George Benson is proud of his five-decade career because of the impact he has on young and old performers. Aware of his influence, the 10-time GRAMMY-winning tenor and guitar virtuoso that arches his right hand and rest strokes his thumb across the strings on his custom, self-designed Ibanez GB10 prefers to concentrate these days on sharpening his technique by revisiting his influences.
Benson’s new (and 45th overall) album Walking To New Orleans is the trailblazing NEA Jazz Master’s homage to his idols, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. His 10-track tribute set—comprised of five standards by both music legends—departs from the smooth jazz-meets-pop repertoire he’s known for. The Pittsburgh native delivers signature buttery smooth vocals (“Havana Moon”) and at times a semi-raspy delivery set to blues (“Rockin’ Chair,” “Blue Monday,” “Walking To New Orleans,” “I Hear You Knocking,” “How You’ve Changed”) and rockabilly-flavored arrangements (“Ain’t That A Shame,” “Memphis, Tennessee,” “You Can’t Catch Me”).
The exceptional 76-year-old performer responsible for classic singles like “On Broadway,” the original version of “Greatest Love Of All,” “Give Me The Night,” “Turn Your Love Around,” “Love All The Hurt Away,” “Kisses In The Moonlight,” “Inside Love,” and “This Masquerade” was originally against releasing another album of covers. Releasing the romantic Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat “King” Cole in 2013, Benson decided to record Walking To New Orleans—his first studio album in six years—after his record label, Provogue Records, convinced him to do it.
The musician didn’t think his renditions of Berry’s and Domino’s music would work in the streaming era. “My first impression was ‘No; we’re not gonna do that because I don’t want to infringe upon their legacies,’” Benson says. “I remember they crossed over very easily. Their songs were popular everywhere, were on every kind of radio that was available. I had to go back and reexamine what was going on here.”
Benson quickly recognized that his way of showing respect for his musical forefathers would operate more as musical appreciation. He recorded Walking to New Orleans live at Ocean Way Studios in Nashville. Produced entirely by Kevin Shirley (Iron Maiden, Journey, The Black Crowes, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin), Benson wasn’t familiar with Shirley’s body of work at all.
By the time Benson and Shirley began recording the project, Shirley’s work ethic impressed Benson. The improvisational guitarist and best-selling author paid close attention to how an easy-going Shirley wrangled the session players and created a vibe in the studio conducive for the musicians to play from their hearts.
“I learned to have a lot of respect for him,” Benson said. “He was easy to work with. If he had an idea, he’d jump right on it, and stick to his conviction about the idea.”
Walking to New Orleans actually brought Benson out of a semi-retirement he refers to as “slowing down.” Since recording the Nat “King” Cole tribute album, Benson’s voice went from smooth to raspy. He believes the change in his vocals is the instrument that made both Berry’s and Domino’s material come to life.
“When you don’t work in awhile,” Benson warns, “your voice begins to go the other way. It worked good for the message that was being communicated, so I didn’t work hard to bring it up to clarity. Where I’m at in history, that’s the real George Benson today.”
Recording both commemorative projects catapulted Benson back to his childhood years when he realized the power of music. The instrumentalist known to dabble in pop, jazz, funk, R&B. blues, rock and folk gravitated towards Berry’s ability to bring simplicity to the harmonies in his music. Benson’s father, he says, originally exposed him to Charlie “Bird” Parker.
“Bird,” Benson remembers, is the catalyst for him to appreciate the craft of music. “It made me practice harder and quite differently,” he said. “Once I started accomplishing something, I saw what effect it was having on the future of music. I started affecting other musicians.”
Benson’s 1976 chart topping Warner Bros. debut Breezin’ was certified triple platinum, becoming the first jazz LP to sell over a million copies. A respected accompanist, Benson’s knack for rhythm and passion for chords landed him in studios and on stages with a range of artists including Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Mary J. Blige, Rod Stewart, Al Jarreau, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Quincy Jones, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Freddie Hubbard and Minnie Riperton.
Benson thinks back to when he contributed guitar parts to Wonder’s 1976 opus Songs in the Key of Life on “Another Star.” Referring to the mega-talent as “one of the greatest,” Benson recalls the Motown Records legend scrapping the original session masters for Songs in the Key of Life and starting completely over. “What you all heard is the second version,” Benson reveals. “The first version was very powerful. Those songs knocked me off my socks but didn’t make it.”
Adding how Wonder would frequent his performances and television appearances (often unannounced), Benson adds: “That was a groovy space for me. It was like going to a different kind of school. I learned a lot from that. He was a born genius. The fact that he allowed me in that space was a benefit to me, but he identifies himself as a big fan of mine. That was a tremendous experience for him and the people who made that groundbreaking album.”
Recording with animated musical act Gorillaz is another defining experience Benson originally thought was “ridiculous.” Benson wasn’t convinced he could add any element to their poppy track “Humility” from their 2018 album The Now Now. “I couldn’t think of anything I could do to enhance this record,” Benson recalls. “That would be my goal: to find the place in the music that was meant for me.”
Always game to experiment musically, Benson didn’t give up easily. He went back into the studio with the engineer and listened to the rhythm track repeatedly. He turned up the music, envisioned himself as one of the characters, and recorded his guitar part.
The final mix of “Humility” completely exceeded Gorillaz’ expectations once they heard it. Receiving high praise, Benson said, is what reminds him to not pay close attention to critics as he did when Breezin’ was released and disrupted both mainstream pop and traditional jazz.
“I was a lesson in recording history in how you become successful when you come from the jazz world, which was not commercially successful,” Benson said. “It didn’t mean you couldn’t be commercially successful. It was a harder road to go, but other musicians were going to be successful with something I started.”
Benson, who endows an honorary music scholarship at Scottsdale Community College, reiterates that established artists and music icons have a responsibility to mentor and nurture younger artists by sharing music history and putting out music with good messages, harmonies and melodies.
“Maybe that’s something that we should do,” he concludes. “We should examine where we came from to improve our perspective. Projects like Walking To New Orleans have to sound like they were there all the time.”