George Benson says it takes more than one great mind to create a classic album. The legendary guitarist told Smooth Jazz Now that his 1976 masterpiece ‘Breezin’ was created with the guiding hand of producer Tommy Lipuma. “First he found the songs that he felt that I could really put over, says Benson, “He was the one who suggested that I do ‘On Broadway’ and ‘This Masquerade’ but I didn’t feel good about either one of them.” It’s hard to imagine ‘Breezin’ without those two classic tracks but Benson adds that he especially was leery about redoing ‘On Broadway,’ “It was because it was such a big classic and remember I’m a singer and I have great respect for other singers so I didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes that already had made the world happy with that song.” Benson did however reinvent the tune via a refreshed rhythm concept that has now become its signature. – by John Beaudin
George Benson – Hi again John, it’s no problem at all.
John – When you think of the young George Benson, what advice would you give him?
George – Practice more. (laughing)
John – (laughing)
George – (laughing) Because your competitors are busy at work. They are in the business of getting ahead and furthering their careers and the best way to do that is to practice and get to know your instrument. Whether it’s your vocals or your instrument.
(From left to right) Cameron Smith (broadcaster Nominee) host of Smooth Jazz TV, Smooth Jazz Now President John Beaudin (Awards co-chair/co-creator and Broadcaster Nominee), George Benson (Lifetime Achievement Award winner) and Walle Larsson (Broadcaster nominee) of Cool FM in Winnipeg April 10, 2005.
John – How conscience were you of The Wave in L.S. launching in 1987?
George – Yeah, I did see it happening and it was very fresh, it was a fresh approach. I was hoping to get a little more Jazz into it but I could understand where they were going. They were dealing with a modern audience who had different tastes so it was good to see it coming and I saw a lot more instrumentals being played and that was good.
John – I know you and Earl Klugh go way back to well before the “Collaboration” album. What was it about Earl that really hit you?
George – Well, first of all he was only the second African American in the United States that I saw playing classical guitar and he was so young. He was only sixteen or seventeen years old at the time. He had that finger style technique down pat, he wasn’t a fiery guitar player but he had a lot of sentimentality to his playing and he’s very believable so it wasn’t just technique with him. There was only one before him and that was Bill Harris and Bill was a friend of Charlie Bird that cat Bill Harris made that finger style popular in the United States with the Bossa Nova music. Earl was the first one who came along after the Bossa Nova period died that I heard play the acoustic guitar and I knew that if he was successful I knew that he’d be one of a kind in the United States and for ten years he was. When people caught onto his playing in 1976 there was no on for the next ten years until Captain Fingers.
John – Yeah, Lee Ritenour.
George – Yeah, Lee Ritenour started playing the Classical guitar, I think he started playing with a pick; I don’t even think he played it with his hands. He started playing the acoustic, round hole guitar and that sound just started taking off but I have to give Earl the credit for making it popular in the United States. I knew it would happen and that’s what I told him although he disagreed. He played with a pick and he plays very well with a pick. You know he was the cat who replaced (Bill)Connors in Chick Corea’s band. So you know he had to play something, he wasn’t playing acoustic he was playing with a pick and Chick loved him. So he had to change all of that and I knew that wasn’t the real Earl.
John – I’m set to talk to Earl in the next few months. I really look forward to it. Tell me what was the process of picking the tunes for the “Breezin” album?
George – Well, Tommy Lipuma was the man that came to me with the songs and some were songs that I didn’t particularly agree on and I didn’t feel that comfortable about but you know he was always thinking about what it would do to the public and that’s what an A&R man is suppose to do – Artist and Repertoire. He was a good one, he’s one of the best there is. What he does before and after the product is what makes him so great. First he found the songs that he felt that I could really put over, he was the one who suggested that I do “On Broadway” and “This Masquerade” but I didn’t feel good about either one of them. I did like the Jose Feliciano tune “Affirmation” because I always liked the Latin tunes that allowed me to be Jazzy on top and they always had great rhythms underneath you know.
John – What was your biggest problem with “On Broadway?”
George – It was because it was such a big classic and remember I’m a singer and I have great respect for other singers so I didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes that already had made the world happy with that song.
John – Sure, I hear you but that’s like your song now! Many people look at that tune as a Benson song now.
George – Well, I see that and the greatest compliment that was ever paid to me was when they did the play “Smoky Joes’ Cafe” in New York and they had a group in the play called the Drifters because they were really important to the guys who write all the songs. It was all about the composers who wrote for Atlantic Records. Leiber & Stoller was who the play was about and when they did the song “On Broadway” they used my rhythm concept (George hums the rhythm) and that was the thing that I changed that made the song mine, it gave it my own spin. I had such great respect for that song that I didn’t want to destroy it. I told Tommy, “Let me mess with it a little bit.” I was just hoping to find something to get around the original.
John – The album “Big Boss Band” was another reinvention, what was the catalyst to you doing that album with the Count Basie Orchestra?
George – Well, Count Basie and I were always talking about doing something together, he was like a grandfather to the music world. When you’re talking Count Basie you’re talking royalty for real, him and Duke Ellington. Count had such a relationship with Swing and when I would speak to him it would be like speaking to royalty and he always loved me and he always let me know that. I told him once I was writing a song for him and he said, “George, we have to do this album.” I wrote this song called Basie’s Bag” and I saw him backstage at the town where I live in New Jersey and I played the song for him live and he said, “George, call Frank Foster and tell him to start writing the arrangement so we can go into the studio to record it.” But then he passed away right after that. Frank called me up a year later and I said we can still do this record. There’s no reason why we can’t because the band was still together so we all got together and did the album.