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George Benson at Detroit Jazz Fest -- Five things to know

Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

Posted: Thursday, September 1, 2016

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It's easy to debate who the best jazz guitarist might be.

But you can rest assured George Benson's name is always part of the discussion.

The 73-year-old Pittsburgh native released his first single, "She Makes Me Mad," when he was 10 years old and hasn't looked back since, going on to work with the likes of Brother Jack McDuff, Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard and many others. On his own he helped bring jazz to the mainstream via hits such as "This masquerade," "The Greatest Love Of All" and his version of "On Broadway," and he joined forces with Aretha Franklin for "Love All The Hurt Away" in 1981.

The 10-time Grammy Award winner headlines the opening night of the Detroit Jazz Festival on Friday, Sept. 2. Here's five things you need to know about an august career that shows no signs of stopping any time soon...

* The Detroit Jazz Festival gives Benson another chance to visit a city whose musical heritage he's long admired. "I'm familiar with a lot of the artists that came up there -- Kenny Burrell and James Jamerson, people like that, even George Benson the sax player," he says with a laugh. "Detroit means a lot to the music world. To me it's the greatest music city of all time. So many wonderful things came out of Detroit, man."

* Benson has a long history with festival Artist In Residence Ron Carter, who played bass on several of his albums. "Ron Carter is one of the guys who changed my life with is artistry," Benson recalls. "When I came ot New York and started making records, my producer, Creed Taylor, wanted to use Ron and he came in and put a tuxedo on me. He came in and made my music sound very professional, very finished. It didn't have raggedy edges anymore; It sounded finished. I have to give him the credit for that."

* Though he want on to become a renowned guitarist, Benson actually started out playing ukulele when he was seven years old. "My stepfather realized my hands weren't large enough to play guitar, so he found a ukulele in a garbage can, all smashed to pieces," Benson remembers. "He glued it back together, put some strings it and taught me the first few chords. I made a fortune with that ukulele playing on street corners. One day my mother was waking me up for school and saw all this money spilling out from the pillow. 'Where'd you get all this money?' I made more money in a day on the street corner than she did in two weeks at the hospital."

* Benson's biggest album, the Grammy Award-winning "Breezin'," turns 40 this year. "It's hard to believe what it accomplished," he says now. "It changed the world -- starting with me. It turned me into somebody important. Where critics used to chop me up, and had plenty to chop up, people were so into that record that it made the critics look like they didn't know what they were talking about. The critics were always like, 'He can't do this, he can't do that,' and people were like, 'What George Benson are you talking about?' And by winning at the Grammy Awards, everything changed. People started calling us from all points of the world. Then right after that 'The Greatest Love Of All' came out a year later, and then next year something altogether different happened with 'On Broadway.'"

* With a new album as well as a project with doo-wop singer Little Anthony on the horizon, there's no exit strategy in sight from the music business for Benson. "I've been trying to retire for 20 years, man. They won't let me!" he says with a laugh. "My wife says, 'You got enough yet?' But people keep calling me with fresh ideas, and I can't turn down more money in one night than I used ot make in 10 years, y'know? It just doesn't make any sense. I come from a poor background. I've got a lot of people I'd like to help, so I just keep playing when they ask me to."

George Benson

9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 2.

JPMorgan Chase Main Stage at the Detroit Jazz Festival near Campus Martius Park, downtown Detroit.

Admission is free. VIP packages are available.

Visit detroitjazzfest.com for full schedules and other information.

Web Site: www.detroitjazzfest.com

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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