Pittsburgh Music Story‎ > ‎Jazz‎ > ‎Modern Era‎ > ‎

George Benson

Ten Time Grammy Winning Guitarist and Vocalist

Ten time Grammy award winning George Benson is a singer and jazz guitarist who has topped the charts in Jazz, R&B and Pop.  With dozens of hit singles and albums his music is enjoyed by millions of fans around the world.   Benson began his career in Pittsburgh as a child and teen R&B singer. In his early twenties he became one the world’s leading jazz guitarists. Combining R&B singing and jazz guitar he became a Pop crossover Superstar.  Benson's landmark 1976 ``Breezin' '' was the first album in history to simultaneously hold the No. 1 spots on the Pop, Jazz, and R&B charts.  It is the best-selling jazz album of all time.  Breezin’ was awarded triple Platinum status with over 6 million copies sold.  With Breezin’ George won three Grammy’s in 1976 including Record of the Year for the single ``This Masquerade' and Best Pop Instrumental for the Breezin album.  He won another five vocal and instrumental Grammy awards in the R&B, Pop, and Jazz categories in 1978, 1980, and 1983.  Collaborating with Al Jarreau on the “Givin' It Up” album he won two more Grammys in 2006.  In total George Benson has released 48 albums on the Columbia, A&M, CTI,Warner Brothers, Prestige, Verve, Concord and other labels.  As a session player he appears on over 600 recordings.  He has recorded with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Miles Davis, Dizzie Gillesie, Stanley Turrentine, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Dextor Gordon, Freddie Hubbard, Quincy Jones, Earl Klugh, Hubert Laws, Jack McDuff, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Maynard Ferguson, Deodato, Chaka Khan, Chet Atkins, Boney James, Bobby Womack, Lou Rawls, Stevie Wonder, Take 6, Mary J. Blige and many others.  In recognition of his outstanding achievements Benson was named a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master in 2009.

“Appreciated as both a musician and performer, George Benson plays the dual role of expert improviser and vibrant entertainer. Rounding out his singular approach with a strong sense of swing, he is considered one of the greatest guitarists in jazz.” National Endowment of the Arts

Little Georgie –Child Prodigy of the Hill

George Benson, born in Pittsburgh on March 22, 1943, grew up in cross roads of the jazz world: the Hill District.  In the 1940’s the Hill District was home to a thriving jazz scene with dozens of clubs like the Crawford Grill, The Hurricane, the Bambola Social Club, and the Musician’s club.  He was surrounded by great jazz and great jazz musicians.   A musical child prodigy his parents taught him singing at an early age.  At age four he sang the popular hit song “I Need You” at a Fourth of July Celebration singing contest winning a prize of seven dollars.  George was the eldest of six children.  His family struggled financially on meager Jim Crow era salaries. George’s mother worked as an aide in a hospital.  His family lived in a house without electricity until George was seven.  Moving into a house with electricity George’s new stepfather Thomas Collier got his electric guitar out of a pawn shop and played for George.  George was taken by the guitar and wanted to learn.  But he was too small to hold a full sized guitar.  When he was seven his stepfather found a broken ukulele in a trash can, glued it back together, and restrung it.  He gave it to George and taught him the fundamentals.  George was soon strumming and singing to the ukulele. 

George got a job selling newspapers from a stand in front of Goode's Prescriptions Store on Wylie Avenue and Logan Street.  On his first day on the job George brought along his Ukelele.  After selling his papers George went into the drug store with his instrument. A man tapped him on the shoulder asking if George could play that thing.  George jumped into a song singing.  A crowd gathered.  Seeing that people wanted to give money to George, George’s cousin passed around a ball cap collecting from the crowd.  That was the beginning of George’s days playing on the streets of the Hill District.  On weekends during the summer Little Georgie Benson walked around the streets of the Hill District singing and strumming songs such as ``Mona Lisa'' and ``Sunny Side of the Street'' for money.   He sometimes made $40 earning more money in one night than his mother made working a week at the hospital.   A club owner who heard George playing on the street contacted George’s parents offering George a singing job on Friday and Saturdays.  He offered George more money than his mother made in two weeks.  His parents accepted the offer.   At 8 years old Little Georgie performed on Friday and Saturday at the Little Paris Nightclub, an unlicensed Hill District after hours establishment that opened at midnight.  After several weeks of performing at the club the police raided the place arresting Thomas Benson for letting his son perform at an adult venue.  That was the end of George’s pre-teen night club career.  He went back to singing on the streets during the summer months.

First Record Contract at Age 10

George Benson received his first acoustic guitar, a $14 model, for Christmas when he was nine years old.  He quickly learned to play the guitar and took it the street corners to perform.  One day while playing on the street a man named Harry Tepper asked George if he could meet with George’s parents.  Tepper told the Benson’s parents that he could get George a record contract.  Harry Tepper became George’s first manager.  Harry’s promise came through when he got George a record deal RCA Victor's X Records subsidiary.  He took the ten year old George Benson to a studio in New York City where he sang and recorded four R&B songs.  The label released George’s single “She Makes Me Made” / “It Should Have Been Me," in 1953.  It received some airplay in the Pittsburgh market.  His recording career was short lived.  Harry Tepper moved to California and George’s parents wanted to him to stop as he was missing too much school.   George then focused his time on learning the guitar.

As Benson could not afford formal guitar lessons he taught himself by ear listening to records and learning from other guitarists on the Hill.  He learned Be-Bop guitar listening to his stepfather’s Charlie Christian records. George also learned guitar from his friend Sylvester "Poopadoo" Harris who took guitar lessons.  Not owning an electric guitar George often visited Barbershop Bill who kept an electric guitar at his shop.  Benson plugged in and played while Barbershop Bill cut hair.  As rock roll and organ trios became popular George became more interested in the electric guitar.  When George was 15 he wanted to buy his own electric guitar from a pawn shop, but could not afford the $55 price tag.  His stepfather made George an electric guitar using wood from his mother’s oak hope chest and $23 in parts.  To learn more guitar techniques George would go back stage at clubs in the Hill to ask questions of touring guitarists including Thornel Schwartz, Eddie McFadden, Chico Hamilton and Eddie Diehl of Jack McDuffs band.

Singing R&B with the Altairs

George resumed his night club music career at age 14 when he joined the R&B vocal group the Altairs at age 14.  His cousin Nathaniel Benson, Richard Harris, Ralph Terry, and Timothy Johnson formed the Altairs at Heron Hill High School in 1958.  They practiced Doo Wop and R&B harmonies in the school rest rooms. With the help of a teacher they performed assemblies at several schools. George Benson joined as a singer and guitarist when Timothy Johnson quit..  The Altairs became one of the most popular vocal groups in Pittsburgh performing at the dance hops hosted by Dee Jays Porky Chedwick and Sir Walter.   The Altairs made their first recording backing singer Anne Keith, a former member of the El Venos.  Anne Keith single “Lover's Prayer” / "Just A Lonely Girl" was released on the Memo label. The Altairs made their own single when they signed with Amy Records in 1959. They released the single "If You Love Me / Groove Time with Benson singing lead vocals.  With local airplay their popularity increased and they opened shows for the Miracles and Frankie Lymon.  George left the Altairs in 1960 to join the Four Counts. 

George attended the Connelly Vocational  High School studying to be an electrician.  But when he learned that the local electrician unions did not admit African Americans, he switched to the commercial art program.  At Connelly the white students in the commercial arts program where given part time training jobs by area businesses.  But African American were denied this opportunity for training and money.  To earn money George Benson worked the late shift performing at night clubs. With the Altairs he was earning $55 a week.  But the late hours performing and trying to complete school assignments took it’s toll.  George frequently slept through classes after late night gigs.  His art teacher Ken Eifert gave him an ultimatum either school or music.  In 1960 only two months away from graduating George choose music. He dropped out of school at age 17.  The Superintendent of Pittsburgh Schools, Richard Wallace presented George with his high school diploma at a Connelly School luncheon in September of 1987.  George worked full time performing in the clubs of the Pittsburgh area.  He fronted his own R&B bands as a singer working at Mason's and the New Frontier club.

Benson continued to practice and study jazz guitar.  When he was 17 years he and other young guitarists met on Saturday mornings at the home of an older mentoring guitarist.  They would play the records of up and coming jazz guitarists like Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, and Tal Farlow. The mentor would then show the younger guitarist how to play the songs they heard.  With his expanded guitar chops from those sessions George was able to play at jazz jam sessions around town.  After hearing Charlie Parker's “Just Friends” in 1962 Benson decided he wanted to be a jazz guitarist rather than an R&B singer.

Learning Jazz from Jack McDuff

In 1962, soul jazz organ player Jack McDuff came to Pittsburgh to perform at the Starlight Lounge.  A friend told George that McDuff needed a replacement guitar player.  George sat in on one song with McDuff’s band.  Liking what he heard McDuff invited Benson to audition for him the next day. McDuff called his manager saying he found an replacement guitarist and was bringing him to New York.  George played with McDuff for two weeks in Pittsburgh and then went with the band to New York.  McDuff wanted to fired Benson as he was struggling with chord changes and wasn't ready to solo.  But McDuff’s manager convinced Jack to keep him saying your group sounds better with George than when you left.  Benson stayed on learning to play jazz from  McDuff.  As McDuff felt that singers drew attention away from the music, George was restricted to playing guitar in McDuff’s band.  Benson toured with McDuff for thee years.  He appeared on five of McDuff’s album releases: Brother Jack Live (1963), Dynamic (1964), Prelude (1964), Live in Concert Around the World (1964), and Hot Barbeque (1965).   Backed by McDuff and his band George Benson began his solo recording career at age 21 with the release of “The New Boss Guitar” in 1964 on the Prestige label.  They recorded five songs written by Benson along with some covers.   Critic Scot Yarnow of Allmusic.com calls the album “an impressive debut” that shows Benson’s “distinctive, recognizable sound”.

Solo Career - Jazz to Pop Superstar

Wanting more freedom to play extended guitar songs Benson left McDuff’s band in 1964.  He returned to Pittsburgh to form his own trio and worked for three months at the Rendezvous Lounge.  George went back with McDuff for a few months before moving to New York City.  He formed a new group in New York with organist Lonnie Smith and worked the clubs there for six weeks.  Legendary record producer John Hammond, who signed Charlie Christian, Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin, heard Benson play at New York's Palm Cafe on 125th Street in 1965.  Hammond drafted a Columbia Records contract on a cocktail napkin signing Benson on the spot.  Hammond had Benson in the studio a week later.  He produced Benson’s 1965 Columbia Records jazz releases “Benson Burner” and “It's Uptown” in 1965.  Benson also became a much sought after session player at Columbia.  Herbie Hancock, after recording an album with Benson, called Miles Davis telling him should hear George play.  Miles invited George to his recording session and George recorded with Miles Davis on his "Paraphernalia" and “Miles in the Sky” releases.  Miles offered George a job in his band, but George’s managers passed on the offer saying they had much bigger things to come.

Moving to A&M Records in 1968 Benson began working with Creed Taylor who had been Wes Montgomery’s producer. His first A&M release “Shape of Things to Come” (1968) is considered a jazz classic by some critics.  George released four albums on A&M before returning to Columbia in 1973.  George began playing jazz guitar over top R&B rhythms with his 1973 Columbia release “Body Talk”.  Moving to Creed’s own CTI label Benson released “Good King Bad” in 1975.  The album was a cross over success reaching number 3 on the Jazz charts, number 18 on the R&B charts, and 51 on the Billboard Top 200.  George won his first Grammy for “Best R&B Instrumental Performance”.  Working at Warner Brothers with producer Tommy LiPuma, LiPuma built upon George’s crossover success letting him showcase both his R&B singing and jazz guitar playing on the 1976 release Breezin’.  George became a superstar pop singer with his hit singles from Breezin’: “This Masquerade” and “Breezin’”.  George scored more vocal hits in the late 1970s and 1980s with “On Broadway”, “Turn Your Love Around”, “The Greatest Love of All”, “Lady Love Me” and the Quincy Jones produced “Gimme the Night”.  George released 12 albums on Warner Brothers over 17 years.  Benson moved with LiPuma to the GRP label where they released That's Right (1996), Standing Together (1998), and Absolute Benson (2000).  Benson scored a number 3 Smooth jazz single with “Living in High Definition” in 2009 and with “The Lady in My Life” in 2011.

George has had 8 albums that reached number one on the Billboard Jazz and Contemporary Jazz charts: Bad Benson (1975), Collaboration (1987), Tenderly (1989), Love Remembers (1993), That's Right (1996), Standing Together (1998), Absolute Benson (2000), Songs and Stories (2009).   

"George Benson is simply one of the greatest guitarists in jazz history"- All Music Guide

George's Grammy awards include:
Best Pop Instrumental Performance (1976), Theme from Good King Bad-Best Rhythm & Blues Instrumental Performance (1976), On Broadway-Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male (1978), Give Me The Night-Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male (1980), Off Broadway-Best R&B Instrumental Performance (1980), Moody's Mood-Best Jazz Vocal Performance (1980), Being With You-Best Pop Instrumental Performance (1983), Best Pop Instrumental Performance for Mornin' (2006), George Benson (& Al Jarreau), Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance for God Bless The Child (2006)

Little George 1950 -Teenie Harris Photo
Benson's 1st RCA Victor Single at Age 10
George with manager Harry Tepper

George Benson and the Altairs
Altairs :"If You Love Me"
Benson with Jack McDuff