Tuesday, December 6, 2011

George Benson: How Jazz Went Cosby

Q. What's lamer than a funk musician going pop?

A. A jazz musician going pop.

You see, jazz is already kind of lame as it is, and half the time you're on the border of easy listening, but you think you're all cool and special because you're playing jazz. Better to just abandon any pretense of high art and head straight for the dentist office.

George Benson knows what I'm talking about. In the '60s, Benson was a real, legitimate jazz guitarist. At least that's what people tell me; not knowing the difference between good jazz and shitty jazz myself, I'm just going to have to take everybody's word for it. AllMusic's Richard Ginell writes, "He can play in just about any style -- from swing to bop to R&B to pop -- with supreme taste, a beautiful rounded tone, terrific speed, a marvelous sense of logic in building solos, and, always, an unquenchable urge to swing". You know me, I'm always a sucker for a "rounded tone" and "terrific speed" (wink wink).

But George Benson could do one thing most jazz musicians could not: he could sing. Initially, the man wasn't in a big rush to exploit his vocal prowess. Although he played jazz, he always had a fondness for pop music, doing instrumental versions of AM radio staples like The Monkees' "Last Train To Clarksville," The Association's "Along Comes Mary," and The Mamas & The Papas' "California Dreamin' " in his own groovy way. His 1973 version of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" will fuck you up. He even recorded an entire album-length tribute to Abbey Road.

But Benson never fully crossed the line until 1976, when he had a left-field pop hit with a version of Leon Russell's "This Masquerade":

Suddenly, George Benson was a pop star. And he liked it.

I'm pretty sure I heard "Breezin'" somewhere in the background of a Yacht Rock episode:

Then there was his tasty re-make of The Drifters' "On Broadway," which I and many others will forever associate with the opening sequence of All That Jazz:

Yeah, these were pop hits, but they still sounded somewhat like jazz. No, George needed to kick his sell-out phase into high gear. Enter Quincy Jones.

Fresh from the success of Off The Wall, Jones and frequent Michael Jackson songwriter/funkiest Englishman alive Rod Temperton teamed up with Benson for "Give Me The Night." As far as I'm concerned George, the night is all yours:

Suddenly the George Benson guitar sound was everywhere. Listen to the opening notes of "Too Hot" or the solo in "Hello," for instance. Funny thing is, by the time of "Turn Your Love Around," I don't even think Benson was bothering to play guitar on his own recordings:

The metamorphosis into Cosby Rock ... was complete.

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