Entertainment behind the scenes
George Benson recounts “criminal” encounter with Beatles
As The Beatles take center stage in the music world this week with the much-anticipated reissue of their albums, it’s easy to forget that the Fab Four were not exactly adored by large swathes of the musical community back in the day. Jazz artists, especially, looked down on the noisy pop stars (or were more likely envious of their fame and fortune).
“It used to be a crime for a jazz musician to even mention the word ‘Beatles,’” jazz guitarist George Benson recalled on Thursday, during a promotion for his new album at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles.
“There was such a divide between rock music and jazz music … We just didn’t discuss anything like that.”
There were some notable crossover efforts, including Ella Fitzgerald with her versions of “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Got To Get You Into My Life.”
“But among the instrumentalists, it was not possible,” said Benson, who was forced to keep his admiration for The Beatles a secret. ”I liked The Beatles. It just was against the law,” he said.
But within weeks of the 1969 release of The Beatles album “Abbey Road,” Benson found himself in the studio, at the best of his label boss, doing a jazz version of the album with a chamber orchestra. ”The Other Side of Abbey Road,” complete with a cover that showed Benson carrying his guitar across the road, scrambled the order of the tunes, recasting most of them in medley form. He also sang on the album for the last time until his smash 1976 Warner Bros. label debut “Breezin.’”
“It took me to a place I had never been before,” he said of the “Abbey Road” sessions, singing the first line of “Golden Slumbers” for good measure.
He later treated the audience to complete versions of a few tunes from the new album, “Songs and Stories,” which just hit stores through Concord Music Group. Among the selections were the instrumental “Living in High Definition,” written by Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier, and “Family Reunion,” co-written by Rod Temperton, who is perhaps best known as the man behind Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and “Rock With You.”
The album also includes a version of “Sailing,” whose singer/songwriter Christopher Cross was in the audience. Benson even managed to persuade retired soul maestro Bill Withers to contribute a tune, “A Telephone Call Away.”
“He can be a difficult fellow if you don’t understand him,” he said. “We got him to come to brunch with us, and we listened to him, as he rambled on and on and on.”
Perhaps with an eye on the latest pop chart, Benson said he would like to collaborate with Whitney Houston, whose first album in seven years just debuted at No. 1. “She’s shaped a lot of careers,” he said.
(photo credit: Greg Allen)