“Quincy said, ‘Ritenour, this is Q. You gotta get down here right now!’”: Lee Ritenour reveals all about his top secret mission to save George Benson’s Give Me The Night solo

George Benson and Lee Ritenour onstage at Montreux Jazz Festival 2009
(Image credit: Lionel FLUSIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Lee Ritenour has revealed all about what went down in an after hours session at Kunden Studios in Burbank, California, as disaster struck George Benson’s guitar solo on Give Me The Night, the title track of his 1980 hit album, and how one jazz guitar maestro jumped in save another’s work – and was sworn to secrecy in the process.

Speaking to Mason Marangella, owner and CEO of Vertex Effects, for the Californian guitar effects pedal brand’s YouTube channel, Ritenour remembers receiving a call from producer Quincy Jones at a time of night that could only mean one thing to anyone working in the session game. Something had gone wrong. Something big. This was a call for help.

“It was like midnight or something, and I had finished up whatever I had been doing during the day on sessions,” says Ritenour. “I had just turned out the lights and the phone rang. ‘Who’s calling at this hour!?’ And Quincy said, ‘Ritenour, this is Q. You gotta get down here right now!’ ‘Down where?’ ‘To Kendun. We’ve got to fix George’s solo!’”

This was strictly on the DL. What had happened was an almighty mixup involving the album’s second engineer, who had accidentally recorded over Benson’s solo. As Ritenour explains, this was an easy mistake to make in the analogue era, when Jones would typically have up to four Studer 24-track tape machines running, with one tape for horns, another for vocals, and so on. Bruce Swedien, who was lead engineer, would sync them up, and they would build the sound from there.

“Apparently they were mixing, and the second engineer accidentally put George’s track into record,” says Ritenour. “In those days it was all 24-track tape… Now we’ve got a million tracks on Pro Tools or Logic, but Quincy, I think he said on Give Me The Night it was over a 100 tracks of stuff, and one 24-track tape was only 24 tracks, so it was always complicated, and they were bouncing down the vocals. That was Quincy’s sound. He would stack all this stuff and mix it. I could see how something could get messed up like this.”

What they couldn’t see was how to fix the mess, not with Benson having left the building and back at home on Hawaii, blissfully unaware of the drama that was unfolding. “[Quincy] said they had to mix that song that night or day, and there was no way they could ask George to come back,” says Ritenour.

Only Ritenour could help. But he was well-positioned. He had already been in the studio with Benson, working on the record. Benson considered Ritenour a good luck charm. When he played on his records, they became hits. And besides, Ritenour was more than familiar with Benson’s rig at the time having helped dial in his sound.

That was one of the reasons why he was there in the first place. As the ‘80s dawned, the times were a changing for electric guitar tone, and for guitar players who had made their bones in the ‘70s it was time to shake things up. Benson was no different. Jones wanted Ritenour to “update” Benson’s tone.

I said, ‘Update George Benson’s guitar sound? That sounds anti-religious.' But I knew what Quincy was talking about

“Quincy called me before the record started and said, ‘Lee, George has already done all this stuff but we’ve got to create a new path for him,” says Ritenour. “We’ve got to take him to the next level. You’re going to help me update his guitar sound.’ And I said, ‘Update George Benson’s guitar sound? [Laughs] That sounds anti-religious. But I knew what Quincy was talking about, in the sense that he just wanted to see if there was anything that we could do to give it a little bit of a fresh twist.”

That fresh twist was nothing too crazy. Ritenour says he brought his Paul Rivera pedalboard to the studio, added some chorus, compression to taste, and a new reverb. 

“That was good enough for Quincy because he just wanted him to fit in whatever the sound was that him and Bruce Swedien were working on,” he says. And Benson still sounded like Benson. 

Some have classified Give Me The Night as yacht rock, and there is something in that, but either way, the track is certainly more pop than flat-out jazz. 

Written by Rod Temperton, keyboard player for Heatwave, Give Me The Night has a killer vocal hook, and a ridiculously insistent groove, with Benson’s guitar snaking around the vocals, and all these rhythms and melodies working in concert. Abraham Laboriel’s bass guitar line is hall of fame worthy. 

The solo that needed saving, however, was not your typical George Benson solo. “It’s pretty thought-out,” says Ritenour. “Quincy took a million takes out of George and put something together. It’s more of a pop-type solo in the sense that it is not just George blowing all over the place.”

Coming in at around the 1:50 mark, it doubles the scat vocals for the first few bars, adding to the depth of field in the mix. It might be a little rhythmically tricksy but that is something that is absolutely in Ritenour’s wheelhouse, and as it turned out, it helped steer him in the right direction when it came to finishing the solo. 

George just busted out laughing, ‘Oh man! Now I’ve got to pull up that track and see if I could tell. I never knew it wasn’t me. You did a good job and it made a lot of money, so I’m happy!’

Luckily, there was a rough cassette recording for reference. There was the rig. Ritenour just needed to be Benson for the last few bars of the song. It took hours. The session finished in the wee small hours. But it worked. There was just one more thing. Ritenour had to promise never to speak of this again.

“When we fixed it, and we finally got it right, and it sounded pretty good, Quincy, Bruce Swedien and I went, ‘Wow!’” he recalls. “And then Quincy said, ‘Never, ever tell George what happened!’ I said, ‘Okay, okay, I won’t say a thing.’”

Everything ended up fine. Give Me The Night was a hit, becoming Benson’s first number one on the US Billboard Souls Singles chart. The album won three Grammys. Jones got a Grammy. 

Benson was more right than he thought; Ritenour was a good luck charm. Only 10 years or so later did he realise just how lucky, when Ritenour decided that it was time to spill the beans to his old friend. 

“We were walking in the airport one day together,” says Ritenour, “and I said, ‘George, did I ever tell you the story of Give Me The Night and what happened to your guitar solo?’ He said, ‘No, brother. No, brother, tell me.’ George just busted out laughing, ‘Oh man! Now I’ve got to pull up that track and see if I could tell. I never knew it wasn’t me. You did a good job and it made a lot of money, so I’m happy!’”

Check out the interview segment above and subscribe to the Vertex Effects YouTube channel for more. Marangella’s full interview with Lee Ritenour is coming soon to the channel, and if it is anything like his conversations with Dan Parks and Ray Parker Jr it will be essential viewing.

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.