It was 1964, right around the time people were driving the final nails into Atlantic City’s tourism coffin.
No one knew it at the time, but Frank Sinatra had played his last gig at his pal Skinny D’Amato’s famous 500 Club, the last of the A-listers to grace the stage of the Fives. From then on, Skinny was happy to get B-list stars to entertain the C-list out-of-towners who’d remained loyal to Atlantic City as their vacation playground or — more likely — couldn’t afford plane tickets to more exotic destinations like Miami Beach, the Caribbean, the Bahamas and Hawaii.
But this down-on-her-heels dowager of a tourist spot and convention town still had a strong nightlife pulse at “KY and The Curb,” which is what hipsters of the day called the intersection of Kentucky and Arctic avenues. With places like the legendary Club Harlem and, a few steps away, the Wonder Garden nightclub, Kentucky Avenue had become the entertainment epicenter of Atlantic City.
And there, soaking it all in and gaining a musical education while earning a paycheck, was “Little Georgie” from Pittsburgh. “Little Georgie” was barely old enough to order a drink when he played guitar for the Wonder Garden headliner, the jazz organist known as Brother Jack McDuff.
History will reflect that not long after he underwent his baptism by booze in Atlantic City, “Little Georgie” was able to shed his nickname in favor of the one on his birth certificate, which read George Benson.
When I saw that Benson was coming to Harrah’s Resort for a one-night stand this Saturday, it reminded me of an interview I’d done with him about 10 years ago prior to another casino gig. Only it wasn’t an interview. It turned into more of a nostalgic and wistful chat that was part history lesson and part vicarious walk to KY and the Curb.
I figured it would be an exercise in futility to locate either the tape or my notes from that session. I’ve saved just about everything career-related over the years; locating where individual items live is a different story. But miracles do happen: Turns out the notes were on an old CD that I used to store backup files.
Benson recalled his early years working his way through the ranks of the music business, and said he always loved when McDuff or any of the other bands he used to play with had an extended run in Atlantic City.
When the Wonder Garden sets ended at about 3am, the night (or morning) was just beginning for Benson. Before the last notes faded, he was already out the door and headed down Kentucky Avenue to Grace’s Little Belmont, a bar across the street from the Club Harlem where the barkeep — Elvera “Baby” Sanchez — was as much a local legend as her son was a global one. His name was Sammy Davis, Jr.
“Oh, man, Grace’s was where I taught [jazz composer and organist] Charlie Earland chord changes,” Benson recalled. “See, Charlie, he played by ear, just like me. Only thing is, my ear was a little more finely tuned for harmonies. Charlie, he had a gift for rhythm. So he helped me with rhythms and I helped him out on the melodies. Those were some very special days. We had a lot of fun every time we worked Atlantic City.”
Benson’s accounts of the early days of his life and career are included in his just-off-the-presses Benson: The Autobiography. Atlantic City was always a special place for him to perform, first as a sideman for better-known artists and then as a jazz-crossover star who had hit singles on the pop, R&B and jazz charts, like “Give Me the Night,” “This Masquerade” and “On Broadway.”
As he’s done throughout his career, Benson remains relevant not necessarily by reinventing himself, but by reinventing the musical company he keeps. He takes great delight in surprising his audience by occasionally working with artists who are just a little outside his musical box.
At 71, he stays on top of contemporary music trend and has worked with — and learned from — younger artists like Mary J. Blige and, before her, the acid jazz band Nuyorican Soul.
His most recent album, 2013’s Inspiration, is a tribute to the late Nat King Cole and features an all-star lineup of contributors, including Wynton Marsalis, Idina Menzel and Judy Hill.
Of all his hits, both instrumental and vocal, Benson seems to like “This Masquerade” the most, not necessarily because of his performance but for the arrangement. “What a lot of people don’t realize about the song is that it’s basically the exact same chords and changes as [the saloon ballad] ‘Angel Eyes,’” he explains. “That’s one of the reasons why jazz musicians love to play that song.”
Benson also credited Leon Russell, who originally wrote the song for himself in 1972, with creating the arrangement that Benson used to make the song a hit. For Russell, the song was merely the “B” side to a single. “Leon was a genius with the way he wrote that song,” Benson said. “He topped the original melody in a way so that it wasn’t just a jazz song, and that’s why audiences accepted it as a pop tune.” n
Watch the Emmy-winning Curtain Call with David Spatz,
Saturdays at 6pm on WMGM-TV NBC40.
Saturday, Oct. 25. 9pm. Concert Venue at Harrah’s Resort, 777 Harrah’s Blvd., A.C. Tickets: $55–$85. 800.745.3000. harrahsresort.com