While the Pop Top 40 has welcomed the hits of R&B and country musicians, jazz-styled artists have not made as much of an impact on the general charts. Grover Washington managed just one pop chart hit, for example, as did the legendary Dave Brubeck Quartet. One jazzy guitar player who has managed a significant mainstream chart history is eight-time Grammy winner George Benson.
Born in Pittsburgh, George Benson got his singing career underway at age ten. The requirements of Brother Jack McDuff's band when he was a teen led him to concentrate on his guitar work, thus depriving the world of an exceptional voice for a number of years. The guitar of George Benson, though, easily made up for the loss.
Signed to Columbia and later the distinguished jazz label, Verve, while he was in his twenties, Benson contributed his rapid-fire improvisation to recordings by Freddie Hubbard, Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis, among others. By this time he was a fixture in the realm of jazz guitar superstars, which translates into lots of tickets sold to hard-core jazz enthusiasts, but not a huge number of albums sold to the general public.
That changed in 1976, when Benson switched labels to Warner and hooked up with producer Tommy LiPuma. The result was the album Breezin', a primarily guitar-driven work that had Benson singing one song, 'This Masquerade.' On this track, Benson showed off his ability to perform a duet with himself, singing the same rapid notes he is playing on the guitar. The pop audience, exposed to this unusual technique, went wild and took the single into the Top Ten. More significantly, the new fans snapped up enough copies of Breezin' to make it a Top Ten hit as well, with multi-platinum sales, a near-miracle for an instrumental jazz album with one vocal track. Breezin' earned Benson two Grammys in 1976, including Record of the Year for 'This Masquerade.' He grabbed a third Grammy that year for 'Theme from Good King Bad.'
Now that he had the attention of the pop world, Benson was invited in 1977 to perform 'The Greatest Love of All' from the Muhammad Ali film The Greatest, a full nine years before Whitney Houston covered the song. It was 1978, though, before Benson reached the Top Ten again, with a live version of the Drifters' hit, 'On Broadway.' The enthusiasm of the audience shows that they were glad to have tickets to that gig. Benson earned his fourth Grammy for 'On Broadway.'
Benson made the pop Top Ten again in 1980 with 'Give Me the Night' (a Grammy winner) and in 1981 with 'Turn Your Love Around.' At this point, though, some of his other vocal tracks were not as strong as these highlights, and he turned back to his most solid roots, his jazz guitar performances.
With recent work like the album Irreplaceable, George Benson has shown that his tasteful guitar licks and his agility within exceptionally well-crafted solos have not diminished with the years. Considering that he has cemented his status as one of the premier jazz guitarists in history, any opportunity to get tickets to one of his shows is one not to pass up.
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