As a child prodigy raised in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, he first began performing at the age of seven and was known as “little Georgie Benson,” playing the ukulele and singing. He switched to the guitar when he was nine because, he says, he needed the guitar to back up his singing.
By the age of 10, George Benson recorded his first single record in New York called “She Makes Me Mad,” but his mother insisted he stop for a while. “She saw what was happening and cut it off so that I got a chance to be a child again,” says Benson, who will be performing at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside on Oct.23.
Born to a teenage mother and father who were singers but never performed professionally, he explains that his birth father got caught up in the war, so Benson was ultimately raised by his mother and stepfather, a man who played the guitar.
“He came over one day, plugged in his guitar, and that’s when I saw an electric device for the first time,” Benson explains. “Before that I had been living in a place without any electricity, so for a little boy of seven I was definitely hooked.”
By his teenage years, he had stopped singing for the most part to focus more on his instrumental work, which was to become significant.
Benson first came to prominence in the 1960s playing jazz with the likes of Jack McDuff. “Jack didn’t like singers because he said they always grabbed the spotlight from musicians. So for the almost three years that I spent with him I got the opportunity to just play my guitar,” Benson says.
Along the way, after he left McDuff, Benson launched a successful solo career , alternating between jazz, pop, R&B singing and scat singing, and he topped the Billboard 200 in 1976 with the triple-platinum album, “Breezin’.”
More and more success followed over the years, including 10 Grammy Awards. But Benson admits that one of the highlights of his long career was when he was first referred to as a “guitarist,” saying “That was a really a big moment for me because they used to call me just a guitar player. But when I was called a guitarist, I felt big, like I had just graduated.”
Benson’s current release is “Guitar Man,” a 12-song collection that includes a mix of jazz and pop standards, and features what Benson describes as an old school approach. “We figured that we would get the best energy if we went into the studio with some live musicians who are savvy and flexible.”
The album includes such songs as “Tenderly,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Paper Moon” and others.
For Benson, putting a jazz spin on pop standards is less of a taboo when you’re willing to dispense with labels and limitations. He says, “People categorize things because they need to find someplace to put them on their shelf. It’s all music to me. I think a lot of pop tunes that were very big in the United States many years ago were recorded by jazz musicians playing in the background. Most of the Motown records were recorded that way.
“To my way of thinking,” he continues, “there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. There are a lot of things in between, but they’re eventually going to fall on one side or the other of that equation. As far as playing my music today, I feel very comfortable. I‘ve always been onstage. I really don‘t remember doing anything else. So this is what suits me best.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 572-7650.