His latest record – don’t try to count them; they go back to 1964 – is a great example. Walking to New Orleans is a tribute to two of the founding fathers of rock’n’roll: Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. As utterly distinctive as those artists were, the interpretations of Mr B, as he likes to be called by strangers, sound like nobody but George Benson.
His prodigious gift for assimilating and processing goes back to his pre-teen years in Pittsburgh, where his guitarist stepfather would spin swing records by Benny Goodman’s Sextet, featuring bebop guitar pioneer Charlie Christian.
By the time Fats Domino released rock’n’roll’s first million-selling record in 1949, Little Georgie was shredding a ukulele outside the corner drug store. Under that name, he cut his own 45 at the age of nine. In his teens he leant towards jazz schooling, but his eyes and ears kept a close watch on whatever was moving, on every chart.
‘‘When I started using the word rock’n’roll, a lot of jazz musicians became very indignant. ‘This crazy music?’ That’s what they called it. ‘This won’t last.’ I said, ‘Well man, are we gonna wait around for it to die before we make a move?’
‘‘At that time, Chuck Berry sold a lot of records but Fats Domino sold almost as many records as Elvis Presley. At one point, he sold more records than Elvis Presley! It was him, Elvis and Dean Martin who were the kings of the record industry. I went through that period never imagining that one day I would actually compete with those kind of record sales.’’
Mr B isn’t one to downplay the numbers. When he claims that his 1976 breakthrough, Breezin’, has now sold 3 million, you’d best believe him. His 25-year professional journey to that point sounds, with hindsight, more like a study in popular tastes than anything genre-specific.
‘‘I had decent ears for simple music. Nothing sophisticated. Simple jazz I could understand. The sophisticated jazz, no. It was too far beyond me. At the time I was just a guy who sang whatever was popular on the radio and that went from blues to rhythm and blues to popular music and jazz. It was a great study for me and it helped to get me to where we are today.’’
A telling sign of Benson’s aspirations came in late 1969. With his jazz cred riding high after a guest appearance on Miles Davis’ Miles In the Sky, he turned to the brand new Beatles album for inspiration. The Other Side of Abbey Road was recorded by the great Rudy Van Gelder, and featured Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock.
‘‘I knew that was gonna be an unpopular move in the jazz world,’’ he chuckles. ‘‘They hated it when it came out. I thought it was one of the best things I ever did in my life.’’
The Beatles agreed. ‘‘They sent messages by different people. That was a great endorsement to me. Paul McCartney … wasn’t … indignant to the fact that I had done this music and he wasn’t saying terrible things about my performances.
‘‘As a performer, his voice used to knock me out,’’ he adds. ‘‘It had realism to it. I believed every note that he sang. Every word. And that to me is what makes a singer great.’’
It was arguably his singing, even more than his finely honed guitar style, that broke the jazz ceiling when the Benson wave finally hit circa ’76. In his 2014 autobiography, he writes about the time Frank Sinatra picked him out of a Carnegie Hall audience in 1984 to praise not his guitar work, but his voice.
But if anything sealed his resolve to go beyond the 20,000-sales ceiling of the international jazz market of the time, it was … Peter Frampton. No, really. The praises of Miles, Frank and Macca were all very well, but it was the briefly blazing guitar prince from Bromley who made Benson realise the pop charts might be his for the taking.
‘‘I was not prepared [to cross over] because nobody else had ever done it,’’ Benson says. ‘‘But … at that time, [Peter Frampton] had the biggest album ever recorded. [Frampton Comes Alive] sold 8 million albums and that was unheard of. Everybody told me, this cat Peter Frampton’s number one in the world. This is the baddest cat there is.’’
So when Benson picked up a magazine to find the bad cat with the poodle hair citing him as inspiration, he decided to make his play for the million-sellers club. ‘‘You mean to tell me he’s listening to me, and I ain’t got a dime? How is that possible?’’
His next record, he faithfully reports, sold 100,000, ‘‘which was phenomenal for jazz people’’. The one after that, with Warner Brothers’ backing, was Breezin.’ ‘‘Do doo doot-doo doot-doo doo,’’ it went. ‘‘Twiddly-doo.’’ Three more albums followed into the Top 10 of the pop charts, peaking with Give Me The Night in 1980. The unmistakable Benson sound was an indelible part of the tapestry of modern music.
So much so that two years ago, when Damon Albarn wrote a feel-good roller-skating tune called Humility for his cartoon pop band Gorillaz, there was only one man who could bring the requisite breeze to the arrangement. Even if Mr B’s modesty almost scuppered what would become a Top 10 Billboard hit.
‘‘I first turned it down,’’ he says, ‘‘and they sent it back. They said, ‘Mr Benson, would you please put something on it?’ I said, ‘You know, I don’t really make records like that, just to put something on it. It has to have some kind of meaning for both of us. Yes, we both sell records, but let’s go beyond that. This will last forever. Whatever we put on this record will haunt us for the rest of our lives.’
‘‘So I went in the studio and I asked my engineer, ‘Man, you know what, turn these tracks up. Put me in the middle of a live band in concert.’ So he put the tracks up and I went, ‘Ah! That’s where I belong.’ My guitar chair is right there in the middle of the band, so I turn my guitar on and boy, we hit the track. When they heard that, they went crazy.
‘‘I’m so glad I did that record. Those guys are like myself in that sense. They’re creative and ready to try different things. You know the old adage. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’’
George Benson plays Sydney’s State Theatre on April 4, Melbourne’s Palais Theatre, April 8 and Byron Bay Bluesfest April 9-13.
Michael Dwyer is an arts and music writer