Rompin39 In Real Time George Benson Goes Live To Record Songs and Stories

March 1, 2010
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The world may know George Benson best by his golden voice, but lurking alongside his crooner persona is a hard-core jazzer with deep improvisational skills and some of the scariest chops around. Benson learned about “one take” recording early in his career, and by all accounts he was a quick study. In these trial-by-fire scenarios Benson’s fretboard prowess, great ear, impeccable groove, and boundless self-confidence made him an unstoppable force in the jazz community. “I had such chops in those days and I wasn’t afraid to try anything,” Benson recalls. “I would stretch things out and make them sound wild and crazy—that was just my way of doing things back then. They once did a blindfold test on Wes Montgomery and played him a cut from one of the first CBS records that I did with [saxophonist] Ronnie Cuber and [keyboardist] Lonnie Smith. When he heard it, he said, ‘I know who that is—it’s that kid George Benson. Man, when he slows down he is going to be a monster!’”

By the time he was in his 20s, Benson was a seasoned veteran who had recorded with such heavyweights as Miles Davis, Jack McDuff, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Turrentine, Freddy Hubbard, Ron Carter, Jack Dejohnette, and Hubert Laws. Benson may have dropped out of high school, but in the university of real-world jazz he honed his skills to a razor’s edge and became a hot commodity as a solo artist. Following a series of albums on the CTI label, Benson signed with Warner and, with the help of producer Tommy LiPuma, broke from mainstream instrumental jazz once and for all with the hugely successful album Breezin’. Benson’s rendition of the Leon Russell song “This Masquerade” made him a vocal superstar, and the equally popular instrumental title track basically laid the foundation for the smooth-jazz genre.

Benson’s latest album, Songs and Stories doesn’t stray far from this formula that has kept him in good stead for the last 30-something years. Masterfully produced and arranged, it showcases Benson’s vocals on the majority of the 12 cuts while spotlighting his guitar playing on the songs “Exotica,” “Living in High Definition,” and “Sailing.” What makes Songs and Stories special is that it was cut live in the studio. A bevy of toptier L.A. session musicians were recruited for the project, including bassist/co-producer Marcus Miller, drummer John Robinson, guitarists Jubu and Steve Lukather, and keyboardist Gregory Phillinganes. For Benson, it was familiar turf: “These guys play better when they play together, and they kept pumping out these new ideas for me to bounce off of. I think just about everyone in the studio cried after we did the first song because they realized it was going to be something special. It was like the old days, and it felt so good.”

Do you have to rehearse more for a live recording?

No, because rehearsing kind of blocks out my thinking. It makes me sound sterile because I start thinking about all this stuff I practiced and I can’t get away from it. I prefer to bounce off the musicians. If someone plays a chord that is altered in some degree, I tend to use that as a platform for what I’m going to play. I like doing it that way because it makes it a one-time performance. It’s never going to happen that way again, and I think that’s what we’re looking for as creative musicians. Even back when we made those great recordings with Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard, and Hubert Laws, we only rehearsed the songs once or twice before we jumped on them. Those records came off like we had been playing them all of our lives. They had a freshness and didn’t need any fixing. Every record should have two formulas: feel good and sound good. Once you do that, the rest is left up to the melody and whatever the song is about.

Although you were recording in a multi-track studio when you first signed to CTI, why didn’t you take advantage of tracking parts separately?

Creed Taylor [CTI Records founder] didn’t have any money back then—he was just starting his record company—so he couldn’t put any sweetening on the recordings. We just went in with the musicians we had, flopped around in the studio, and made some music. Whatever happened, that’s what it was. Also, [Engineer] Rudy Van Gelder didn’t like overdubbing because he was always afraid he was going to erase something. He was the only engineer in the studio, and he had to do everything himself. So we did straightahead recording and we either liked the result or we didn’t. Many of our tracks had a lot of loose ends because we never went back and cleaned them up. Some of that stuff came back to haunt us later. It would have been so easy to go in and erase all the clicks and bad licks or whatever, but that was not the order of the day then.

Was Songs and Stories recorded entirely in L.A.?

The James Taylor song “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” was recorded four or five years earlier in Brazil. It was still live in the studio, but with Brazilian musicians. I had those tracks and I’d thought about putting out the whole album, but it wouldn’t have gotten played in the U.S. and no record company here would have agreed to put it out.

You got a great tone on that song. It’s clean and fat with just a touch of distortion.

That song was recorded with an old Gibson L-5 that I borrowed from a guitarist named Toninho Horta, a brilliant player who did a lot of recording with Pat Metheney. It’s the only song on the album that I used the L-5 on, but that’s why it’s fatter sounding.

Other than your signature model Ibanez, what other guitars did you use on this album?

For “Sailing” I pulled an old D’Angelico out of my closet. Every time I use this guitar I get a smash, and I don’t know why. I used it on the album I did with Earl Klugh called Collaboration, and I cut “Morning” with it with Al Jarreau. I also used it on a song called “Hypnotic” with Boney James. I’ve had nothing but number-one hits with that guitar, so I figured. “Well, let me try it again.” So we pulled it out and sure enough it had the right voice for this song.

Have you requested any changes to the Ibanez GB model over the years?

They may have switched the pickups and strengthened the pickguard, but nothing major has changed. It does sound better, though, so maybe they’ve done something internal to it.We used the GB30TH on this album, which is the 30th Anniversary model. It has a Japanese kimono finish, so not only does it sound beautiful, it looks beautiful too.

What amplifiers did you use?

I’m still using my Polytone Mini Brute with a 12" speaker. We also ran a direct feed just in case any problems come up with distortion. The engineer fattened my sound up beautifully, so it sounds like a full-sized acoustic-electric guitar.

Does recording live affect how you play?

It’s better when it’s live because it forces me to pretend that I’m playing for an audience. It’s like, “Well, this it, I’ve got to make it happen right now.” In that situation I’m on all fours so to speak, and my brain is working overtime. I also knew the guys were all watching and probably thinking, “Is this the same George Benson? Where has he fallen behind? He can’t be as good as he was years ago.” I hadn’t played with those guys for a long time, so I had to come up with it.

On “Show Me the Love” you’re doing a lot of scat singing over your octave parts. How important is it for guitarists to be able to vocalize what they’re playing?

It’s an advantage because the melody is the most important thing that must stay in the minds of the people who are listening to you. No matter how many notes you play, you can’t let them forget what the song is.

What drove you to becoming such a fast picker in the first place?

The reason I always played so many notes was because I was using Guild guitars, which weren’t as resonant as Gibsons. You could hit a chord on a Gibson and it would last for several seconds. Guild guitars didn’t resonate as well, so I would fill those holes by playing a lot of notes.

Have you always used flatwound strings?

No. When I found out guys were using flatwounds that was a blessing for me because I sweat a lot, and that eats strings up like candy. The tight wraps on flatwounds makes them last longer, though I still have to change the plain E and B strings every few days.

Did you intentionally change your tone for the solo tradeoffs with Norman Brown on “Nuthin’ But a Party”?

Yes, I switched to playing with my thumb. Our sound is so similar, and I did that so that when we’re trading fours you’d be able to distinguish one player from the other. I let Norman have the pick because he’s the guest, and you always treat your guests right. He played beautifully, and it was completely off the cuff—we just threw that together in the studio.

Were there any songs that you didn’t think were going to work for this album?

The Marcus Miller song “Exotica.” I thought it was very smooth-jazz oriented and I didn’t appreciate it right away. But everybody I played it for loved it, which made me realize that Marcus knows what he’s doing. The melody is very repetitive, and I was kind of reluctant about that, but there’s a reason for it. He’s trying build a certain kind of fervor and I think he achieved it.

Why did you choose an octave approach for the melody on that song?

It’s the thing Wes Montgomery did so well. He made octaves a guitar sound that people could recognize very easily. I have different formulas for where I use the octave. Sometimes I start on the third, sometimes the sixth, or I’ll rattle the notes and turn it into a chord. There’s some flexibility to go beyond the octave, but even if you just use the octaves themselves, they still make the melody stick out.

Did you ever play with Wes Montgomery?

I was the only guy he ever invited up on the bandstand to play with him. I came in the club one night and he goes, “Hey, George Benson just came in the door.” I shook my head like, “No!” but he just said, “Nope, you’re going to have to come up here and play some.” I was kind of embarrassed because nobody could play with Wes. He treated me like a friend, though, and that was very inspiring for me. The guys in his band told me that Wes must have thought I was pretty special because he never did that with anyone. Later, I wound up owning the guitar he was playing that night. I auctioned it off recently and Pat Metheney ended up with it. It was a Gibson L-5 with a Florentine cutaway. I’d had it refurbished because when I got it looked like it had bullet holes in the body and was ready to fall apart. I gave it to a cat named Flip Scipio [flipscipio.com], who found the guy who’d actually made the guitar when he worked for Gibson in Kalamazoo. He put it back together, and after Scippio got finished sharpening it up, it was better than new. I’m glad to see it ended up in some great hands. Pat Metheney was just the right cat, because he loved Wes too.

Wah Wah Watson is featured on “Exotica” and “ Living in High Definition.” Why did you have him play on those tracks?

He has his own studio, and he begged me to give him the song “High Definition.” I told him, “Okay, but don’t mess up my song—if it don’t sound good I’m going to erase it.” But when he got done with it, that song was so much more interesting than when we gave it to him. I kept everything he did, because I thought it was just wonderful. Watson is one of the most interesting guys I’ve ever met, and he loves guitar with a passion. He’s famous, of course, for what he did on the Isaac Hayes song “Shaft”— that’s where he got “Wah Wah” from—but he is also a musician of high caliber and an effects genius.

How did you get a Smokey Robinson song for this album?

We were in contact recently, and I let him know how much I loved his music. He heard about this album I was putting together, and he was working with one of the guys in my band named David Garfield. So they started sending me material. When I heard “One Like You,” I really liked it because it sounds so much like Smokey. I tried to get away from it, but I couldn’t. Every time I opened my mouth, I found myself thinking like Smokey.

Had you ever worked with him before?

Only once when I was about 17. He came through Pittsburgh in 1960 with the Miracles, and we were the opening act for them. Things were running late, though, and the Miracles had to get somewhere else, so they wound up opening the show. I remember them stopping to watch us for a little while before leaving. Many years later, I ran into the guitar player in Hawaii, and he was shocked that I remembered what guitar he was playing that day. He was holding a guitar case, so I said, “I know what you’ve got in there—it’s a black Les Paul with three gold pickups.” He goes, “How did you know that?” Some things in life you just don’t forget [laughs].

Did you know Jubu before working with him on this project?

I hadn’t met him before, but I figured if he’d been invited to play on this record, he must be good. He was going over the music, and when I heard what he was coming up with, I thought, “I shouldn’t make one comment, because he has this thing under control.” I don’t like to confuse musicians, and if you say the wrong thing, you can send them off on the wrong tangent. So I left him alone, and when I listened back to the tracks I thought, “Man, this young guy is a genius.” He came up with everything I was looking for and more. On the song “Rainy Night in Georgia,” he led me to some of my best playing in years.

Your solo at 1:51 on “Living in High Definition” sounds like classic CTI-era Benson. What were you thinking when playing over that minor-7 vamp? Also, what inspired your vocalizing on that song?

I’d never played a song like that, so it was a bit of challenge. The guitar fills needed to be a little more exciting—I didn’t want it to be just straight-up blues licks—so I came up with some substitute changes, and melded them together with a couple of fast licks here and there. The scat singing was a last-minute overdub. Marcus Miller was very happy with what he was hearing, but I said, “Man, give that mic and let me do some vocal things on this.” I was thinking about Shakira, and that kind of Eastern sound, and what I came up with seemed to really make the track come alive. When I play a song for more than three or four minutes, things meld together and start becoming mundane. And if it gets boring to me, I’m always afraid it’s going to be boring to my listeners.

How did you learn about chord substitutions?

Ron Carter turned me on to the Miles Davis song “Impressions,” and while we were playing it, he said, “George, have you ever thought about using minor 6th chords instead of minor 7ths?” I thought, “What the heck is a minor 6th”—I was so used to playing minor 7 and 9 chords. I suddenly realized I could use the minor 6th in place of those chords. That was an important day for me, because after Ron told me that, I thought differently about playing minor chords. He changed my whole concept with just that one statement.

How did you end up playing with Miles Davis?

After we did that date, Ron called Miles and told him he needed to hear what this kid Benson was doing. So Miles called me, and I ended up playing on his record Miles in the Sky. I wasn’t ready for that yet, but it was an honor that he asked me.

What do you recall from that experience?

I remember [drummer] Tony Williams trying to give me some direction, and Miles goes, “Tony, just play your drums and don’t tell him what to play—he’s the guitar player so let him play guitar.” I was wishing someone would tell me what to play, but Miles didn’t like that. He liked loose records, and that’s why he left lots of mistakes in his recordings. Miles was searching for a new way to get to the public with something fresh, and he wanted people to know it wasn’t something he’d sweetened up. I once heard that he even paid cats not to rehearse the songs they were going to record. Playing with Miles was scary for me, but I knew that if I hung out with him something good was going to come out of it. I tried to convince my managers to let me play with his band, but they’d say, “George, you can’t do it—we think your career is going to blow open and you’re going to be very important.” So they stopped me from joining his band, and I lost something that could have been a good period in my life. I would have gained a lot of knowledge and a new way of looking at things if I had joined Miles’ band for a year or two.

On Beyond the Blue Horizon you also covered another Miles Davis song called “So What.” Do you know what he thought of your version?

That was on the first record I did for CTI, and after it came out, I ran into Miles one day. He was coming across the street, and he hollered out, “Hey George!” I thought, “He’s going to punch me out because I destroyed his song.” But instead he goes, “I love what you did with my song, man.” I just went, “Whew” when I heard that.

The song “Somewhere in the East” from that album features possibly your most outside guitar playing ever. Were you intentionally going for a different sound on that cut?

Those were the days of the sitar, when Ravi Shankar was a superstar. A kid came up to me in Buffalo, New York, and said, “Mr. Benson, I’d like to show you something— give me your guitar.” He retuned it and gave it back to me, and told me to play it just the way I normally would. I started playing, and I went, “Oh, wow, I’m Ravi Shankar.” I remembered the tuning when I went in the studio, and it worked our really nicely on that song. I never used it again after that, but I still have it in my head. I promised the young man I wouldn’t divulge the tuning, and I never have.

What made you change the groove from swing to funk on your famous version of “Take Five” from the album Bad Benson?

That was Phil Upchurch’s idea. He and I had been friends for many years, and when he got out of the army, he stopped in New York to see me. Creed Taylor invited him to the studio, and that’s where he came up with the idea, He said, “Have you ever thought about playing ‘Take Five’ like this [scat sings the funky 5/4 rhythm].” I thought it was great, so we jumped right on it. To this day, if I want to find out what’s new or what’s possible with the guitar, I’ll call Phil and ask him what he’s working on. He never ceases to amaze and surprise me, and that’s the reason he and I have remained such friends over the years.

You performed a nice solo guitar piece on that album called “From Now On.” Why didn’t you pursue that style of playing afterward?

Funny you should bring that up, because now everybody is trying to get me to do a solo album. Back then, though, I was never in that category. I was always trying to be like Grant Green and Charlie Christian, and they weren’t chord guys, they were singleline geniuses. Later, I started hearing all these wonderful chord pieces from these great players like Jim Hall, Joe Pass, and, of course, Earl Klugh. After I had him in my band for a year, I really started thinking about chord-melody playing. [See sidebar for more on Earl Klugh]

How did Charlie Christian influence you?

He devoted everything to the swing, and it wasn’t just notes he played—it had to fit within the groove. Learning that was important for me. Unfortunately I couldn’t conceive his licks well because he was always going somewhere that I didn’t expect. I didn’t understand him harmonically, but I did get that point about making it swing. Also, the tonality of his guitar was a most amazing thing. Very few people ever matched that.

When did you first feel like you could excel in the jazz world?

When I recorded Giblet Gravy [later renamed Blue Benson]. I had my Guild X-500, and man, I was in my world when I made that record. I was up there trading fours with the great Herbie Hancock. Years later it occurred to me: What was I thinking messing with Herbie? It showed how much nerve I had in those days. I wasn’t afraid of anything.

EARL KLUGH ON BACKING GEORGE BENSON

GEORGE BENSON HELPED to bring worldwide attention to Earl Klugh by featuring him on White Rabbit, one of his most celebrated CTI-era albums. Benson had been impressed with Klugh’s nylon-string playing after discovering him in Detroit. “He was playing at a club that his manager owned called Bakers Keyboard Lounge,” says Benson. “Everybody played there— Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass, all the greats—and they would stick Earl in a corner so that nobody would notice how young he was. His manager said, ‘George, I want you to hear a guitar player.’ So I asked him to bring Earl down to where we were rehearsing. Earl was very shy, but when he played that guitar I just thought, ‘wow!’ There was no one else doing fingerstyle guitar like that at the time—especially an African American—and Earl studied with a teacher who had studied with Andres Segovia, so he had the right technique. When I first heard him I was mesmerized by what he could do, and he was only 17 at the time. His manager asked me if I could do something for him—which was kind of funny because in those days we were just making it from week to week—but I invited Earl to be on an album with us, and we went in the studio and recorded White Rabbit.”

What was it like to be a kid from Detroit and the first record you play on is with George Benson, Herbie Hancock, Billy Cobham, and Ron Carter?

I was 17 and it didn’t really sink in at the time. I was very excited and very amazed, but I think more about it now at 56 than I did then. At 17, you figure that you might have these opportunities. Looking back, you realize that not many people do. So much of it is being in the right place at the right time. I was very green, and no way was I up to the level of those guys, but it was a great opportunity. It got me in front of some record people and that allowed me to get my own deal eventually, which was great.

What was the session like? How many takes would you guys do?

Oh, with [producer] Creed Taylor, one or two takes. They weren’t fooling around. That’s why he had players like that. He spent money on them because he knew he was going to get perfection. He didn’t have to spend it on studio time.

What did you learn from George Benson?

I played in his band, so there was a lot that I learned from him. The biggest thing I remember was after a show, we might go out to breakfast at 2 am and George would go back to his room and practice until 6 am. I figured if George Benson thinks he needs to practice that much, then I better do the same thing or more [laughs]. You don’t make it without that drive and determination.

What advice would you give to young players who find themselves in an intimidating musical situation?

Don’t let it throw you, because if you think about it too much it will. The thing that I learned over time is this: Do all your preparation and you’ll know what you should play. Then go out there and be yourself. Don’t let an intimidating situation make you think that you should change your intent. Just do what you do, even if you feel scared, and be yourself.

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