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Monday August 26, 2013 MYT 6:00:00 AM
Monday August 26, 2013 MYT 7:47:37 AM
by revathi murugappan
Don’t stop: At 70, George Benson shows no signs of slowing down. He will be performing at a concert in KL on Wednesday.
Legendary jazz singer George Benson is set to thrill fans with his greatest hits and Nat King Cole classics on Wednesday.
WITH a career spanning five decades, George Benson continues to utilise his jazz roots as the foundation for an engaging mix of pop, R&B and other genres that appeal to a broad audience. His recipe for longevity: good communication.
“We have to communicate with people, let them know we love them. I play for my audience, not for music critics. I play for myself when I’m at home. That’s when all the crazy stuff that nobody would want to hear, comes out. It’s got to pass my ears first; then if I think it’s good enough, I’ll play it for my church,” the 10-time Grammy winner says in a phone interview from Tasmania, Australia.
Benson will be staging his Inspiration Tour Featuring The Greatest Hits Live concert at the Plenary Hall, Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre on Wednesday. The show is organised by JS Concert and supported by Malaysia Major Events.
Some critics call him a missionary of romance. Benson laughs at the title. Still, he says, he’d be more than happy to devote the rest of his life to love.
The 70-year-old shares: “I’ve always been a romantic. And I have seven boys to prove that! I have eight granddaughters and one grandson.”
Benson was briefly married as a teenager but the union produced no kids and only lasted 11 months. He soon met Johnnie Lee and they’ve been married for over 40 years.
“My songs put romance in the air. Romance has a lot more flexibility these days. Going to the movies today is 10 times better than going to the movies 40 years ago. There is more variety. I used to spend two dollars, which included going to the movies, transportation, and a meal before and after the movie. For that price now, you can get the breeze!” he says.
As a child prodigy raised in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the United States, Benson started playing the ukelele at seven although he was already singing on the streets before that.
“My stepfather, who was a guitar player, met my mother when I was seven. My hands were too small for the guitar so he found a broken ukelele in a garbage bin. He glued it back together, put some strings on it and taught me the first few chords,” he recalls.
Thanks to his innate musical ear, he taught himself further.
Benson adds: “I pretty much self-learnt because my ears were a lot better than my stepfather’s. He played guitar but he wasn’t a natural and didn’t have a good ear. It was a laboured love but he worked hard. He learned to read music and made guitars. I was a singer so I just used the ukelele to back my singing.
So gifted was he that at eight, he started singing in a local nightclub for a minimum wage before teaching himself the guitar. At 10, he recorded his first single, She Makes Me Mad, written by tenor saxophonist Curtis Ousley, the guy credited with inventing Yakety sax (staccato-style pop jazz instrumental music).
Benson soon became one of talent scout John Hammond’s major discoveries. As the hits rolled out, his career took off.
Despite his successes, Benson has had his share of tragedies. He and Johnnie have lost three of their seven sons, one to kidney failure, one to crib death, and another to gunshot injuries stemming from a bar fight. In 1998, he was asked by Mohammed Al Fayed to write a song in commemoration of his son, Dodi, who died along with Princess Diana in a 1997 automobile crash in Paris, France.
In an interview with Jet magazine, Benson was quoted as saying: “During the writing, I asked my wife to come listen to what I had written. But when I got to certain parts, it became too difficult. My lips were trembling. I was thinking about my own losses and couldn’t get past it. It stopped me cold.”
Yet, Benson has been able to move forward and credits his success to his conversion to Jehovah’s Witnesses. He remains a deeply religious family man – one who conducts Bible study classes.
His upcoming tour also coincides with the release of Benson’s new album Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole. He cites Cole as his biggest inspiration early in his career.
“Nat was the best of the best in his time as far as African Americans were concerned. He was compared to Sinatra in those days and that was not something African Americans could do. He was so good that they consistently played his records on the same stage that they played white music. Very few artistes ever reached that status then. I wanted to be like him, to be a crossover artist. I didn’t want just to play to the black community. I wanted to play to the world!” he says.
The album opens with a young Benson (perhaps aged seven or eight) singing Mona Lisa.
“It knocks everybody out!” he chuckles. “I tried to emulate Nat and I get very close. Sadly, I never had the chance to meet him but I’m good friends with all his family members.”
During his show, the audience can expect to take a stroll down memory lane.
“Not everything in the show is going to be a smash hit but there’ll be familiar tunes along with Nat’s classics. We like to turn the evening into a party. We just start until we figure people have had enough.”
George Benson’s concert will take place on Aug 28 at the Plenary Hall, Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. Tickets are priced at RM588 (includes pre-show cocktail from 6pm to 7.45pm), RM388, RM288 and RM188. Tickets can be purchased online at www.ticketpro.com.my (03-7880 7999) and at all Ticket Pro, Rock Corner and Victoria Music outlets.
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