The Grammy-winning artist talks about his latest album and his mainstream appeal.
George Benson wears the title of “entertainer” with pride. After 10 Grammys, a lifetime in the business (he’s been performing since he was nine years old), and memorable hits such as “On Broadway,” “The Greatest Love of All,” and “This Masquerade,” you’d think he’d rest on his laurels a little. Instead, as he approaches his 70s, Benson is exploring and touring, always with his audiences in mind. We sat down to talk with him about his latest recording and his upcoming show at the Toronto Jazz Festival.
Torontoist: We’re excited to welcome you back to Toronto. You’ve played here a lot over the course of your career. Do you have any Toronto-centric memories you’d like to share with us?
George Benson: Well, I remember there was a street called Yonge Street and there was a jazz club down there. I played there a couple of times. That was my introduction to Toronto. Another time was when I substituted for Buddy Rich, the great drummer who was unable to fulfill an engagement here. I brought along a girl nobody had ever heard of to join me. Her name was Randy Crawford. She was just a kid then, 19 years old. She tore the place up. She was a great singer, you know. I’ve got some good memories of Toronto.
What can we expect from your show here on June 26th?
We bring our own little arsenal with us when we come. Of course we can’t play everything because I have many, many, many, many years’ worth of songs. We do a variety of things with our show and usually it works out well. I have no set program. Every show is its own show and I play according to the vibe that’s coming from the audience. I’ll call out tunes and the band will jump right on it. We turn each night into a special evening.
There’s been a lot of discussion floating around about “modern” jazz festivals and the challenges that they face with their booking practices. You strike me as a booker’s dream. I think you’re one of the rare artists who straddles both the mainstream audience because of your pop success and the audience that’s looking for straight-ahead jazz. Do you care about that stuff? Is that even on your radar?
In the old days, when they first started doing jazz festivals, maybe Newport way back in the ’50s, I remember Ray Charles was on that bill. He wasn’t a “jazz man” but he was the most popular thing on that show. So it started way back then. Think of it this way. Let’s say you’ve got two people, the man might be a jazz fan but his girlfriend might like country music. What do you do, leave her at home? You’ve got to entertain that whole audience. I remember, I was on the road with the Kool Jazz Festival that came along later in the ’60s and the ’70s. They would hire a pop artist like Marvin Gaye. Why are they doing that? I can do that! If you want to do some R&B, just tell me! Even my manager would say, “Aaaw, you’re just jealous,” and I’d say, “No I’m not jealous,” I just figured hey, if you’re going do that, let me have that role. I like that audience; I know that audience; I know how to make them happy. It took me a few years…and a few records to prove my point.
Can you tell us a little bit about your latest recording, Guitar Man?
Guitar Man is a very successful album from this point of view, not necessarily in terms of sales, but from day one we went straight to the top of the jazz chart. A week later we were at the top of the jazz contemporary chart. So the critics jumped on it right away. Radio started playing the first single right away. It’s got a good variety of things on it from acoustic guitar to solo guitar and classic jazz tunes that nobody expected me to do. So it’s got a good variety of things and I think it satisfies.
I was surprised to see “Tenderly” on there, considering you recorded it (on the album of the same name) in 1989 with McCoy Tyner and Ron Carter.
It’s a totally different performance.
It couldn’t be more different. How much fun is that? Going back to the well, revisiting something, a tune you have an infinity for, and turning it on its ear like that?
Well, one is dedicated to a jazzy approach. I was trying to show how much dexterity I had. It’s full of harmony and theory and fast licks and crazy stuff, you know? And that worked good for that era. We’re talking about 20 years ago now. It’s a different day now, and the acoustic guitar has really come into its own for me, so I thought I’d try my hand at it and see if people would accept that kind of thing from me. Sure enough, I got a nice audience. Now that tells me that there’s a different future ahead of me.