The Early Years
Benson was born and raised in the Hill District in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the age of seven, he first played the ukulele in a corner drug store, for which he was paid a few dollars. At the age of eight, he played guitar in an unlicensed nightclub on Friday and Saturday nights, but the police soon closed the club down. At the age of 10, he recorded his first single record, “She Makes Me Mad”, with RCA-Victor in New York, under the name “Little Georgie”.
At the age of 21, he recorded his first album as leader, The New Boss Guitar, featuring McDuff. Benson’s next recording was It’s Uptown with the George Benson Quartet, including Lonnie Smith on organ and Ronnie Cuber on baritone saxophone. Benson followed it up with The George Benson Cookbook, also with Lonnie Smith and Ronnie Cuber on baritone and drummer Marion Booker. Miles Davis employed Benson in the mid-1960s, featuring his guitar on “Paraphernalia” on his 1968 Columbia release, Miles in the Sky before going to Verve Records.
Benson then signed with Creed Taylor’s jazz label CTI Records, where he recorded several albums, with jazz heavyweights guesting, to some success, mainly in the jazz field. His 1974 release, Bad Benson, climbed to the top spot in the Billboard jazz chart.
1970’s to 1980’s
By the mid- to late-1970s, as he recorded for Warner Bros. Records, a whole new audience began to discover Benson. With the 1976 release Breezin’, Benson sang a lead vocal on the track “This Masquerade”, which became a huge pop hit and won a Grammy Award for Record of the Year.
In 1976, George Benson appeared as a guitarist and backup vocalist on Stevie Wonder’s song “Another Star” from Wonder’s album Songs in the Key of Life. He also recorded the original version of “The Greatest Love of All” for the 1977 Muhammad Ali bio-pic, The Greatest, which was later covered by Whitney Houston as “Greatest Love of All”. During this time Benson recorded with the German conductor Claus Ogerman. The live take of “On Broadway”, recorded a few months later from the 1978 release Weekend in L.A., also won a Grammy. He has worked with Freddie Hubbard on a number of his albums throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
The Qwest record label (a subsidiary of Warner Bros., run by Quincy Jones) released Benson’s breakthrough pop album Give Me The Night, produced by Jones. Benson made it into the pop and R&B top ten with the song “Give Me the Night” (written by former Heatwave keyboardist Rod Temperton). He got many hit singles such as “Love All the Hurt Away”, “Turn Your Love Around”, “Inside Love”, “Lady Love Me”, “20/20”, “Shiver”, “Kisses in the Moonlight”. More importantly, Quincy Jones encouraged Benson to search his roots for further vocal inspiration, and he re-discovered his love for Nat Cole, Ray Charles and Donny Hathaway in the process, influencing a string of further vocal albums into the 1990s.
1990’s to Present
To commemorate the long-term relationship between Benson and Ibanez and to celebrate 30 years of collaboration on the GB Signature Models, Ibanez created the GB30TH, a very limited-edition model featuring a gold-foil finish inspired by the traditional Japanese Garahaku art form. In 2009, Benson was recognized by the National Endowment of the Arts as a Jazz Master, the nation’s highest honor in jazz. Benson performed at the 49th issue of the Ohrid Summer Festival in Macedonia on July 25, 2009, and his tribute show to Nat King Cole An Unforgettable Tribute to Nat King Cole as part of the Istanbul International Jazz Festival in Turkey on July 27. In the fall of 2009, Benson finished recording a new album entitled Songs and Stories, with Marcus Miller, producer John Burk, and session musicians David Paich and Steve Lukather.
In June 2013, Benson released his fourth album for Concord Records, Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole, which featured Wynton Marsalis, Idina Menzel, Till Brönner, and Judith Hill. In September, he returned to perform at Rock in Rio festival, in Rio de Janeiro, 35 years after his first performance at this festival, which was then the inaugural one.
In July 2017, Benson mark’s his 40th anniversary and Ibanez has created a limited run of his signature guitars for the occasion.