The best of George Benson: Five essential albums by the soul-jazz prodigy
By Danny Marks2022/02/04
George Benson first made it to the top of the pops in the 1970s, scoring multiplatinum with his smooth singing and superb musicianship.
Looking back to his earliest days, Benson seemed destined for greatness as a child prodigy. Growing up with a single mother, the young George knew he loved music but couldn’t warm up to the old piano in their living room. One day, a man came calling and told George not to touch the guitar he’d brought to serenade the boy’s mother. As soon as the man left the room, George ran to the instrument. It was then that two love affairs were born: Tom Collier became George’s stepfather and first musical mentor, and young George Benson fell hard for the guitar. Pictures from his youth show George Benson holding the instrument like a lad who was born to play.
There’s a direct line from Charlie Christian through Wes Montgomery to George Benson. Each took their blues-infused jazz to sophisticated new heights. Benson’s own path to fame involved gruelling nights on the road away from his hometown of Pittsburgh. Word of this virtuosity spread, and soon he was offered the chance to record.
With a career as vast and deep as George Benson’s, narrowing it down to five essential recordings is just scratching the surface. But if you’re looking for an entry into his repertoire, these are five fine examples of Benson’s exemplary ability to cultivate crossover appeal while still honouring the spirit of jazz.
Body Talk (1973)
George Benson began his recording career in 1964. By 1973, Body Talk shone the spotlight onto this still emerging talent in six lingering cuts. The title track says it all, a physical romp showing off Benson’s soul-jazz stylings in a funky setting with an all-star backup band, including the introduction of Earl Klugh on second guitar. Check out the take of Donny Hathaway and Gene McDaniels’ evocative When Love Has Grown.
The Other Side of Abbey Road (1970)
A few years after Wes Montgomery’s A Day in the Life, Benson followed with his own interpretation of The Beatles songbook. With the aid of producer Creed Taylor and an orchestra in the tradition of Montgomery, George spins on the Fab Four alongside the likes of Herbie Hancock, Bob James, Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard and Ray Barretto.
With Breezin’, George Benson hits his instrumental stride. He rolls out cool melodies and fast, fluent licks with a bright and clear sound. Here, jazz becomes pure pop. This Masquerade, composed by Bobby Womack and Leon Russell, brings Benson’s vocals upfront, helping to push the LP to triple platinum and a Grammy nomination for album of the year.
Give Me the Night (1980)
Produced by Quincy Jones, Give Me the Night won three Grammys and dropped another hit with its title track that scored in discos worldwide.
Walking to New Orleans (2019)
Benson sailed on to great heights before things wound down a bit in the 21st century, His tribute to Nat King Cole in 2013 was a natural fit for the crooner in him, but our final pick here is 2019’s Walking to New Orleans. Here, George returns to his early influences with versions of Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and others. Listen to I Hear You Knocking or Memphis, Tennessee to hear a jazzman’s take on the fathers of rock.