In a recording career that has spanned over 40
years, George Benson
has proven himself one of the most influential and versatile performers
in popular music. Discovered at an early age by jazz great (and
strong influence) Wes Montgomery, Benson served his apprenticeship with
organist Jack McDuff, and was signed by Columbia in the early
60s. He recorded a handful of jazz-bop albums and began to
develop a sizable following in the jazz world as one of the hot young
stars of the genre. But unlike what Benson described as the
"brainy" jazz that Miles Davis and others were emphasizing at that
time, Benson's music celebrated the danceable jazz of the 40s as well
as rhythm and blues, and was both more melodic and accessible than much
of the jazz sounds emanating from other artists at that time.
He continued his development on Creed Taylor's CTI label in the early
70s, but felt stifled in his desire to include more of an R&B band
sound to his music. He then signed with Warner Brothers in
1976 and teamed with producer Tommy LiPuma, a move that would change
both his career and the sound of jazz over the next 25 years.
Their first collaboration was Breezin, a terrific blend of Soul and
Jazz that took off like a rocket, fueled by his smooth cover of Leon
Russell's "This Masquerade" (which won the 1976 Grammy for Record of
the Year). Breezin' was a multi-million selling smash (unheard of
for a jazz record), and introduced the world to a fusion of R&B and
jazz that dozens of artists would eventually incorporate. In
fact, the entire Smooth Jazz and Contemporary Jazz formats, now popular
around the world, owe more to Breezin' than to any other album.
Benson followed Breezin' with In Flight and Weekend In L.A., the latter
a live recording that mixed smooth instrumental pieces with live covers
of a number of soul standards, such as "It's All In the Game" and "Down
Here On the Ground." L.A. stayed near the top of the charts for
months and moved Benson to the upper echelon of popular artists. It
also yielded Benson another Grammy for his uber-popular cover of the
Drifters' "On Broadway" -- still his most recognizable song. For
the next decade, Benson's guitar work took a back seat to his vocals,
as he delivered a series of popular Soul albums featuring music by some
of the era's top pop songwriters. Benson's popularity arguably
peaked on his excellent 1980 collaboration with Quincy Jones (then the
hottest producer in popular music), Give Me the Night. He slipped
a bit with 1983's In Your Eyes, a generic-sounding Adult Contemporary
album, but came back strong the next year with the wonderful 20/20, one
of that year's best Soul albums (check out his duet with Patti Austin
on the title track or his excellent cover of Womack & Womack's "New
Day"), but one which didn't receive the popular attention of his other
work. The song "20/20" ended up being Benson's last pop
hit. His subsequent Soul albums that decade were much less
compelling, both in production and material.
As the 80s came to an end, Benson evolved again, deciding to pay homage
to the classic jazz vocal music of the 30s and 40s. He reteamed
with LiPuma for 1989's Tenderly, arguably the best album he recorded in
any genre, and a testament to his skills as a vocal interpreter.
His recording of "You Don't Know What Love Is" from that album
immediately became the definitive cover of that jazz standard. Tenderly
is an essential album for lovers of torchy jazz ballads. He
followed the next year with Big Boss Band, a lesser recording of
uptempo jazz cuts with the Count Basie Band.
Benson then moved with LiPuma to the GRP label and spent the rest of
the 90s back in the contemporary jazz vein, but with more of a focus on
his guitar work than in his 80s albums. He came nearly full
circle to Breezin' with 2000's Absolute Benson, which featured only two
vocal tracks among a full disc of melodic, well-played instrumental ear
So it was surprising that in 2004, as Benson was pretty much back to
his core contemporary jazz audience, that he released Irreplaceable, a
mostly-vocal album that attempted to update his sound with a modern
R&B underpinning, much as Luther Vandross did with his self-titled
album in 2001 (interestingly, on Irreplaceable Benson covers Vandross's
"Take You Out" from that album). With Benson relying principally
on writer/producer Joshua Paul Thompson (Surface, O-Town, Joe),
Irreplaceable is an enjoyable Urban Adult Contemporary disc -
interesting lyrically and with a fine vocal performance by Benson -
that should please his long-time Soul music fans, though it is unlikely
to expand his base.
Looking back on the past 40 years, it is clear that George Benson is
one of the most influential artists of the latter 20th century.
Contemporary Jazz stars such as Boney James and Euge Groove owe a huge
debt to Benson's breakthrough work in the 70s, bringing in pop and soul
influences into contemporary jazz and bringing elements of what had
become an increasingly elitist jazz genre to popular audiences.
While Benson's Soul work certainly brought a fair amount of criticism
from jazz purists, he and many of his contemporary jazz progeny have
created some wonderful, accessible music for adults looking for music
with a groove but who are otherwise caught between the immaturity of
today's hip-hop music and the heaviness of neo-traditional jazz.
Official Homepage: www.georgebenson.com