2019 is an important personal milestone in my life because it marks 50 years of friendship between George Benson and me.
It began in Detroit when I was just 15 years old (George was 25). At that time I was enthusiastically pursuing the path of becoming a jazz guitarist. I had a guitar/organ/drums trio called The Sounds of Jazz. We were pretty good for 9th graders, but not quite ready for prime-time. My best friend and I were constantly listening to records by Jimmy Smith, Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, and of course, George Benson.
George was showing up on a lot of albums other than his own, and I was buying anything and everything he was on. He played with an incredible abundance of what I call the 3Fs… feel, funk, and ferocity! George’s chops were second to none. He is one of those cats that picks EVERY note cleanly, no matter the tempo. His tone was thick and woody from heavier-gauge flat-wound strings played on a hollow-body archtop. But, like most of us hollow-body players, he struggled with the challenge of getting a great tone while fighting feedback on stage. That’s kind of how we met…
In the late 60s, whenever George came to Detroit he played at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, one of the great, classic jazz clubs that is still alive and kicking today.
Every time George came to Baker’s, I was sitting at a front table, literally just a few feet away from him. It was like going to advanced jazz guitar school for the price of a cover charge and a sandwich.
In those days, George was a Guild endorser. He played a blonde Artist Award with a floating DeArmond pickup through a Guild amp. To my amazement, between sets he would ask me about the sound of his guitar coming off the stage. Was his guitar too trebly? Was it loud enough? I would tell him what I was hearing and he would actually make adjustments based on my comments. I couldn’t believe what a humble gentleman he was. After seeing him at Baker’s several times I finally got up the courage to ask him to get together to hang out and play. He had no idea whether I could actually play, but he immediately said yes. He gave me the phone number of the man’s house where he and his band were staying, and we set up a time to get together.
It was late in 1969 and I had recently turned 16 so I could now drive myself places without the help of my parents. In fact, I would be making this historic excursion with my new girlfriend, Rhonda. I wanted her there to take a few pictures to document this momentous occasion for me (see photo). She had a very sweet disposition in addition to being a beautiful young lady so I figured George and the band wouldn’t mind her being there. I was right.
Playing guitar with George quickly revealed the wide chasm between his skills and mine.
We talked about things musical and personal, and discovered we had several non-musical interests in common, one of which was kung-fu movies. That day George and I “officially” became friends. After that, whenever he came into town we would get together and just play and hang out during one of the days he was there. We’ve been friends ever since.
I learned pretty quickly that George Benson was not just an incredible guitar player… he was also an incredibly generous man, willing to help young musicians launch their careers with introductions, recommendations, playing opportunities, etc. He was never afraid of losing his rising position in the jazz guitar ranks. Rather, he was always happy to help elevate worthy players.
During my many trips to see George at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge I met fellow Detroit guitarist Earl Klugh.
Earl and I were the same age, but even at 16 years old he had already developed impressive improvising skills. George recognized Earl’s talent and eventually hired him to play acoustic nylon string guitar in his band. Little-known fact: When Earl left George’s band he joined Chick Corea’s Return to Forever as their electric guitarist, but he never recorded with RTF. After that brief stint with Chick, Earl decided to focus exclusively on fingerstyle acoustic nylon-string guitar… which worked out pretty well.
In 1976, when I finished the manuscript for my book Contemporary Guitar Improvisation (Utilizing the Entire Fingerboard), George wrote a glowing preface to the book, which certainly helped to get it published. A few years earlier he had introduced me to legendary jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard backstage during a huge CTI Records concert. That introduction led to me playing with Freddie several years later when I was living in Los Angeles. That CTI concert was also the night George debuted his vocal version of This Masquerade. Just before going onstage he said to me, “I’m going to do something different tonight… I think you’ll like it.” This was well before he recorded it for Warner Bros. Records.
Needless to say, This Masquerade from his Breezin’ album was a massive hit and launched George’s career into the stratosphere.
And even though he became an international superstar vocalist, he continued (and still continues) to be one of the greatest jazz guitar players of all time.
Header (top) Photo Credit: My girlfriend Rhonda, now my wife of 45 years. For more on the top photo from 1969.
Marc Silver is a guitarist, composer, and author, best known for writing the classic instruction book Contemporary Guitar Improvisation (Utilizing the Entire Fingerboard), which has been teaching guitar players around the world how to improvise since 1978. Also, Marc is a regular contributor to Jazz Guitar Today. Visit online at MarcSilverGuitarImprov.com