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BREEZIN WITH GEORGE GEORGE BENSON
Interview : Bridgid Brousseau
Jazz is an intensified feeling of nonchalance. ~Francoise Sagan~
Being a true music lover is similar to having an older child and a newborn child. You love and protect them equally but the newborn is going to provide you with an increased level of excitement and emotions. Additionally, for awhile that newborn is going to temporarily, yet naturally garner much more attention than the older child.
Well, for all George Benson fans around the world, your newborn has arrived! After recording more than 40 albums since 1953, George Benson has released Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole.
This album is sure to captivate and satiate listening palettes of Smooth Jazz fans from all generations. The 12 covers on this album include duets with Pulitzer Prize winner, trumpet player, Wynton Marsalis, Idina Menzel, Till Bronner and Judith Hill The renditions of the Cole’s songs are arrangements by Nelson Riddle and the 42-piece Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra. Mr. Benson was gracious enough to let Smooth Jazz Magazine into his world and the making of Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole.
Bridgid: Nat King Cole is clearly one of your greatest musical inspirations. However, he passed away in 1965 and you were never afforded the opportunity to meet him. If you were able to have a conversation with him what questions would you ask him?
George: I would probably be speechless! But if I had enough gumption to get some words out I would ask how he became so proficient at two instruments? First, the piano which he was incredibly proficient at. And Second, how did he develop that incredibly smooth voice that we all love so much!
Bridgid: Proficiency at two instruments is something you and Nat King Cole had in common. For Nat King Cole it was the piano and his voice. For you it is the guitar and your voice. However, it was not a guitar that you played first. As your fans will hear on the first track “Mona Lisa”, you are playing the Ukulele and singing at 8 years old. Who placed that Ukulele in yours hands?
George: I was seven years old when my stepfather met my mother. He played guitar but my hands were to small. My stepfather found the ukulele in a garbage can. Someone had broken it up and thrown it away. He glued it back together, painted it, put strings on it and he taught my first chords. After that I went out on the street corners and made a small fortune playing that ukulele. And that is how I was discovered. The tape was made because I won a singing contest.
George: It’s quite incredible that my mother kept that tape after all of these years. The reward was they were going to take me into the studio to record. When I won the contest they took me in the studio. It was just me, by myself and I took my ukulele out and played my favorite song, “Mona Lisa” and sang it.
Bridgid: Undoubtedly hundreds of musicians who would jump at any opportunity to collaborate with you. Other than Wynton Marsalis they are somewhat new on the music scene. How did Wynton Marsalis, Idina Menzel, Judith Hill and Till Bronner become the lucky chose few? George: The producers had a lot to do with it. He kept mentioning names to me. I was unfamiliar with some of them exception of Wynton Marsalis. When I heard them perform I knew we had made all of the right choices.
Bridgid: I’m going to say each of their names and if you would give me the first thoughts that come to mind when you think of them.
Bridgid: Wynton Marsalis.
George: Wynton Marsalis- I’ve known him since he was 13. He has become an international superstar. He’s a down home person who happens to be a genius at what he does! He’s a credit to jazz music and music in general. I’m proud to know him.SJM: Idina Menzel. George: IDINA MENZEL-What a talent! I thought she was the perfect choice for this project.. I love what she did on the record. She’s like Barbra Streisand. She has her qualities early in her career.
Bridgid: Till Bronner.
George: Till Bronner and I had not met but when I heard him play I knew what all of the big fuss was all about. He’s an expert at what he does. His sound is so beautiful. His sound on the flugelhorn horn is the most beautiful I’ve heard I think since Freddy Hubbard.
Bridgid: Judith Hill.
George: Judith Hill- She knocked me out on this record! What a lot of soul! She inspired me! Every note she sang came from the heart! That to me is what music is all about. Getting a message across and she got it across very well. If Nat Cole picked a duet and sang today, he couldn’t have picked a better person…except of course his daughter Natalie.
Bridgid: Additionally, you have a very long list of other prolific musicians and artists that you have worked with including Smokey Robinson, Norman Brown, Al Jarreau to Patti Austin, Rod Temperton, Lee Ritenour, and just tp name a few. That must be an amazing feeling to be in a studio or on stage with the greatest musicians.
George: Those are the shakers and the movers. It was to my great advantage to work with all of them. They are all specialized artists. The pleasure is all mine!
Bridgid: Do you have a favorite song on this album?George: “It Was Just One of Those Things” and “Ballerina.”
Bridgid: What about a favorite dessert?
George: My favorite desert is coconut cream pie. Can I afford to eat that? The answer is no! Being a musical legend and icon is not the only accomplishment Mr. Benson has to be proud of. He has been married for 45 years to wife, Johnnie. The couple have seven children, all boys.
Bridgid: 45 years of marriage is rare, especially in the entertainment business. Some of us have to take baby steps. How can I make it past the first three years of marriage? That’s the advice I need.
George: We say first five because that’s the tough period. Thinking about the other person. How is a decision I make going to affect my partner? Pretty soon you start thinking alike. It’s not a “one” thing anymore it’s a “two” thing. When kids came along we started seeing the importance of staying together not only for our own benefit but for their benefit too, giving them a whole life and not one that’s fragmented. Then it becomes a “family” thing because everyone becomes involved in the decisions. I’ve lived an incredible life with my wife and raising my sons. “My wife is my partner and a valuable member of our family.”
George: She’s the father of my children. She shows me myself from an outside point of view. I can’t see myself. When she talks to me she speaks honestly to me and tells me what she really thinks about me and that’s great information.”
Bridgid: Nat King Cole was a baritone and you’re a tenor. How would you describe his voice?
George: He was a natural baritone but even more so than that he had a silkiness that was unique to Nat. Very few singers have been able to create that silky sound that he had. There have been a few but none have done it as eloquently as Nat. He was a stand-out not only for his time period but today’s musical world. “He will always be remembered as one of the greatest singers of our time.” “We did this album because I don’t want people to forget Nat.” “He deserves to be remembered."
Before I concluded my interview with Mr. George Benson I asked him to place his hand on his heart. I did the same. George Benson now and will always have a piece of my heart!