A child singing prodigy, George Benson grew up to be an accomplished jazz guitarist, eventually crossing genre borders and having breakthrough radio success in the mid-1970s. Calling the seemingly mellow Benson a “multiple-threat performer,” The Times in 2000 described the artist as “an appealing singer and a master of fusion, funk and rhythm and blues.”
Overriding all of his genre experiments is a smooth, light jazz sound. Benson had been releasing albums for more than a decade when his 1976 album for Warner Bros., “Breezin’,” showed he was no longer just for jazz heads. The album contained Benson’s take on Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade” and became a Top 10 crossover hit for Benson, eventually winning the 1976 Grammy for record of the year.
Long before he even hit double digits, a young Benson was playing for audiences in his hometown of Pittsburgh. A 7-year-old with a penchant for the ukulele, Benson impressed a local club owner enough to earn a paying gig, as well as, he said, alert the authorities. Too young to perform in a venue, Benson continued to play on the sidewalks of Pittsburgh and switched to a guitar when his hands were big enough to handle it.
Benson’s recording career began in the mid-’60s, and he comfortably bridged soul and blues. He was recruited by Miles Davis in the late ’60s and recorded on the famed artist’s “Miles in the Sky” effort, issued in 1968.
Eventually, Benson settled into an easy-listening groove and released a string of pop-soul albums throughout the ’80s. Yet even as his career advanced, he never veered too far from his jazzy roots. Before the release of his 2009 effort “Songs and Stories,” Benson had been presenting a tribute show to Nat King Cole with a big band. His “Songs and Stories,” meanwhile, featured soul legend Bill Withers, lured out of semi-retirement to write a tune for the album.