George Benson never dreamed he’d record a tribute to Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. A jazz musician and vocalist who became a major pop star in the ’70s, Benson fetes the rock ’n’ roll pioneers in Walking to New Orleans: Remembering Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. Faithful in style and spirit to the original recordings, the selections include Domino’s “Walking to New Orleans” and “Blue Monday” and Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” and “You Can’t Catch Me.” The Netherlands’ Provogue Records/Mascot Label Group will release the album April 26.
During Benson’s years as a teen musician in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, he inevitably heard the hits Domino, Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and their peers released. “You couldn’t be in the music business and not be aware of those guys,” he said. “That’s what you heard on the radio, and they were jukebox kings, too.”
But Benson pursued jazz rather than rock ’n’ roll. After working with organist “Brother” Jack McDuff, the 21-year-old Benson released his album debut, a collaboration with McDuff called The New Boss Guitar of George Benson. Influenced by Wes Montgomery and Charlie Christian, he developed his bell-like tone, distinctive glides and brilliantly fluttering runs. The innovative and, by jazz sales standards, popular albums Benson recorded with producer Creed Taylor led him to major label Warner Bros. Featuring his Top 10 pop hit, “This Masquerade,” Benson’s 1976 debut for Warner Bros., Breezin’, reached number one on the all-genre Billboard 200 albums chart. His ensuing hit singles and albums include a Top 10 remake of the Drifters’ “On Broadway” and the Quincy Jones–produced Give Me the Night.
The winner of 10 Grammy Awards, the 76-year-old Benson recently contributed guitar to the British band Gorillaz’ aptly breezy single, “Humility.” Featuring comedian Jack Black, the song’s beach-set music video has 59 million YouTube views.
Benson spoke to OffBeat from his mountainside home in Paradise Valley, Arizona.
Why did you record a tribute to Fats Domino and Chuck Berry?
The record company came up with the idea. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to record with a European label. In the United States, they only think of me as “smooth jazz” George. With that mentality, you can’t get into big sales numbers. I like the general audience. I like to make music for everybody. And that translates into recognition all over the planet.
So you were cool with recording an entire album of Domino and Berry songs?
It’s a good project because there’s nobody better than these two guys. They had very strong personalities. Their music was simple and easy to digest yet it also had class. And they loved what they did. That was evident from the time you put the needle down on their record. And they played music that you had to respond to. It was never bland.
And they were two of the biggest stars of the rock ’n’ roll era and among the music’s originators.
That’s right. I used to love anything new by these guys. But I just found out recently how big they were. They were competing with Elvis Presley back there in the ’50s, at least Fats Domino was.
You were once asked to join Fats Domino’s band?
One of the guys in his band heard me play. He said, ‘Man, our guitar player is leaving. Are you interested in working with Fats Domino?’ My first impression was to say, ‘Yes.’ But I was not really a guitar player yet. So, I was leery and I was afraid of leaving my home. I was only, like, maybe 16 or 17.
You met Chuck Berry in the late 1970s?
I only had one conversation with him. He had just come home [from federal prison for tax evasion]. He did some time. He was in a music store in L.A., buying guitar strings or picks or both. I was doing a TV interview there, because my record was really breaking out. He didn’t look at me until I said, ‘Mr. Berry.’ He turned around for two seconds and shook my hand real fast and said, ‘How you doing?’ And then he went back to buying his picks. I always loved him, though, because he was so unique.
When you were working with Creed Taylor, the founder of the jazz label CTI Records, he threw challenging ideas at you. He asked you to do a jazz version of the Beatles’ Abbey Road, for instance, just weeks after that album was released.
Creed Taylor asked me to get something from the B-side of Abbey Road. He said, ‘Take this home and listen to it and tell me what you think.’ I came back to his office the next day. I said, ‘Everything on here is good.’ I’m thinking he’s going to say let’s do one or two songs from the album. But after I told him, ‘Man, everything on this album is good,’ he said, ‘Good. We’ll do the album.’ I said, ‘What?’ Because that was a no-no for jazz people. They hated the Beatles.
But we ended up doing The Other Side of Abbey Road and I’m so glad I did it. But when that album came out [in 1970], nobody wanted to hear it. But later, when Breezin’ came out, people went back to see where I came from. They found some decent albums. The Other Side of Abbey Road was one of them. White Rabbit, another challenge that Creed Taylor dreamed up, was another. Because I thought a white rabbit was a white rabbit. I didn’t know nothing about drugs.
You opened yourself up to a lot of music and ideas beyond jazz.
I learned not to turn ideas down. But when they asked me to do ‘On Broadway,’ I said, ‘No. I don’t want to do that. Man, that’s a classic. I don’t want to destroy a classic.’ They said, ‘George, people would love to hear you sing that song.’ And so, I came up with some great ideas—but that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t tried it. They gave me ideas and I had to turn them into something. I’ve learned not to be afraid, because records like ‘On Broadway’ and ‘This Masquerade’ turned out to be the records that charted my destiny.
And Quincy Jones, fresh from working on Michael Jackson’s solo breakthrough, Off the Wall, produced your 1980 album, Give Me the Night.
Quincy Jones was very hot at the time, but we knew we would work together from the first time I met him. When we got an opportunity to make a record, I knew it was not going to be a normal record. It proved to be difficult for me at first—until Quincy convinced me to put myself in his hands. He said, ‘George, I know you better than you know yourself. Trust me.’ After I got over the shock of him saying that, I said, ‘He’s got a great track record. He’s Quincy Jones, a great musician. Let’s try it his way.’ We had few little run-ins, but after we got past those, we made a classic. And it’s still selling today.
The British pop-rock singer-guitarist Peter Frampton, a huge star in the 1970s, also influenced you?
I was just making records [in the early ’70s]. Even a hit jazz album sold small numbers. The records kept me working, but I never had a big hit. And then Peter Frampton changed everything. I saw his picture on magazine. I said, ‘Who in the world is Peter Frampton?’ So, I picked up the magazine and, lo and behold, my name is in the article. Peter Frampton says, ‘I listen to George Benson records all the time.’ I said, ‘You mean to tell me, this guy, who had the biggest record in history, who sold eight million double albums, is interested in my music? Why is he a superstar and I’m just barely hanging in there?’
So, I checked his record out and saw what he was doing. I said, ‘Wow, he’s keeping it simple. He’s got a wah-wah pedal and percussion.’ So, I put a wah-wah pedal on my guitar. That’s what made Warner Bros. Records interested in me. I give Peter Frampton a lot of credit for inspiring me and pointing me in the right direction.
When you broke through to mainstream success, did you get blowback from the jazz audience and critics?
Of course, but I remembered this: They called Count Basie a sellout when he released ‘Baby Elephant Walk.’ Wes Montgomery, they said he was not a great guitar player because he was cutting those commercial tunes. And they gave Wes Montgomery a one-star review for one of the most beautiful records I had ever heard. I said, ‘No. Uh-uh. I’m not going to allow critics to destroy my life like that. If I ever am fortunate enough to get a hit record, I’m going to play that hit record.” And I finally a got a hit record. So, when they started that criticism with me, which I expected, I had already put up a shield.
But more than anything else, I did records with some great people. And one of them was the incredible [Frank] Sinatra. In the studio in front of everybody, he said, ‘Everybody knows about your guitar playing. I love your voice.’ When he said that to me, that neutralized all the bad things that had been thrown at me. Those things never entered my mind again. And everybody goes through that. It’s one of the prices you pay for being famous.