George Benson was one of my first introductions to jazz music through my dad, who was a huge fan of his. My dad also loved Wes Montgomery, so enjoying Benson’s music made perfect sense. After singing, performing, recording, and releasing music for 60+ years, Benson has released an autobiography that is the story of his life and career starting as a kid inspired by his environment in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Because of how many hits Benson has had in his career, it is possible that you may only know him for what you hear all the time on the radio, be it “Give Me The Night”, “This Masquerade”, “The Greatest Love Of All”, “On Broadway”, or “Breezin'”. These are great songs but they aren’t everything Benson is made of. You may be a jazz fan and know how he recorded albums for the CTI, Verve, and Columbia Records, and did sessions for countless musicians and singers throughout his career. You may dispute yourself over whether he’s a better singer or guitarist, or that he’s better off doing one than the other. The truth is, he’s good at both and even if you’re not a fan of one side of his music, Benson has had many sides of his career and he gets into it throughout this book. We get to know about how he lived on what was essentially an alley way, but how he didn’t make it an issue because growing up, it wasn’t an issue. He speaks of some of the people in his neighborhood, including those who may have given him a bad influence but it seems he didn’t take to it. He touches on how his talents became a factor in getting different jobs and tasks, all of which lead him from one place to another while staying in Pittsburgh. In time, people with New York connections wanted to work with him, which isn’t bad for someone who went into a recording studio for the first time at the age of 10. Not bad for someone who simply used his voice and playing a homemade ‘ukulele.
The book gets into how he started playing blues and jazz clubs, which introduced him to well known jazz musicians in Pittsburgh, which also helped open him to the world that awaited him. The bulk of the book focuses on his youth before he started to work for Prestige, Verve, and CTI Records, so if you ever wanted to know what lead him to reach the level he is now known for, you’ll read it here. The Warner Bros. period of the book is nice too, as you’re wanting to know where his head was at during a period in his life that seemed to help him escalate in status. Fortunately he stays humble throughout, but the information revealed will make you listen to these songs and albums in a different perspective.
One thing the book is not is a tell-all story of fame and fortune. While it does offer a few woes of the music industry, they are mentioned in passing, almost as very brief sidebars. While he is known for being a Jehovah Witness, his religious beliefs are nowhere to be discussed so he has chosen to keep his spirituality out of the public eye, at least in this book. He also doesn’t talk about romantic relationships or being married to the same woman since 1965. In fact, if you’re wanting this book to find out about Benson’s personal life and him getting down to the nitty and the gritty, you will get neither nitty nor gritty. In fact, his tone is quite clean and he keeps himself speaking without vulgarities, which may be one of many reasons why his career has lasted as long as it has.
If there’s one issue with this book, it’s that he seems to refer to himself, by name, almost every five pages. Benson believes in himself and talents, but part of the time it seems he is involved in personal branding. A part of me wanted to say “I know what book I’m reading and who it’s about, I don’t need for George Benson to refer to George Benson so frequently.” I’m not sure if that has to do with how Alan Goldsher co-wrote Benson’s story, there were moments when I felt Goldsher was working more like a publicist and less than the storyteller or historian. Yet a part of me also wondered if I should complain, for Benson’s story could not have been told if they did not collaborate in this project.
Other than that, the book will definitely make you change the way you think about Benson’s music and career, and offers a glimpse into the young kid whose goals only grew as his experiences increased with age and time.