Balancing Act

Benson saw the world through consistent touring with McDuff between 1962 and 1965, but when family obligations came his way in the mid-Sixties he attempted to reposition himself as an artist earning more than just praise for his blazing instrumental prowess. He recorded his first post-McDuff releases for Columbia under the tutelage of omnipotent talent scout John Hammond, with O'Hara's Pub regular Dr. Lonnie Smith on keyboards. Later Benson hooked up with producer Creed Taylor, who had helped guitarist Wes Montgomery become a legend before his death in 1968, for several albums on A&M and CTI in the late Sixties and early Seventies. But though Taylor advanced Benson's career, he missed the point of the ambitious musician's most recognizable technique -- his vocal scat and guitar duo instrumental flights.

"I couldn't convince the producer to let me do it," he recalls with a laugh. "When I first asked him to allow me to do that, everybody in the studio said, 'Boo! Don't try it. It's not a good idea.' So we never got a chance to try it with that record company. As soon as I got a new record company, I said, 'Hey, put a microphone in front of me, I want to try something.' The new producer, Tommy LiPuma, said, 'Okay, George. Hey, this sounds good, let's put one down.' And we did. One song -- 'This Masquerade.' One take. And that became one of the biggest records of that year."

The Leon Russell-penned "This Masquerade," and the title track of the 1976 album it was pulled from, Breezin', earned Grammies for Record of the Year and Best Pop Instrumental Performance, respectively. With "This Masquerade" Benson was the first artist ever to score a number one hit simultaneously on the pop, jazz and R&B charts. The album sold millions. Benson followed Breezin' with the multi-platinum 1977 release In Flight and Weekend in L.A., the 1978 live album that spawned the hit "On Broadway." After these lofty achievements there would be no returning to the financially unstable jazz world. Benson's place in history -- not to mention on the shelves of the chain record stores -- was assured.

Still, he regularly seeks opportunities to pick up a musical recharge. Though most of the members of his touring band have been with him for years, Standing Together was recorded with the help of mostly younger musicians, including his son Robert who supplied drum programming to the subtle instrumental "C-Smooth." Benson also recently recorded with Mary J. Blige on her hit "Seven Days," found time to jam with the Artist, and on a 1997 trip to Cuba, traded licks with a whole new breed of inspiring players.

"That was awesome. We had a great tour and I sat in every night. We went clubbin' every night and we played with some of the baddest musicians on the island -- if not the baddest. And I also did a seminar at the musical university, and that was one of the highlights of the tour."

Only somewhat aware of the obstacles Cuban musicians face when attempting to perform in the United States, Benson, a devout Jehovah's Witness and practicing minister, steers clear of political statement. "I stay away from the politics of anything. I'm not into politics at all. I'm a Bible student myself, and I conduct Bible studies. And the Bible has told us to stay out of politics, and we do. We stay out of world issues, and that's what I do. And I find that it creates a better relationship on a one-to-one basis with humans all over the Earth, so it's a good move. I relate to them as musicians only. And they are great musicians."

George Benson performs with comedian Sinbad, Sunday, September 27, at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts, 1700 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-673-7300. Tickets are $60, $75, and $150 ($150 tickets include a 6:30 p.m. cocktail party with George Benson) and part of the proceeds benefit the Miami Children's Hospital Foundation. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.

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