Hard to know where to start with this – because every time I listen to George Benson’s Weekend In L.A. album I’m sure I’m hearing the best gig ever. And that record’s nearly as old as me – I grew up with it; one of the albums from my childhood/of my childhood – the way my parents listened to Lou Rawls and George Benson and Manhattan Transfer and so on you’d think they were drinking Miami Wine Cooler and doing lines of blow off each other while me and my brother slept. In actual fact they were bringing home cars from the yard where my dad worked and both setting down to do a full valet service in the garage, a couple of cars a night and a few more in the weekends – working hard so that I could one day go to university (and it was, I’m reliably informed, for just the one day) and inherit their record collection and take the piss out of how I thought they were doing cocaine given all the music they were listening to.
I interviewed George Benson once. One of the absolute highlights of my “career” doing whatever it is I do – hobby-writing for scraps. It’s really not a career. But man it was cool to talk to George Benson. Nicest guy and all of that – but also he just had some stories man. He talked about being 18 years old and sitting in on a Miles Davis session; getting the call up. You realise you’re lucky – something people tell you far too often – when you get a chance to sit on the phone with someone telling you stories like that. Describe Miles Davis for me was what I said. His reply: “Genius, very dark. Possibly evil”. Superb. He had other badass stories too – the song Give Me The Night was the last thing recorded for that album – in a haze of Devil’s Dandruff they worked through the night to get one more song for the record. BOOM!
And the best story from George? Well that was easy. He told me about the best compliment he ever received: “Marvin Gaye and I were friends. We used to hang a little. And we were in this club one night and the band playing was really horrible. And I suggested we go up to play and Marvin said ‘nah, man, I can’t get up there with you’. I asked him why. I wondered if he didn’t want to hurt the band’s feelings. He said ‘nah man, I can’t get up there with George. You are the baddest cat on the planet!’ So that is the story of the best compliment I ever received”.
When I spoke with George Benson it was to promote his 2010 show – a tribute to Nat King Cole. In some ways that was (almost) a better show than the time I saw him in 2004. It wasn’t just a tribute to Nat King Cole – not that there’d be anything wrong with that. He kicked through all the good-good things you’d expect him to do after paying wonderful tribute to Nature Boy and all of that. He did Turn Your Love Around and Give Me The Night and On Broadway and…I was going to say all that jazz, but well, that’s always been one of the criticisms people throw at Benson: he turned his back on jazz.
Now I can’t lie – some of his albums post-1980 haven’t meant a whole lot to me – there have been moments when he’s returned to jazz, tributes to Nat King and Count Basie in particular – where he gets it right. But there have been schmaltzy, ballady things I just don’t care about. Immaculate and all of that, and of course that’s (just) part of the problem…
So I remember a conversation with a friend after the 2004 gig. He lectured me on how George Benson had sold out and how he should have played a set of the great jazz things he was doing in the 60s because you could see that he still had that facility – it was all still there. He was capable. More than. But instead he dished out disco-cheese. And why would you do that if you could still be one of the great jazz guitar players.
I tried to suggest that many of the audience were there for exactly what he gave them: the disco-cheese, the soul-lite, whatever you want to call it. They wanted that and he delivered and was a great showman. And yeah, okay, sure, my tape of The George Benson Collection where he burns through Summertime and A Foggy Day and my CD of Miles In The Sky (with George tearing it out on Paraphernalia) meant as much to me as mum and dad’s records of Breezin’ and Give Me The Night and Weekend In L.A. – heck, often they meant a whole lot more – but fuck me that was a good gig.
Love X Love and Moody’s Mood For Love and Breezin’ and Star of The Story and – yeah, fuck you I’ll stump up for it, in this context, even The Greatest Love of All – were all good things. All great things even. And he had a good band – of course he had a good band. And he had some pep and some swagger and he was the right kind of slick. And if he was coasting – well then, to a degree, George Benson has always been coasting.
Hey, but, never give up on a good thing – the concert (both of them actually, but in a minute you’ll see why I’m considering the 2004 one as The Best Gig Ever) was good anyway/great anyway. And then right at the end something happened – one magic moment. Something that tipped it over, made it the ultimate celebration.
George is back on the stage for the final encore and he says that line in On Broadway, “I can play this here guitar” – but he poses it, cheekily, as I’m sure he almost-always does in gigs, as a question. He goes, “but I can play this here guitar?” And the place erupts. So that’s super-cool too. But the very best thing that night is that as he’s leaving the stage a guy in the crowd – it was a seated gig but the audience is popping big time and the aisles are flooded, fans are up and on their feet, and so fucking what if a handful of jazz school lecturers walked out because they didn’t get White Rabbit or Oleo or Take Five or whatever the fuck they were dreaming/scheming/then-fuming, the real magic wasn’t even a note from Benson’s gat or throat, the real magic was when one canny chap – who had waited all night to pick the very right moment – lunged forward with a marker-pen and the LP cover of Give Me The Night. Benson smirked, he’d received some flowers, blown some kisses, done a few handshakes and bumped knuckles, a high-five even, though he’d had to stoop from the stage and fly it in on an angle. And so then he sees this record cover, there’s a pause, the crowd cheer – as if to say “do it, George! Do it!” And he does it. He signs. He signs! And he hands it back quick-smart and tears out with a wave knowing he can’t be there all night – it won’t be as special if every motherfucker suddenly pulls a record cover out from their shoulder bag.
This guy – who has just had his night made – turns to face the sea of faces, addressing the audience with a two-handed record-cover thrust, he pushes Give Me The Night up and into all of our faces – it’s got our attention. And the crowd lets out a roar – as big as for any of the songs from that night. For that one brief moment we all owned Give Me The Night (hey, most of us probably do/did). But right then, right there, we all owned THAT copy – that guy had got it signed for all of us. The guy on stage – Mr. Benson – had signed it for all of us. One lucky punter worked hard for that. Picked his moment. Got the gift. But really it was a gift to us all. We all shared in it. One guy went home with the signed record cover, and everyone – everyone (give or take the odd jazz-purist bore) went home elated, feeling part of something, part of everything – of it all. We’d shared in a moment. We’d bonded. We had been an audience. Together. We’d all seen a great gig and shared a very special thing.