George Benson - guitar; Charlie Covington - organ; Harold Ousley - tenor sax, flute; Leo Morris - drums
By 1969, George Benson was in the midst of being reinvented and repackaged as a more accessible guitar star. Coming up in the mid-'60s as a torrid bop-oriented soloist and highly touted heir to Wes Montgomery (who died on June 15, 1968), Benson began melding popular elements into his music as early as 1968 (on Giblet Gravy, which included covers of the Association's "Along Came Mary" and the Young Rascals' "Groovin'"). The following year, producer Creed Taylor recruited Don Sebesky, who had provided the lush arrangements on Montgomery's 1966 hit recording, California Dreaming, to provide orchestral sweetening on Shape of Things to Come, Benson's debut on A&M Records.
Benson and his quartet (sans strings and brass) hit the Newport stage on this Thursday evening to recreate material from Shape of Things to Come. Opening with that album's title track, Benson and company warm up the crowd with a soul-jazz interpretation of Barry Mann's tune from the 1968 teensploitation flick Wild in the Streets. Harold Ousley is featured on flute here while Charlie Covington offers a killer Hammond B-3 solo. Benson kicks in a typically fluid guitar solo (though on an uncharacteristically trebly-sounding guitar). From that relatively innocuous pop ditty, the quartet launches into a smoking rendition of Thelonious Monk's "Straight No Chaser." Ousley really -opens up on this up-tempo cooker, blowing with boppish authority on tenor sax while organist Covington stokes the heated proceedings with surging bass lines and forceful old school comping. Benson begins his solo with deliberate picking before gradually unleashing some single note pyrotechnics, eventually shifting to deft chord soloing at the culmination of his exhilarating solo. Covington adds a sizzling solo without dropping a beat on his walking left hand bass lines. And they all engage in some fiery exchanges of eights with drummer Leo Morris (later known as Idris Muhammad) at the tag.
Benson's funky boogaloo "Footin' It" (which he co-wrote with Sebesky) is an easy-grooving showcase for some soulful playing by the guitarist and by Ousley on flute. They next slide into an instrumental rendition of the ballad "Face It," a popular hit in 1968 for singer Nancy Wilson. And they close their set in upbeat fashion with a lively Latinized soul-jazz reading of "Don't Let Me Lose This Dream," which was composed by Aretha Franklin and Teddy White and appeared on the Queen of Soul's 1967 Atlantic album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.
Benson would continue his crossover phase in earnest through the early '70s with producer Creed Taylor and arranger Don Sebesky on a series of appealing CTI albums. Following the overwhelming success of his triple platinum-selling 1976 release on Warner Bros., Breezin', he became an international superstar as well known for his smooth, soulful vocals as his fabled guitar chops.
Born in Pittsburgh on March 22, 1943, the multi-Grammy-winning artist was a child prodigy who started out singing at age eight and recorded two singles for RCA by age 11. Inspired by guitar greats Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, he became interested in jazz and by 1962 was playing in organist Jack McDuff's soul-jazz quartet. He recorded his first album as a leader in 1964 (The New Boss Guitar of George Benson with the Jack McDuff Quartet) and formed his first group in 1965 (with organist Lonnie Smith, baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber and drummer Jimmy Lovelace), later releasing It's Uptown on the Columbia label (produced by super talent scout John Hammond, who had discovered such great artists as Charlie Christian, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and Bob Dylan).
Benson switched to the Verve label in 1967 and recorded on Miles Davis' Miles in the Sky in 1968, the year he began working with producer Creed Taylor and arranger Don Sebesky on the A&M label (1968's Shape of Things to Come, 1969's Tell It Like It Is and 1970's Beatles tribute, The Other Side of Abbey Road). Following a string of successful recordings on Creed Taylor's CTI label (1971's Beyond the Blue Horizon 1972's White Rabbit, 1973's Body Talk, 1974's Bad Benson, and 1975's Good King Bad), Benson was recruited to Warner Bros. by Tommy LiPuma, who produced Breezin', which became a Top Ten hit on the strength of its sole vocal track, Leon Russell's "This Masquerade." Benson followed with a string of commercial hit albums through the '70s, '80s, and '90s with occasional forays into jazz, notably 1989's Tenderly (featuring pianist McCoy Tyner and bassist Ron Carter) and 1990's Big Boss Band (with the Count Basie Orchestra). His most recent release is Stories and Songs, a contemporary jazz outing produced by bassist Marcus Miller for the Concord Jazz label. (Milkowski)