George Benson interview: love songs are one of the things in life that last
Posted by Jacqueline
Guitarist and singer George Benson talks about romance, his wife and his long friendship with Michael Jackson.
Twenty minutes into my interview with George Benson, the sun, moving out from behind a cloud above the Metropolitan Hotel, focuses its full glare on the musician’s face, turning his eyes a deep tortoiseshell. At that moment, Benson puts down his cup of Earl Grey and starts to sing. “If I had to live my life without you near me, the days would all be empty, the nights would seem so long…” His voice oozes richly through the air; by the end of the first phrase, I fear I may start to levitate with pleasure.
The Grammy Award-winning vocalist – whose hits include Give Me The Night, Lady Love Me and Turn Your Love Around – has been weakening female knees from the age of six, when he wooed the schoolgirls of Pittsburgh with his ukulele. Following the deaths of Barry White and Luther Vandross, Benson has been handed the “love God” mantle, and his album Classic Love Songs is out now, but the 67-year-old is keen to point out that he sees himself as a missionary of romance – not sex. “I’ll happily devote the rest of my life to nothing but love,” he says in his rich, bass rumble, having given me a Carry-On-style once-over and told his PR man to “knock, before you come back in”.
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“Love songs are one of the great essences of life, the only thing that’s lasting. Barry White spiced up the scene with an approach to music that was quite different to anyone else’s, but I’m a little more…” he bares a rack of white teeth, “… sober. Luther and I would joke about how many children the two of us were partly responsible for in this world, but I’ll always draw the line if someone writes something too sexually suggestive for me,” he says. “I just don’t feel I have to do that. Lionel Ritchie sang three songs about a lady and they were all smashes.”
It isn’t, he assures me, because he is a family man – a father of seven who has been married to the same woman, Johnnie, for 45 years – or a religious man, who conducts bible studies, that he has always objected to lubricious lyrics. “Although imagine turning up at someone’s door to preach and they’ve got me singing in the background, telling them to ‘do it to me one more time’,” he grins. His stance is a reaction to what he sees as an implicit racism within the music industry which has become more pronounced in recent years.
“They don’t like anything now that doesn’t shock you from bar one. Why can’t you have a song that sneaks up on you, suggests ‘it’ even, without having to spell things out? MTV is becoming like a porno channel now. It is using us African Americans in a barbaric sense. People think that because you come from ‘the jungle’ you can’t do romance, because only clever people can do romance. That is simply not true.”
When a young Benson, originally a guitarist in the Wes Montgomery jazz tradition, was seduced into a more soul-led, commercial genre, some purists said the guitarist was “a traitor to jazz”. But he remains a highly respected figure for whom the most talented songwriters of the last half-century – including James Taylor, Smokey Robinson and Bill Withers – have written.
For Benson, the real schism in jazz happened well before his “defection”. In the Fifties and Sixties, when jazz moved from good-time party music to high art, Charlie Bird Parker, one of the guitarist’s early heroes, was already making industry heads uneasy. “Here was a guy who, they claimed, ‘was going to destroy jazz’. And, in fact, he did: jazz as they knew it. He changed the parameters, proved that African Americans could be a lot more intellectual than we had been given credit for, that we weren’t just folk who relied on our instincts and thumped along to the gospel vibe. Parker was akin to Stravinsky in his intellect and he taught me a great lesson, which is that nobody is going to get love from across the board.”
Miles Davis, who employed Benson in the Sixties on the album Miles in the Sky, didn’t attempt to seek love from any quarter. “I always knew when to leave, because I’d see him getting fired up over autograph hunters who would come up and say things like, ‘Do you remember 25 years ago when you did that thing?’ Only Miles didn’t want to be reminded of what he did 25 years ago, so he’d just shout ‘shut the —- up’ and refuse to sign the autograph.”
As a child prodigy raised in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Benson was earning a living by the age of seven playing the guitar in a local nightclub. He recorded his first single, She Makes Me Mad, at the age of 10 in New York, at which point his mother insisted on a career hiatus. “My mother saw what was happening and cut it all off just in time, so that I got the chance to be a child again.”
Michael Jackson, with whom he later became close, wasn’t fortunate enough to have his ascent to stardom tempered in the same way. “Where Michael came from was incredibly awful and I guess the family were trying to escape it and had all the potential right there. I have to give my mother credit for taking me out of the game when I was 11 years old. I was poor and raggedy, but I went back to school and got a little bit of an education and when I came out I got back into music.”
It wasn’t until 1978, having recorded a number of albums with jazz heavyweights and achieved financial success, that Benson got to know Jackson. “We met for the first time in London. We were both studying to be ministers [Jackson was a Jehovah’s Witness at the time] but from that point on the world just ate him up. I did feel sorry for Michael: apart from the adoration, he wasn’t getting the benefits of being famous.”
Benson says he has been able to relish those benefits for one reason. “My whole life, I’ve never worried about being No 1, because that’s the guy they’ve got to get out of there. When Michael was at No 2 in the charts, he was making just as much money as he would have been at No 1, but as soon as he got there, the whole world came down. Meanwhile, the only time people know I’m still alive is when I’ve got a record coming out.”
In his lifetime, he sighs, finally reaching for the shortbread finger he has been eyeing since we sat down, he has seen fame destroy some talented people, and yet he remains optimistic. “I like Simon Cowell – look at how many great artists have come out of the UK because of him. Those shows keep our minds on the art of making music. You can be as great as you like but if nobody ever hears you, what’s the point?”
Had they existed in the Pittsburgh days, would he and his ukulele have braved one? “Oh no,” he smiles. “I’ve always hated rejection; I only want to go out there when I know I’ve got it right.”