George Benson: The Long Footprints of the Guitar Man
RR: There is so much in John Coltrane’s catalogue that you could tackle, but “Naima” is yet another fascinating and poignant track on Guitar Man .
GB: I think about John Coltrane every now and then. I met him many years ago, when I
was still 19 or 20 years old, and hung out with him and Wes Montgomery and Jack McDuff and Kenny Burrell. When I met him, he was such a mysterious kind of guy. And he was considered the greatest musician of his time. He and Wes Montgomery dominated the jazz world. When I think about the first time I heard him play, how a man with that kind of power could still make things sound so soft and tender. Because, you know, he played with a lot of force, but somehow or other, the romanticism came out. That’s a very fine line to be able to make both of those things happen at once—to be powerful and dominate, and still be tender at the same time. He was one of those guys that mastered that, so when I did the song, I kept thinking about him. I said to myself, “Would John Coltrane like what I’m doing here today?” So I started throwing in some strange harmonies (laughter), you know, and my take on what I think should go here and there.
It was interesting for me to play [“Naima”], and not have any preconceived thing in mind, and not worrying about it. Just playing it for the sake of doing something and I know that it was brilliant as a song. I put it together hoping John Burk would love it, and John loved it.
RR: Another lesson for musicians of any age—George, you can play what you want on guitar, you have a beautiful voice, you can scat, you can improvise, you can play within a structure, and yet, there are times when you hold back a little bit to have that balance, to balance romanticism with something that has great force.
GB: Because half of the world is made out of romantic people called women. (laughter) They like romance, brother. But you’d be surprised how many guys know that they can’t live without ‘em, so they say, “Well, I’m going to play this for my lady and I know she’s gonna like this,” even if he might be lukewarm, she’s gonna like it. (laughs) We have to speak for each other, too. I’m tryin’ to make it easy for them to walk in the door—know what I’m sayin’? (laughter)
RR: Let’s continue with the talk about the ladies with Rod Temperton’s “The Lady in My Life,” which you also cover on the new record.
GB: I was unfamiliar with that song. I had heard it somewhere before, but I never knew the name of it, and I never realized it was Michael Jackson singing it. I should because his style is as clean as anybody else and very recognizable. But I never paid any attention because the world moves so fast. I wasn’t particularly in that part of the musical game, anyway, but I had heard it before. John said, “Take a listen to this, George; see what you think,” and I said, “Wow, that’s incredibly beautiful,” and it sounded like a Rod Temperton song when I analyzed it. I thought, “Yeah, that’s right down his alley.” I said, “I don’t know if I can do anything that means anything on this,” and John said, “George, don’t think about it, just play it just like it is. We don’t need to go left or right, just lay down an instrumental version of it,” and that’s what we did. After a while, I began to get comfortable with it, so I’m glad we did it. At first, I was saying, “I don’t know if it has any meaning or not,” but everybody that heard it gave it some nice positive comments, and we’ve got a lot of requests for airplay.
RR: You said the world moves so fast, and it certainly does, but you’ve always seemed to keep pace with it; sometimes, you outpace the world, and sometimes, you hold steady with it. I was wondering if you had a great secret about that skill or if you just stuck close to what you are really good at over time.
GB: I’m fortunate to have a lot of young people in my life—my children. (laughs) They keep me on point, man. “Hey, man, have you ever heard of Roger?” I say, “Roger who? Roy Rogers?” (laughter) “Roger, man,” and they turn me onto Roger, and we became great friends. He was a great guitar player, a great producer, a wonderful singer, and a great personality, man. He was a showman. And, so, if it wasn’t for my kids, I wouldn’t know that. He is several years younger than myself, but he was also a big fan of mine. Between my children, I got a chance to become friends with him because they used to call him all the time, and worry him to death: “Roger, we love you man. My dad said hello.” He said, “Who’s your dad?” They said, “George Benson.” And he said, “WHAT?!” (laughter)
So we became friends. But that kind of thing—my children used to bring in songs from off the street, and they introduced me to all these artists, man. And I became interested. I started hearing the positive side of some of these artists because some of ‘em have reputations in a lot of different fields. Some of them go crazy, and go off the deep end. But within that artistry, within their playing, or their presentation, there is some art in there, and that’s what I’d be listening for, and I find that a lot of them, man, are really true artists. It’s just that they’re in a different era than we are. So what we consider art from our era is different from the art we have today. You have to listen very carefully, but there is art in there.
RR: Speaking of that art of listening, when you went into the studio to record Guitar Man, you recorded it a little differently than you normally do. You had musicians that could work fast and play with passion, right?
GB: That’s right. Harvey Mason, one of the greatest drummers of our time because he’s so versatile and he’s good at everything he does—he’s got the great sound, he understands recording, the recording industry, the recording studio very well, and he doesn’t have to play loud in order to be felt, so he understands the art of studio recording, but he’s also just a great drummer all around. Joe Sample—his reputation started with the Crusaders many years ago, and he’s gone on to become one of the staples in American music, especially in jazz contemporary music. He’s the most dependable cat. If you’ve got something you want to say, just talk to Joe about it, and he’ll show you how to make it sound better. (laughs) He’s just an improvisational genius. He’s got a lot of things at his command, and when I spoke, he knew exactly what I was talking about, so when I did those head arrangements such as the one on Stevie Wonder’s tune and the song by Ronnie Foster called Fingerlero, he jumped on it with both hands and two feet, too (laughs), and made it come alive. It is really great working with him. He’s one of my favorite musicians.
RR: You’ve got a new cat, too—bassist Ben Williams.
GB: I had never heard of Ben Williams before, but they brought him to the studio, and they said, “This is the guy we want to make this record with,” and I thought, “He’s gotta be good.” That’s why I didn’t even worry about it. But when I heard him, I was really impressed because as young as he is, I mean it was like playing with Paul Chambers (laughs) and Ron Carter at the same time. He’s got great rhythm. His polyrhythm and his harmonic concept, in addition to being modern, are so right on because I never lose the feel of the tune, and every bar swings. You can’t ask for anything more. He’s only 26. Fabulous musician.
RR: Do you look back at your legacy and think of what you’ve done, or do you always look straight ahead, or is it a combination of the two?
GB: It’s a combination. I look back to see what kind of trail I’ve got hangin’ out back there. Most of it, I’m proud of; I can say that I’m glad I did that. Every now and then, I’ll ask myself the question, “Why did I go down that trail?” That’s part of being improvisational, and being a jazz musician. Basically, after I got into jazz music, everything that happened yesterday didn’t mean anything. What we’re getting ready to play was what was important. But, in life you’ve got to think about the footprints that you’ve laid down, and how it affected the world in general, and how it is going to affect your legacy to the world. I go back and I listen to something, and most things I’m very proud of, and some things I don’t even believe that I did because it was so off the cuff.
When I think of “On Broadway,” that’s one of those things that we did on one set on a Friday night on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood in front of a loud, boisterous crowd. How do you get art over in that setting? But we did. We managed to get something classic going on that day, and I think it was mainly because the people were so into what we did that they forced me to go to the height of my talent, the height of what I do. I am proud of those moments. I’ve got more to be proud of than I have on the negative side.