Charlie Christian is the Adam and Eve of electric jazz guitar. He is followed by Wes Montgomery who, in turn, is a half-step ahead of Joe Pass, Tal Farlow, Bucky Pizzarelli, George Benson and many other great players. I am not judging on their talents, of course, since that is something that I am incapable of doing. The ranking refers to their profiles.
Richard Ginell makes an interesting point in his AllMusic profile: Like Nat King Cole, Benson is a virtuoso on his instrument and, like Cole, his mainstream breakthrough came as a vocalist. His virtuosity on guitar came second. Cole unfortunately died before he could circle back and get credit from the public for his fabulous piano playing. That acclaim came, but too late. Benson, Ginell writes, is here to enjoy it.
Perhaps Benson realized this. Last year, he released a tribute album to Cole.
Here is the beginning of Benson’s AllMusic bio:
George Benson is simply one of the greatest guitarists in jazz history, but he is also an amazingly versatile musician, and that frustrates to no end critics who would paint him into a narrow bop box. He can play in just about any style — from swing to bop to R&B to pop — with supreme taste, a beautiful rounded tone, terrific speed, a marvelous sense of logic in building solos, and, always, an unquenchable urge to swing. His inspirations may have been Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery — and he can do dead-on impressions of both — but his style is completely his own. Not only can he play lead brilliantly, he is also one of the best rhythm guitarists around, supportive to soloists and a dangerous swinger, particularly in a soul-jazz format. Yet Benson can also sing in a lush, soulful tenor with mannerisms similar to those of Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, and it is his voice that has proved to be more marketable to the public than his guitar. Benson is the guitar-playing equivalent of Nat King Cole — a fantastic pianist whose smooth way with a pop vocal eventually eclipsed his instrumental prowess in the marketplace — but unlike Cole, Benson has been granted enough time after his fling with the pop charts to reaffirm his jazz guitar credentials, which he still does at his concerts. (Continue Reading…)
Wikipedia offers the straight-ahead bio:
Benson was born and raised in the Hill District in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the age of seven, he first played the ukulele in a corner drug store, for which he was paid a few dollars. At the age of eight, he played guitar in an unlicensed nightclub on Friday and Saturday nights, but the police soon closed the club down. At the age of 10, he recorded his first single record, “She Makes Me Mad”, with RCA-Victor in New York, under the name “Little Georgie”.
Benson attended and graduated Schenley High School. As a youth, instead, he learned how to play straight-ahead instrumental jazz during a relationship performing for several years with organist Jack McDuff. One of his many early guitar heroes was country-jazz guitarist Hank Garland. At the age of 21, he recorded his first album as leader, The New Boss Guitar, featuring McDuff. (Continue Reading….)
Above, a young Benson plays the Newport Jazz Festival in 1966. Please let me know the name of the song, which is unidentified. Below is “Lately.”
(Homepage Photo: Greg Allen)