Monday 7 March 2011

Going Solo, Selling Out

An artist for whom 'Faustian' surely applies ('sell-out' back in the days when it actually meant something), George Benson was considered the world's greatest jazz guitarist during the 70s. Getting a considerable leg-up from his appearance on Miles Davis' Miles In The Sky he was in huge demand as a session player and solo performer; and managed to sell millions when jazz was either retreating into  avant-obscurantism, curating museum pieces, or shooting itself in the pedal with the increasingly absurd indulgences of 'fusion'. Around 1976 his highly complicated, deceptively accessible, playing became complemented by his rather nice voice (arguably imitating Stevie Wonder's imitation of Donny Hathaway). Radio programmers and pop audiences loved it. Scoring huge mainstream hits and radio play after Breezin' and tunes like the below, his career changed course to focus on his talents as a polished purveyor of pop-soul.

After this decisive career turn, the hits got blander and less convincing; and the guitar faded further back into the mix. Disco for the middle-aged isn't noted for its longevity. Like so many other pop-soul stars, he was barely resistant to the onslaught of Thriller and MTV. After the golden touch of Quincy Jones, platinum pop hits and Grammies (and shameful performances at apartheid Sun City) his reputation as one of the 70s greatest jazz musicians didn't quite recover. To mention his name now conjures dreadful memories of bland MOR disco-lite pap and dinner party naffness: Music for Mike Leigh characters. Returning to his real talent (and skin colour - 'lightening' being a worrying trend among 80s black pop stars) he still packs houses, but these days 'cool' or 'cutting edge' are rarely applied to Benson. Pop is a fickle beast, but I have to remind readers that as a jazz musician Benson was - and is - peerless. For that alone, he deserves his due. That broad showbiz smile only ever seemed convincing when he was letting rip on his guitar.


Anonymous said...

Stevie Wonder did not imitate Donny Hathaway, in fact does not sound like Donny Hathaway. Stevie Wonder found his mature voice before Donny Hathaway had cut a record.

Anonymous said...

Hmm . . . maybe I overdid that a little. I will reconsider.

David K Wayne said...

Wonder didn't have a 'mature' voice until around 1971. Have you heard 'You Are The Sunshine Of My Life'? It's a cabaret-perfect imitation, as are many of Wonder's songs in the lower register. Even the melodies of his early 70s hits sound very Hathaway. There's a lot of 'genius' pastiche on SW albums, but I'd say Hathaway was the main one.

Rumour has it that the depressive, deeply troubled Hathaway was obsessed that Wonder had 'stolen' his style to greater success - one of several factors that contributed to his tragic suicide. Hathaway also didn't have the Motown marketing powerhouse at his disposal, or indeed as much attention from the rock-oriented music press.

This is particularly ironic when you consider how too many of today's (less imaginative) R'n'B stars either imitate Wonder or Michael Jackson as a matter of course.

Carl Morris said...

I've long had the sense there's George Benson gold out there but don't fancy wading through the discography. Any album tips? Thanks

David K Wayne said...

I'm no expert, but early to mid-70s should do OK. It was all smoov soul by about 78/79. Look out for jazz 'standards' on the tracklisting - some of them are blinders.