls, he had the goods that kept the people swingin’. Key encounters first with Wes Montgomery and later organist Jack McDuff set him on a serious path and he soon became an in demand sideman and session guitarist - the equivalent of a musical gunslinger who could steal a headliners thunder with a few flicks of the wrist within a killer solo.
Solo recordings for the Prestige, Columbia, Verve, A&M and CTI labels documented his growth and versatility as he became a perennial Downbeat Magazine Critics and Readers’ Poll winner. But it was when he joined the burgeoning jazz roster of Warner Bros. Records under executive Tommy LiPuma in the mid-`70s that his ship truly came into its own with the release of the triple-platinum album Breezin’, then the biggest selling contemporary jazz album of all-time (topping Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters from a few years before). He has enjoyed immense international superstardom from that point forth with here more platinum-plus releases, five gold sellers, sold out concert tours and eight Grammy Awards, among countless other accolades and honors.
When Tommy LiPuma became president of Verve Records in 1994, George Benson was his first signing – three months into the gig. George was signed to the GRP imprint, and released his first CD for the company, That’s Right, in 1996. It was followed by Standing Together (1998), Absolute Benson (2000) and Irreplaceable (2004).
Though there are several unauthorized live Benson CDs, there have only been two previous official live sets with Benson as a leader: the studio-doctored George Benson In Concert on CTI (recorded with flautist Hubert Laws at Carnegie Hall in 1975 and released in 1977 to capitalize on the success of Breezin’), and the classic 2-Lp set Weekend in L. A. on Warner Bros. in 1978. The Best of George Benson: Live is the stage legend’s first ever live set to include some of his biggest pop hits along with instrumental jazz material, making it a keepsake for all serious Benson fans and collectors.