George Benson: ‘My mother taught me how to be a human being’

Jane Graham looks back at a life well lived with smooth talker and jazz extraordinaire George Benson

At 16, I  was keen to learn something that would enhance my pockets for the rest of my life so I was studying commercial art. It was an incredible situation because that was not something African-Americans did at that time. I went to a very privileged school. It was built in the heart of the black ghetto. When they asked me why I wanted to be an artist I told them I was trying to find a trade. They said well, you can’t get in the unions so you’ll probably never get a job as a commercial artist. I think they were right – eventually I found that was indeed the case.

I gave up my idea of being an artist and left high school when I was 17. I went out into the world and I made a career for myself as a musician. Everyone in the country – in the world in fact – knew me. And one day I was back home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and a guy shouted across at me, hey George, Professor Rhodes told me to say hello to you. And I thought, who the heck is Professor Rhodes? I only know one Rhodes and that’s Gerry Rhodes who was in my year at school. And this guy said, Yeah, that’s him. I said, why did you call him Professor Rhodes?

And he said, he’s a professor now!” I mean, get outta here! This guy was at school with me, studying the same thing as I was. And now he was the biggest man in the art department at Pittsburgh University. It just goes to show, never give up just ’cause things start to get hard.

I was working as a professional musician when I was 16 but I wasn’t accomplished. I don’t think I had a real guitar before I was 16, just a homemade thing. I worked a lot of jobs with my singing group, I sang and danced, and we made two or three dollars a night. That was about it. I didn’t think I was good enough to become an internationally known musician, that was just a dream. When they were making the school yearbook they asked us, what do you want to be when you leave here?

I said I want to be a guitar player in a big band. And I saw that book years later and that’s exactly what it says under my name. There’s a picture of me and it’s ridiculous – I look like I was two years old. But here’s the reality; a few years later I took the greatest big band in the world, the Count Basie band, on the road for a year. And all I’d ever wanted was for a band to let me play guitar.

I was a happy young man. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have any money. One of my friends used to keep a couple of little bags of Kool-Aid with him. Kool-Aid was a little sachet of powder that cost five cents. You added it to water, and if you added sugar too you got a sweet drink.

When you went to a restaurant they always gave you a glass of water and there was salt and sugar on every table. So we’d empty our Kool-Aid into the water and pour in some sugar and hey, we had a sweet drink. And it cost us nothing. We were happy youngsters.

George Benson And Manager
Young George Benson holding guitar, seated next to his manager Harry Tepper, 1953. Photo by Charles 'Teenie' Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images

My family knew I was into music and they were thankful I’d found something to do. My mother and I were always close. She gave me my morals. She taught me how to be a human being and that’s as big as it gets. Life ain’t about dollars, though they’re a big part of it, don’t get me wrong.  It’s about having a good relationship with the people around you ’cause we share this planet with other people, it’s not all about us. She passed away a few years ago but those principles have stayed with me through my life.

She was a gigantic fan of me. When she talked to me she always said my name like I was another person. ‘I always tell people George Benson is my favourite artist.’ I said, why don’t you say my son is your favourite artist? But she never addressed me like that, it was always ‘George Benson’.


The year George turns 16

Fidel Castro becomes  leader of Cuba

• Motown Records is founded

• The Barbie doll is launched in the US

Someone told my mother I was on the front cover of a popular magazine. She went to lots of different stores looking for that magazine. And she couldn’t find it. Actually, she had been looking at it but she didn’t believe the picture on the cover was me! I had started dressing up, you know… fixing myself up, new hairstyle, good clothes. So she didn’t recognise me any more. She was big with all her friends and relatives because she was my mother. They were all saying, you know what your son is doing now? Georgie is killing them out there!

Winning the Grammy award for the record of the year for 1976’s This Masquerade and [best pop instrumental performance] Breezin’, that would impress the young George. That was a gigantic step into the big time and a real change of life for me. That was the highlight of my life, it didn’t get any better than that. But when I got famous I didn’t like all the attention to tell you the truth. I wasn’t used to that. I had enough attention from my girlfriends and I had a wonderful time… yeah, well, afterwards I married a nice lady and I had a great life and then my children started to be born [he has seven]. So life was great for me, I didn’t need all that extra attention. After a while I couldn’t do anything or go anywhere without being swamped by people. So that part was not so enjoyable.

We had the number one records in the country and everybody was happy for once.

I’d tell my young self, save your pennies. That’s the key to having a good life. Long before I had a hit record I started saving my pennies. I had a bank account and my credit became very good and my wife and I were regular savers. So the bank recognised that and they gave me credit cards and that’s something that’s hard for musicians to get. Usually when they ask you where you work, if you say musician they take that as you don’t work at all.

My mother finally realised I could buy her anything. I asked her what she wanted most and she said, I want my own house. I said, go and pick it. She picked a house that was not so nice to me. So on my own I went and found another house, a bigger house, a fabulous house with a swimming pool. I tried to give it to her but she would not accept it. She said, I don’t want to leave my house. I said, but mama, this is a much better house! And she said, mmm-mm, I am not going to leave my house. So I had to sell the other house and take a loss.

My best times were the [triple-platinum 1976 album] Breezin’ period, when I was in my early thirties. We had the number one records in the country and everybody was happy for once. All my life people had been on my back, telling me, man we’d be so much richer if you did it this way. Just do it like I’m telling you to do it. When Breezin’ came out everybody got rich. And all of that stopped.

Walking To New Orleans by George Benson is out now. He tours Europe in July, including two dates in London.

Read the full article in this week's Big Issue.
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