Pete Callard looks at the multitalented George Benson’s earlier jazz soloing style.
This month and next we’ll be exploring the soloing style of one of the greatest and most successful of all jazz artists: George Benson. Benson’s dual career as both virtuosic jazz guitarist and multiplatinum selling singer have led to comparisons with Nat King Cole - coincidentally a hero of Benson’s.
As a guitarist Benson emerged from the shadow of Wes Montgomery, where he progressed from hard bop, swing and soul-jazz stylings in the 60s, to smoother, more groove-based music during the following decade.
It’s these two distinct eras of his playing that we’ll be examining, and we begin this month with the early part of the great man’s career.
George Benson was born in Pittsburgh on March 22nd, 1943. Starting on ukulele, which suited his young hands, he was playing in a local nightclub when he was seven years old. He moved to guitar at age eight.
Despite his instrumental talents, it was as a singer that Benson first gained national acclaim. He released his debut recording - She Makes Me Mad, for RCA Victor - as ‘10-year old singing sensation’ Little Georgie Benson.
Following this, and mindful of the perils of chidhood stardom, Benson’s mother insisted on him stepping back from the limelight to enjoy a normal childhood. At the age of 15, and sporting a $23 guitar built for him by his stepfather, Benson and his cousin formed a singing group called The Altaires. But on hearing the playing of Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery and Charlie Parker he switched to jazz. In 1962 he joined the band of organist Jack McDuff and went on to release his debut album as leader in 1964. The New Boss Guitar came out on Prestige records when Benson was just 21 years old. Forming his own band in 1965, Benson went on to release It’s Uptown and The George Benson Cookbook for Columbia in 1966. He also collaborated with Miles Davis, featuring on Paraphernalia from his 1968 album Miles In The Sky. Benson moved to Verve Records in 1967, then began working with producer Creed Taylor in 1968 at A&M, then CTI in 1971, which saw him recording with larger ensembles and all-star bands. He also recorded a version of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, called The Other Side Of Abbey Road, in 1969. During this period he worked with numerous artists including trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine.
This month’s examples focus on the ‘changes based’ side of his playing. They pose challenges due to Benson’s phenomenal speed and facility. There are nine examples covering minor and major II-V-Is, blues sequences, double-time ideas, chromaticism, note flurries, motifs, superimposed arpeggios, intervallic ideas and ‘outside’ playing.
Have fun with these, and join me next month when we’ll be exploring the more groove-based (and hopefully less demanding) side of the George Benson style.
I have been doing music all my life, so every day when I get up I expect music will be part of it. George Benson
George Benson: phenomenal jazz technique