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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX and Jazz24 celebrate highly regarded jazz creators who continue to inspire.

George Benson hopped from jazz to create pop and R&B standards

George Benson's latest album, <em>Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King</em> <em>Cole</em>, is a tribute to his hero.
Greg Allen
Courtesy of the artist
George Benson's 2013 album, Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole, is a tribute to his hero.

Hailed simply as one of the greatest guitarists in jazz history, George Benson is a masterful, versatile musician whose adept skills find him crossing easily between straight-ahead jazz, smooth jazz and contemporary R&B. As evident on his version of the 1963 song “On Broadway,” Benson’s 1978 recording wowed audiences with his smooth guitar playing, his charming voice and his insatiable ability to swing.

Turning 80 this year, George Benson actually started out professionally as a singer, performing in nightclubs at the age of eight, recording four sides for RCA's X label in 1954. Take a listen to Lil' Georgie Benson performing "Mona Lisa."

He formed a rock band at 17 while using a guitar that his stepfather made for him, he quickly made a reputation for himself as one of the best rhythm guitarists around. At 19, he first garnered attention as a member of the Brother Jack McDuff's band in the early ‘60s, performing with the master organist on their 1964 self-titled album. One of the highlights of the album was this swinging tune “Hot BBQ.”

Then with his 15th album in 1976, the breakthrough album Breezin’ topped the pop, R&B, and jazz charts and earned Grammy Awards for Best Pop Instrumental Performance and Record of the Year. Breezin’ was not only a chart-topper in the jazz category but also went to number one on the pop and R&B charts. It was certified triple platinum, and firmly established Benson as one of the best musicians, regardless of genre.

The success of Breezin’ led to a string of hit albums in an R&B-flavored pop mode, culminating with the Quincy Jones-produced Give Me The Night. However, jazz remained at the core of Benson’s sound, as showcased on 1989's standards album Tenderly, as well as 1990's Big Boss Band with the Count Basie Orchestra. In 1993, he scored another number one contemporary jazz album with Love Remembers and followed with several more chart-topping albums, including That’s Right and Standing Together.

George Benson’s six-decade career has been marked by awards, acclaim and plenty of billboard chart toppers. In 1990, Benson was awarded an Honorary doctorate of music from the Berklee College of Music and in 2009 was recognized by the National Endowment of the Arts as a Jazz Master. He has won 10 Grammy Awards and has been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He’s most definitely earned his place in the history books.

Born and raised in Seattle, Terae Stefon is a graduate of Franklin High School and attended Saint Martin’s University. Terae found his way into radio by volunteering at local community radio stations HollowEarth and RainierAvenue Radio and then at Total Traffic, keeping the region moving as a traffic reporter and producer.