Even after nearly a lifetime as a performer, acclaimed guitarist-singer George Benson strives to stay in the moment each time he takes the stage.
With a career that spans jazz, R&B, soul and funk, the 10-time Grammy-winner waits until he’s in front of an audience before deciding on the direction of his set.
“I draw from the energy coming from the audience and play what I think they will enjoy most at the particular time,” says Benson, who performs 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, at the Superstar Theater at Resorts Casino Hotel.
“I like variety, and I like dipping into different aspects of my recording career and pulling out stuff that’s been tested over the years. I make sure the people that come are glad they came. My goal is to make sure this experience is one they will enjoy and remember.”
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This approach also helps to engage Benson, who gave one of his very first performances at the age of 7, playing ukulele in front of a corner drugstore in his native Pittsburgh.
“I got bored with the same thing all over again,” he says. “There are no two nights the same because of the improvisational aspect. I have musicians that can improv very well and a great rhythm section. I don’t stop cats from being who they are.”
Benson himself has been fortunate in being able to explore his musical identity as an instrumentalist and a vocalist over the course of his six-decades-long career. He recorded his first tracks at the age of 10, and by age 21 had released his first headlining album, “The New Boss Guitar of George Benson.”
He continued in the jazz vein throughout the 1960s and early ’70s, working with the likes of Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine.
His pop success came in the mid-’70s with his album, “Breezin’,” which topped the Billboard pop, R&B and jazz charts, and allowed him to move back and forth among different genres.
“I was so glad to get an audience, because I had been playing nightclubs with maybe three people in the place,” he recalls. “The jazz clubs had really gone downhill at the time, unless you were Miles Davis or a super jazz artist.”
“Breezin’” also yielded one of Benson’s biggest hit singles, “This Masquerade,” which won the 1977 Grammy for “Record of the Year.”
“It sold gobs of records,” he says. “It changed everything.”
Benson would go on to record many more pop and R&B hits over the next decade, including “The Greatest Love of All,” “On Broadway,” “Love All the Hurt Away” and “Turn Your Love Around.”
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The hits naturally figure prominently in his live shows.
“If you get a hit record, you better be ready to play it, because this is what they’re going to be asking for,” he says. “I had a lot of incredibly nice songs that were well produced that I don’t mind performing them again. It’s a joy that people still love them after all these years.”
While the songs may remain the same, Benson’s solos will be different every time. There’s a risk to mixing things up, he acknowledges, but also hopefully a reward.
“It might be good or might be mediocre, but I’m always searching for excellence,” he says. “I’m digging deep, trying to find something that will knock folks out. That’s what jazz does.
“You don’t know what you’re going to get, but it’s fun trying to get there.”
Why Nat King Cole is still Benson’s musical king
The iconic singer Nat King Cole, who was also an acclaimed pianist, helped provide a career model for guitarist-vocalist George Benson to pursue his own hybrid musical identity.
Benson officially got to pay tribute to his idol with his 2013 album, “Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole.”
“He was always my No. 1 cat — I thought he was the best of the best,” he says. “He was a fantastic musician, and as a singer, he was in a class by himself. At a time when it was almost impossible, he crossed over to other genres with ease, and I always wanted to be like that.”