How Benson Changed Course and Did the Same for Jazz; Arts & Entertainment Grammy Award-Winner George Benson Upset the Jazz World When He Adopted a Different Style. but, as He Prepares for a Gig in Wales, He Tells Gavin Allen Why He's Never Been Afraid to Compromise
Byline: Gavin Allen
"NO ONE ever does anything different without being criticised for it," says jazz and R'n'B luminary George Benson
"Even Einstein was called a fool in his lifetime because he was thinking outside of the box."
In moments of musical history, it isn't quite Bob Dylan being called "Judas" for swapping acoustic for electric, but the day George Benson "sold out" that has always left a mark on his distinguished career.
In the mid-'70s, Benson was a very successful jazz guitarist who, as well as playing with the likes of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, enjoyed a widely-respected solo career.
But when he released the album Breezin' (1976), the 23rd of a prolific career, everything changed for him.
Led by the instrumental single of the same name, Breezin' became an unexpected smash hit and was the first jazz album to hit No 1 on the US chart - a historic breakthrough for jazz in the mainstream - and it has sold tens of millions.
"My life changed, collaterally," says Benson from his home in Arizona.
"And it swept jazz along on a vibe that didn't exist before."
That album also contained a hit single called This Masquerade, which shocked the jazz world because Benson sang R'n'B-style vocals on the track.
The jazz critics, perceiving him as only as a jazz guitarist, turned on him.
"I expected it," he says.
"I have seen what criticism does to people.
"I saw one great artist, Count Basie, who made one commercial record in his life, it was called Baby Elephant Walk, and regardless of the 500 or more great jazz or swing cuts he made, they slaughtered him for it.
"But when Breezin' came out I was a mature man.
"If I had been a young man I don't think I would have been able to take the criticism."
Benson didn't see singing as abandoning pure jazz, he saw it as thinking creatively.
"I can play swing and jazz and, truth be told, I prefer those, but if you can't get airplay on the radio with those..."he says, the sentence tailing off.
"I changed my way of thinking."
Time has validated Benson's judgement and he is now being re-embraced by the jazz establishment, having been named as one of the 2009 Jazz Masters - America's highest jazz honour - for his remarkable ability to play elaborate guitar lines and scat them simultaneously.
"And that's despite my criticism from the jazz fraternity for my 'crossover status' as they call it," he chuckles.
Benson purrs his words like a real hep cat, drawling some and zipping through others as if his sentences were songs in themselves and he bookends them with the pleasantries of a naturalised southern gentleman. …