This year’s Detroit Jazz Festival opening night headliner shares why the Motor City is such a special place for him
Guitarist George Benson is a jazz legend. Certainly he is not the first jazz legend to headline the Detroit Jazz Festival, but for many jazz guitar lovers, Benson represents the mountaintop as someone whose career has spanned more ‘traditional’ jazz to being a pioneer who broke open the doors to what some consider to be a more accessible and popular jazz style. Same as anyone who charts new territory, Benson has certainly attracted his detractors who remain upset with his crossover appeal, but no one can dispute his immense talent nor his commitment to the music.
In a brief interview with the Michigan Chronicle, Benson spoke glowingly of his feelings about Detroit and Detroit’s contribution to the world of music.
What are some of your favorite memories of Detroit?
“The last time I was in Detroit we played at the casino [Motor City..?]. That was quite outstanding. It was awesome, man. Aretha Franklin came and hung out with us. Really great.”
“First of all, the Motor City is known for sound. It’s the best music city on the Planet Earth. Nobody can match Motown’s music. Years ago they had the great radio stations WCHD, WCHB, WJZZ, and I think Dr. Bell used to own that. But it was a funeral home! He was a funeral home director, or owner, and he had a radio station in back of the funeral home. And we used to have to go past the caskets to go in the back and talk on the radio in this little tiny booth. But you know something man? It was exciting, because we knew we were talking to a great deal of Detroiters, you know? Because they were tuned in to that station.”
“And my favorite thing at night when I got off from work, we used to work at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. And when I got off of work I used to ride up and down 8 Mile Road and listen to the radio at night. It was nothing more clear and more beautiful. So that part of my great memories of Detroit.”
First time he came to Detroit?
I played there with Jack McDuff, and they were just building a place called the 20 Grand. Remember that? The 20 Grand. I don’t know if it still exists, does it still exist? [Benson is told that the 20 Grand is long gone.] Shows you how fast time goes! It was brand new then, and I remember meeting Berry Gordy there. And he was a legend already because of all the wonderful music they were making at Motown. So I met him there. And I didn’t see him again for another 45 years. I just saw him, me and Al Jarreau were doing a TV show out in LA, and he happened to be there. So we got together and took some pictures and did a small interview. It was really incredible man.
So a lot of wonderful things have happened to me since then. My career blew up quite nicely.
Who are some of the Detroit musicians you’ve worked with?
I think Kenny Burrell is from Detroit, isn’t he? Yeah, he’s fabulous. He’s one of the top musicians out of Detroit. But of course all of the great ones in the R&B world, the pop world. Stevie Wonder, when he was a teenager, I met him. Smoky Robinson, I met him the week he got married to his first wife, Claudette. The very week he got married, I think it was back in 1961 or something like that, I met him.
Here’s a good story; one day, I was living in Hawaii on the island of Maui, now this is, like, I don’t know, 35 years later? And I saw a guy standing in front of the hotel with a guitar in his hand and I went up to him, because all guitar players are like brothers, and I said ‘Hey man, my name is George Benson. And he said ‘Hey, wow, George Benson!’ And I said ‘What are you doing?’ And he said ‘I play guitar with Smoky Robinson and The Miracles.’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ I looked at that [guitar] case and I said ‘How long you been playing with him?’ He said ‘Since the beginning’. I said, ‘Let me tell you what you got in that case. It is a Les Paul Custom. It’s black, it’s got three pickups on it, gold.’ He said, ‘Man, how did you know that?’ I said ‘Because I was there the week you bought it. It was brand new. And we had a great time talking about that.”
For the Jazz Festival, can you give us a preview of what to expect?
Yeah, I don’t have a set program. I don’t design a program. I walk out in front of that audience, and you know we got control of a lot of my repertoire, we can pick any section of what I do, and grab a few tunes from that section and do it. We know basically what people came to hear. So we come with the hits. We know what they come to hear. And then we throw some things in between. But we don’t have a set program, because if you have a set program and it starts going downhill, you have programmed in a downhill section and it’s hard to get out of that. So now, if something starts going downhill, I simply grab one of them ‘up’ tunes, and bring them right back up. That’s much better, I can tell you.”
“I got to mention Marvin Gaye too. The story about him coming to Motown after leaving the Moonglows, one of my favorite groups in history. Him and Harvey Fuqua, his manager. And they stumbled into Motown and ended up marrying Berry Gordy’s sisters. And so their life was actually made from that point on. But Marvin had so much talent, he actually brought something to the company. He brought a whole lot of money and sold a whole lot of records. But when he first came there he was really down and out. They were on their last leg, you know. It’s a great story, and it shows the power of Motown is what I’m saying. And the power of Berry Gordy that he recognized that talent and put him out front with his ‘A Team’ of musicians, including the great James Jamerson, who is one of my favorite musicians of all time. And Eli Fontaine. Motown means a lot to me.”
So what’s coming up in the future?
Seems like they’ve always got something for me to do! They’re thinking about doing a film about my life story. We got a book out, you know, about my life story. They’re thinking about turning it into a film.
The Detroit Jazz Festival begins this Friday, Sept. 2, and runs throughout Labor Day weekend, ending on Monday, Sept. 5. For more information, go to detroitjazzfest.com