The jazz legend on his rock ’n’ roll roots, turning down Fats Domino and making Hollywood pay its way.
Fats but no Fats
“I had a rock ’n’ roll band in the late-50s. We played a lot of the clubs around my hometown, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and we were very popular. It was George Benson And His All-Stars [laughs]. One day a guy approached me; he said, ‘Have you ever thought about going on the road?’. I said, ‘Uhh, no. I’ve always been afraid of going out on the road.’ He said, ‘Because I could probably get you a job with Fats Domino’. I said to myself, ‘Wow! I know I am not ready for that.’ He was such an icon. I couldn’t even imagine myself playing with him. So that passed me by.”
“I learned from the guys in front of me. I hung out with a lot of the greats, and I listened to them talk. Some of them, when they got hit records, they became ridiculed, fodder for critics in the magazines. And I saw what it did to them. I said to myself, ‘Boy, if I am ever fortunate enough to get a hit record I’m not going to complain, and I’m not going to worry about what the critics say. I’m gonna play for the people.’ They are the ones that make you famous! So when it happened to me I didn’t worry about it. I knew it was coming.”
Stop! Collaborate and listen...
“One of my favourite groups was Larry Young, the great organ player from Newark, New Jersey, and Grant Green on guitar. They were complete opposites. Grant Green played very bluesy, simple lines. The other one was a legato-type player who played very sophisticated harmonies. And that worked so well together, man. I liked the stuff I did with Earl Klugh, the great guitar player from Detroit who plays acoustic guitar. He was a classical player when I met him. So I added some things to our harmonies that made it easier for people listening to us for the first time to get it into the music. That was my favourite collaboration.”
“I like danceable things because I am used to seeing people live, and the best way to get people to join in is to play something with a beat. So I would use some sort of rhythm that they could join us and that always made the difference.”
Talkin’ all that jazz
“I remember going by the studio in Hollywood and they were advertising a movie that was coming out, and my manager said, ‘George, they’re gonna be using a few minutes of On Broadway’. I said, ‘I think we should go by and check it out’. Because he told me what they were gonna pay me to do it, and I thought, ‘That seems mighty low to me!’. He told me they were gonna use a couple of minutes. Well, seven minutes went by and the music was still playing. Eight, nine minutes... I said, ‘Man you’re gonna have to get me some money!’. [Laughs] So they went back and renegotiated the deal. But I was very, very proud at the way they used it in that intro scene. It was perfect.”
You gotta keep ’em separated
“I don’t like the strings laying down on the neck, because I lose separation. The notes begin to run together, and they begin to distort early. I have to play, articulate what I want the guitar to do, and that’s what [my signature] Ibanez does. The ones I designed are made for guys who play a lot of notes like myself. I need a guitar that separates the notes.”
A tribute to Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, George Benson’s Walking To New Orleans is out now on Provogue Records