George Benson - Biography
George Benson gets back to Americana basics on Walking to New Orleans, the singer-guitarist's tribute to both piano-pounding Crescent City hit machine Fats Domino and the original rock guitar hero and poet, Chuck Berry. "I'm a great appreciator of the music made by both of those guys," the 10-time Grammy winner says of his double-barreled tribute. "They were fantastic. Chuck Berry was a great showman and a great musician, and Fats Domino cut nothing but hit after hit after hit."
Walking to New Orleans is the pop-jazz-R&B legend's first recording since 2013's Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole, but it couldn't be more different. Where Benson embellished Cole's cool tunes with lush orchestral arrangements, Walking to New Orleans came about by hunkering down in Ocean Way Studios, a century-old Gothic-revival stone church located on Music Row, with a quartet of first-call Nashville cats.
Walking to New Orleans toggles between tracks written and/or recorded by Berry and Domino as though Benson were moderating a musical conversation between Missouri and Louisiana. It kicks off with a rock-solid rendition of Berry's 1964 post-incarceration story song "Nadine (Is It You?)," which Benson makes his own by scatting in unison with his guitar solo. Then a horn section pumps up Fats's 1951 R&B hit "Rockin' Chair" and his first R&B-pop crossover smash, "Ain't That a Shame," from 1955, with Benson's guitar standing in swingingly for the originals' sax solos.
The Chuck Berry songbook is also represented on Walking to New Orleans by the good-timey "You Can't Catch Me," the sinuous "Havana Moon," the rollicking "Memphis, Tennessee," and the bluesy "How You've Changed." Fats Domino weighs in with the rollicking "I Hear You Knocking," "Blue Monday," and the album's iconic title track.
Chuck Berry was already a standout star in the mid-'50s, when Benson was still playing R&B in and around his Pittsburgh hometown. While Benson never committed himself to rock 'n' roll, he could sense the guitar emerging as the most popular instrument in the world and had no qualms about giving the people what they wanted. "It was hard to compete with the jukebox when you had a local gig in those days, so you might as well go along with it," Benson says with a chuckle. "And if you added a little showmanship, you really had 'em," he adds, admitting that he's indulged in some onstage Berry-style duck walking himself over the years.
Benson also regards Berry, with whom he shared bills in Europe, as a significant guitar innovator. "When he couldn't afford a big amplifier, he had a little old tiny amplifier with built-in distortion when he turned it up loud. So he was one of the earlier inventors of that 'fuzz' sound."
"I never even thought about emulating Chuck Berry," he says. "There's no two Chuck Berrys in this world; there's only one. I didn't even try playing his licks." There's no two George Bensons, either, which is why English "virtual band" Gorillaz enlisted him for "Humility," the first single from their 2018 album, The Now Now. Jack Black "performs" Benson's part in the track's video, which has received more than 56 million views.
And although he never had any personal interactions with Fats Domino, Benson came mighty close. "The guys in his band heard me play somewhere when I was a teenager and said they thought they could get me a job as a guitar player in Fats's band," he recalls. "Scared me half to death, y'know, because I was maybe 15 or 16 years old." When it comes to Domino's music, Benson believes there must have been something in that Crescent City water. "Nothin' bad ever came out of New Orleans," he says. "Everything I heard from there was tasty."
Producer Kevin "The Caveman" Shirley's extensive credits include projects with Journey, John Hiatt, Iron Maiden, and Joe Bonamassa. He captured the "good vibe" Benson saw as Walking's most important quality.
"Every day started with us feeling one another out in the studio," Benson says, "because I wanted this album to sound like we'd been playing together forever. It worked out, too, because we began to like being in the same room together." As for the music they recorded in that room, "I had to drop back and remember the '50s. We didn't try to improve on the '50s, because you can't. That era had its own vibe, and that vibe brought us to where we are now.
Nobody has more succinctly described George Benson's musical evolution than the guitarist himself did in his 2014 autobiography: "...from blues cat to blues-jazz cat...from blues-jazz cat to jazz cat...from jazz cat to soul-jazz cat...and from soul-jazz cat to R&B-jazz cat." Benson was a Pittsburgh-raised child prodigy who paid his dues touring with organist "Brother" Jack McDuff before recording his debut album in 1964. He secured his jazz reputation with adventurous releases on the CTI label and later became a commercial star with the smooth-jazz smash "Breezin'" and R&B-pop crossover hit "This Masquerade."
Following the success of his Quincy Jones-produced pop album Give Me the Night in 1980, Benson's string of pop hits includes "Love All the Hurt Away," "Turn Your Love Around," "Inside Love," "Lady Love Me (One More Time)," and "20/20."
Benson has won 10 Grammy Awards – and has been nominated for an additional 15 – since 1977. His wins include Record of the Year for "This Masquerade" (1977), Best Pop Instrumental Performance for "Breezin'" (1977) and "Mornin'" (2007), Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for "On Broadway" (1979) and "Give Me the Night" (1981), and Best R&B Instrumental Performance for "Theme From Good King Bad" (1977) and "Off Broadway" (1981).
In 1990, Benson was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from the Berklee College of Music. And in 2009 the National Endowment of the Arts recognized him as a Jazz Master, the nation's highest honor in jazz.
Walking to New Orleans is Benson's 45th album, and few sound as loose-limbed and flat-out fun. "We did have us a ball making this record," he admits.