For the famed American jazz guitarist and vocalist George Benson, playing at London's Ronnie Scott's in 2019 was sort of a homecoming: it was his first performance at the venerable jazz club in 45 years. After playing for many years at large venues throughout his long career, Benson made a return to his early club roots with that appearance in London.
"It's such a great place to be, to hear music," he recalls now. "Not too many people, but enough. It has the club atmosphere. Everybody's comfortable and they got their own space. A very, very nice place to play."
That performance at Ronnie Scott's from last year has now been documented for posterity on Benson's new live album Weekend in London, which came out on Friday.A sequel of sorts to his previous live release, 1978's Weekend in L.A., Weekend in London showcases Benson's trademark guitar licks and soulful singing accompanied by a superlative band. "It was very successful and it was a double album," Benson says of Weekend in L.A. "It was gigantic [going platinum]. We're hoping to have some success with this one [Weekend in London] too. It was a lot of fun doing it."
Benson remembers how physically close he was to the audience he was at Ronnie Scott's (whose capacity is 250), a departure from the bigger places he's accustomed to performing at. "People were right up on you. You're looking down into a guy's rum and Coke or beer, and his girlfriend is going crazy and his foot is tapping too. It's a challenge but a normal challenge.
I haven't played on that scale in a long time. But I had the experience and they're never going to go away. I did that for years in the early part of my career. We did all kinds of clubs in New York and across America. It brought back some good vibes."
The set list on Weekend in London contains Benson's signature hits ("Give Me the Night," "Turn Your Love Around," "Love x Love," "Never Give Up on a Good Thing"), deep cuts ("Nothing's Gonna Change My Love for You," "Moody's Mood") and instrumentals ("Cruise Control"). It also includes a number of cover songs, such as "Feel Like Makin' Love" by Roberta Flack and "The Ghetto" by the late soul singer Donnie Hathaway.
"I actually used to write songs with him," Benson remembers about Hathaway. "I used to go up to his apartment in midtown Manhattan. He'd sit at the piano and play some of the most incredible stuff you ever heard. He was a trained musician, he was not just a guy off the street who was making up stuff as he went along. He was schooled in harmony and rhythm. His great asset was his voice. When he opened his mouth to sing, man it was like magic."
Also on Weekend in London is Benson's live rendition of the old Dave Bartholomew's song "I Hear You Knocking,'" which the guitarist previously recorded for his most recent studio album Walking to New Orleans (It was recorded by R&B singer Smiley Lewis in 1955 and then covered by the English rocker Dave Edmunds in 1970).
"I didn't think it was going to go across, but the people loved it," Benson says of his version of the song. "Especially when I performed it live, people really related to it. I didn't know people knew that song—I understand there was a hit not too long ago. But they knew the song. I started singing it and people started singing it with us, And I went, 'Wow, people can't be that old,' because that song came out in the late '50s early '60s."
When it comes to devising the set list for a gig, Benson explains that he kind of makes it up as he goes along. "When I get out in front of the audience, I take in the vibe from the room, Once I get off the ground, I do something that makes them get up and make them glad they came that night. Some people think we're tired of playing [the songs], but we're not. Those are the things that make us who we are. So somewhere during the night, the very songs they came to hear they'll probably get to hear before the show is over.
"We try to mix it [up]," he continues. "I think variety is the spice of life, so I keep variety going on in my show."
Meanwhile, Benson is planning to make a return visit to the U.K. next year, including a concert date at London's Royal Albert Hall. The pandemic has temporarily sidelined him from touring this year, but he recently performed as part of a virtual live stream concert series by his friend and fellow jazz musician Marcus Miller.
"Man that was nice," says Benson of that experience. "I hadn't played for a while. I was a little skeptical. But when I hit the stage, it all came back to me. Of course, I hadn't used my voice in a while—it was a little scary on that side." (laughs)
Aside from his resumption of touring, next year will also mark a milestone for the veteran jazz star: the 45th anniversary of his major breakthrough album Breezin'. Benson was already an established guitar player with a number of albums under his belt, but it was Breezin' that proved to be a crossover smash. Propelled by the classic title instrumental song and a soulful interpretation of Leon Russell's "This Masquerade," Breezin' went triple platinum and won three Grammys.
"We knew it was not going to be an ordinary album because there were so many good things that were happening to us," says Benson of Breezin'. "First of all, I don't think we ever did a studio album in Los Angeles. So that was nice. I had Al Schmitt, one of the greatest engineers in the world. I didn't know how great he was until I heard the album back. [Producer] Tommy LiPuma was a fan of my vocals.
He had heard me sing five years earlier. And his question to me was, 'I can't understand why they don't use your voice more?' He was talking about the other record company [I was with at the time] CTI Records. When he said that, it stuck in my mind. So when I signed the contract to record for Warner Bros. Records, I asked for him to produce the record. Boy was that a great decision."
Benson is now into his seventh decade of his career (dating back to his 1964 debut album The New Boss Guitar of George Benson)—one that included recording hit albums and songs on the jazz and pop charts as well as collaborating with the likes of Miles Davis, Al Jarreau, Mary J. Blige, and the virtual rock band Gorillaz. So what keeps him still motivated after all these years?
"I still have the same regimen," he says. "I wake up in the morning, I look for a guitar—that's the first thing I want in my hands. I have about 60 guitars strategically located in this house. I reach out and grab [one]. I've been doing that for many years and it's a great habit. It keeps me on the cutting edge improvisationally—I'm always thinking of something different to do."