George Benson: In Flight…
June 1977 phone interview
By David Nathan
Including vocals on his "In Flight" album smash was a natural progression for George Benson. He now enjoys a dual career and is free to exploit his talents to their furthermost limits...
JUST TWO years ago, if anyone had asked you who would be the most likely candidate to pick up four Grammies, end 1976 with a platinum album and single and start 1977 with a gold album on its way to platinum status, chances are you would not have picked George Benson! And that is in no way a reflection of the man's talent and ability — it's just that at that time, Mr. B. was simply recognised as an excellent musician by those in the know, folks in the industry and a hard-core following of fans.
A new recording contract with Warner Bros. early in 1976 changed everything, it seems. After a couple of years with CTI, and before that A&M, George has gone on to become one of the hottest artists around today. His four-day special series of concerts in New York sold out almost within days and right now, the man can do no wrong.
On the way to Europe to perform for people across the continent, George is naturally feeling good these days. "This will be the third or fourth trip, in all," he relates from his home in New Jersey. "The last time I was there was around '72 or '73 and we played at Ronnie Scott's in London. I'm really looking forward to this trip because we'll be playing in all the major markets across Europe. We're going to be there for around three weeks in all and we're planning a television special in Germany amongst other things."
As record buyers will know, it was "This Masquerade" a Leon Russell song which is a couple of years old, which catapulted Mr. Benson into the best sellers and it gave everyone a chance to hear the gentleman sing, something he'd done on record on a couple of occasions but without any significant recognition following: "Having vocals on the new album ('In Flight') was a natural progression. Yes, I always had a sneaking suspicion that if I ever really got into singing. I'd end up with two careers — or should I say, a dual career! And it happened. But, you know, I originally started out as a singer. Then I got kinda serious about the guitar and started working with Jack McDuff. I guess I felt safe with the guitar so I really stuck with it. You see, I'm not the kind of person who really tries to force anything. I figure if it's gonna happen, it'll happen."
Obviously, though, there might have been times when Mr. B. didn't think things would happen — at least not on the scale that they have: "Yes, I must confess that even in my wildest dreams, I didn't expect this! Everyone has a dream, you know, of getting there. But we've gone so far beyond that, that sure, there are times when I have to sit back and wonder if this was all happening to me! I'd also have to say that it made me real angry about some of the things I'd done in my career — at the thought that these things could have come at an earlier point in my life. But then, when it happened, I like to think that I was ready. I was prepared. You know, you see so many people who aren't ready when the success eventually does come. So the way I feel is that it happens when it's supposed to."
The kind of popularity that George now enjoys naturally brings with it heavier responsibility: "Yes, it means I can't spend as much time say with my family as I'd like. But they understand — and we are working towards that point wherein I'll be able to ease off a little. But for the moment, we've got to run with it as it is because I'm trying to build a career. Responsibility? You know, I feel my main responsibility lies to those folks who pay their money to come in and see me perform. I know of people who travelled a long way to come to one our concerts, people who hitched to them, given up their hard-earned money. So I always endeavour to give my very best to them — because those are the people you owe that responsibility to. To me, each concert should be treated as a special event and you give the best you can."
Certainly, George's very personable attitude makes it obvious that the phenomenal success he's enjoying hasn't given him an ego problem: "I have to attribute a lot of what's happening to good management, people who know the industry backwards and forwards. They are helping me to build a career because they see me as a personality, not just as a singer and a guitarist. And that's what I'm aiming at now. I want people to be able to turn on their televisions and not just think about me as George Benson, singer or George Benson, guitarist. Sure, I'm constantly alert to my craft: in fact, I even practise whilst I'm dreaming — for real! But I want to go beyond just that. For instance, I'd like to get into movies — acting as well as doing maybe a soundtrack. I'd like my career to catapult me into those areas and any other areas that I can work in."
The success of "In Flight" naturally prompts the question as to what we might expect from Mr. Benson next time out: "To be honest, I don't know! We really let each album take its own shape. A lot of times, I'll go into the studios with a whole lot more material than we use and sometimes we'll drop things, maybe go back to them. We turn down a lot of stuff when we try it out, if it doesn't work. So I can't say what the next one will be like because we just try and give each one its own special treatment. Plus I like to do something that is going to be an eye-opener for the public — something that's a little memorable, not just the same thing all the time."
Which bodes well for what we might expect from Mr. Benson for his next set. There have been rumours that he might do an album with Mavis Staples and George comments that "there is a possibility" without setting down anything concrete for the moment. Right now, he seems more than happy to be enjoying success that's long been his due. No doubt, his European trip will prove to be as triumphant as the many engagements which have been sellouts in the States and, once he returns to the U.S.A. in June, there's no doubt that 'baad' Mr. Benson will have emerged as an international star!