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Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

One of the most highly regarded jazz guitarists of the 20th century, George Benson was also one of the few musicians in that field to enjoy success on the pop and R&B charts with such smooth, danceable hits as "On Broadway," "This Masquerade" and "Give Me the Night" in the 1970s and 1980s. He began his recording career in his teens before leading his own band in the mid-1960s on several popular jazz instrumental records that showcased his nimble playing and funky renditions of pop and rock standards. The 1970s saw Benson adding vocals to a soul-jazz sound that culminated in the Grammy-winning Breezin' (1976), a triple-platinum-certified record that sent him to the top of the pop, jazz and R&B charts. He continued to mine this vein throughout the 1970s and early '80s before shifting towards smooth jazz in the middle of the decade. Though Benson's tenure as a pop artist was over by the early 1990s, he continued to remain at the top of the jazz scene without suffering any of the stigma associated with ascending to or descending from the mainstream. George Benson's skills as a jazz guitarist and soul vocalist preserved his long-running status as an enduring talent with appeal among diverse audiences.Born...

One of the most highly regarded jazz guitarists of the 20th century, George Benson was also one of the few musicians in that field to enjoy success on the pop and R&B charts with such smooth, danceable hits as "On Broadway," "This Masquerade" and "Give Me the Night" in the 1970s and 1980s. He began his recording career in his teens before leading his own band in the mid-1960s on several popular jazz instrumental records that showcased his nimble playing and funky renditions of pop and rock standards. The 1970s saw Benson adding vocals to a soul-jazz sound that culminated in the Grammy-winning Breezin' (1976), a triple-platinum-certified record that sent him to the top of the pop, jazz and R&B charts. He continued to mine this vein throughout the 1970s and early '80s before shifting towards smooth jazz in the middle of the decade. Though Benson's tenure as a pop artist was over by the early 1990s, he continued to remain at the top of the jazz scene without suffering any of the stigma associated with ascending to or descending from the mainstream. George Benson's skills as a jazz guitarist and soul vocalist preserved his long-running status as an enduring talent with appeal among diverse audiences.

Born March 22, 1943 in the Hill District, a collection of predominately African-American neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, PA, George Benson was a child prodigy whose first performances took place at a local drug store, where the seven-year-old played the ukulele for a few dollars a show. By the following year, he was performing in nightclubs and recorded his first single, "She Makes Me Mad," as Little Georgie at the age of 10. His talents, strongly influenced by such seminal jazz guitarists as Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, won him a spot in organist Brother Jack McDuff's band while still in high school, which then led to the formation of his own group in 1965. Columbia Records talent scout and producer John Hammond, whose jazz discoveries included Christian, Billie Holiday and Count Basie, signed Benson to a contract with the label, which resulted in his 1965 debut album, The New Boss Guitar of George Benson (1965), a hard-bop record streaked with tinges of instrumental soul via McDuff's backing quartet. Its follow-up, It's Uptown (1966), featured the George Benson Quartet, which included Lonnie "Liston" Smith on organ and Ronnie Cuber on baritone saxophone. During this period, Benson was also a regular contributor to albums by other jazz artists, most notably Miles Davis, who employed him on his 1968 record Miles in the Sky.

Benson left Columbia in 1967 for Verve Records before recording a slew of albums for A&M and CTI between 1968 and 1971. The records found Benson adopting a soul-jazz sound that also incorporated elements of rock and pop, most notably in covers of the Beatles' Abbey Road (1969) album, as well as Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" and the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville." Benson's exceptional talents helped to steer these cuts away from slick, easy-listening renditions, which cemented his status as one of the most versatile players in modern jazz. Benson made the leap to mainstream popularity after moving to Warner Bros. to record Breezin' (1976), a pop-R&B hybrid featuring a Top 10 cover of Leon Russell's "This Masquerade." The blend of Benson's soulful vocals and guitar found a receptive audience among pop, jazz and R&B listeners, who sent Breezin' to the top of each of those respective charts, making it the first jazz album to earn triple platinum certification. "This Masquerade" would go on to capture Record of the Year at the 1976 Grammys, while Breezin' won two additional awards, including Best Pop Instrumental Performance.

The success of Breezin' led to a string of crossover hits for Benson in the 1970s, including the original version of "The Greatest Love of All" for the soundtrack to the 1977 Muhammad Ali biopic "The Greatest" and a live rendition of the Drifters' classic "On Broadway," which captured a second Grammy in 1978. Benson also toured with soul singer Minnie Riperton and recorded with Stevie Wonder before earning a second hit record with the Quincy Jones-produced Give Me the Night (1980), which topped the Soul and Jazz charts while breaking into the Top 5 on the Billboard 200. The title track, a Top 4 pop single that also reached No. 2 on the Disco charts, won Benson a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, while the record itself claimed an additional three Grammys, including Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Male and Best R&B Instrumental Performance.

Benson's standing as a mainstream artist declined in the 1980s as his albums attempted to closely follow pop and R&B trends. He shrewdly returned to his jazz roots, scoring hits on the smooth jazz charts like "Sunrise," a collaboration with country guitar wizard Chet Atkins. By the end of the decade, albums of standards like 1989's Tenderly and Big Boss Band (1990) with the Count Basie Orchestra kept him at the top of those charts. Nearly all of his records between 1993 and 2011 reached the No. 1 spot on the jazz charts, with Givin' It Up (2003), a collaboration with Al Jarreau, that scored two Grammys, including Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance for "God Bless the Child," with Jill Scott. In 2010, Benson was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts, which placed him in the august company of such legendary artists as Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughn and Dizzy Gillespie. The following year, he recorded Guitar Man (2010), his first album to favor guitar over vocals in over 35 years. Response was typically warm, which sent the record to No. 2 on the jazz albums chart.

By Paul Gaita

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Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Listen Up (1990) Himself
2.
 Broadway's Best (2002)
6.
 American Music Awards 1998 (1998) Presenter
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