From hard bop guitarist to R&B/pop superstar, George Benson has worn a wide variety of hats over the years. R&B lovers know him as the guitar-playing vocalist who is responsible for such hits as "Give Me The Night" and "Turn Your Love Around," while the jazz world continues to treasure his classic instrumental albums of the 1960s and early 1970s.
It goes without saying that Benson's million-selling "Breezin'" album of 1976 practically defined the NAC, quiet storm, and contemporary jazz radio formats.
Because the guitarist/singer is so diverse and unpredictable, one never knows what he will do from one album to the next. On "Absolute Benson," the eight-time GRAMMY-winner surprised us once again by emphasizing instrumental music. While his previous album, 1998's "Standing Together," was full of R&B/pop singing, only three of "Absolute Benson"'s nine songs find him providing vocals. Everything else on the album is instrumental.
Born in Pittsburgh, George Benson fell in love with a variety of music as a child and was only eight when he first sang in a local nightclub. As a guitarist, his primary influences were Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery. But by the time organist Jack McDuff hired a 19-year-old Benson as a sideman in 1962, it was clear that he had become quite distinctive and recognizable himself.
George Benson's first album as a leader, 1964's "The New Boss Guitar of George Benson" on Prestige, was in the hard bop/soul-jazz vein and was followed by the critically-acclaimed, John Hammond-produced straight-ahead albums he recorded for Columbia in 1965 and 1966.
When one thinks of improvisers who defined straight-ahead jazz guitar in the 1960s, Benson's name is inevitably mentioned along with Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, and Grant Green. But he was never a jazz purist, and his love of R&B, rock, and pop became increasingly evident when he joined forces with producer Creed Taylor first at A&M in the late 1960s, then at Taylor's CTI label from 1971-1975. While Benson was still best known as a jazz instrumentalist during that period, he didn't hesitate to incorporate funk, soul, and rock rhythms or interpret the hit soul, pop, and rock songs of the day.
It was in 1976 that Benson took the plunge and became a superstar in the pop and R&B worlds thanks to the platinum "Breezin'," which soared to #1 on the pop charts and contained his GRAMMY-winning hit recording of Leon Russell's "This Masquerade." For the first time, Benson was enjoying worldwide mass appeal.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Benson emphasized vocals and enjoyed one major R&B/pop smash after another, including "The Greatest Love of All" and a remake of The Drifters' "On Broadway," "Give Me The Night," "Turn Your Love Around" and the Kashif-produced "Inside Love," among others. But true to form, Benson refused to play any one style of music exclusively. He returned to classic standards and acoustic-oriented jazz with 1989's "Tenderly" and paid tribute to Count Basie on 1990's "Big Boss Band."
The 1990s found Benson rejoining LiPuma, who had produced Benson's Warner Bros. recordings throughout the '70s and '80s-at GRP Records. Together they offered a modern vision of contemporary jazz on the 1996 gem "That's Right." They also collaborated on 1998's "Standing Together," which again showcased Benson's chops while bringing in elements of hip hop and Caribbean rhythms.
Throughout his career, George Benson has embraced everything from straight-ahead jazz to contemporary jazz to R&B/pop vocals. And through it all he has demonstrated that creativity and commercial success aren't mutually exclusive.