From jazz guitar legend to soul-pop vocalist extraordinaire, 8-time Grammy® winner George Benson has cultivated an international fan base as well as tremendous critical acclaim for three things: incomparable versatility, first-class execution in all he does and, perhaps most importantly, for never being predictable. These are the qualities that have made the man a one-of-a-kind giant in the universe of music, thus lending a fitting ring to the title of his fourth album for GRP/Verve, Irreplaceable. It is an emotional gemstone of seemingly effortless consistency for the superstar who has been dominating the worlds of smooth jazz and NAC radio. Irreplaceable marks a directional shift back to silky sexy soul music…with a decidedly contemporary urban edge.
“I’m just trying to wake some people up,” Benson says with the confident patois of a Pittsburgh hipster, “give them something that they wouldn’t expect. Just like in `76 when I recorded Breezin’ and everybody expected instrumentals at 8,000 notes per second like I’d done in the past. I dropped a vocal, ‘This Masquerade,’ on `em instead! So, we’re coming in strong from the left this time. When the DJ says, ‘That was George Benson,’ folks will be like, `What?’ They’re not gonna believe it…and that’s what we want.”
Though Benson has graced contemporary urban radio within the last few years both as a guest instrumentalist on Mary J. Blige’s hit ballad “Seven Days” and on acid jazz band Nuyorican Soul’s “You Can Do It (Baby),” his own new music will floor the industry. The album’s title track/American first single “Irreplaceable” gently eases listeners into the new ‘G.B. vibe’ with its easy rolling beat, sunny melodies, a reference to the Stevie Wonder classic “Ribbon in the Sky” and a nod to the vernacular of the street when he sings about a girl who has his heart “bangin’ like an 808.” Meanwhile overseas in the U.K., the lead-off single will be “Cell Phone,” a moving song destined to be a conversation piece for Benson regarding matters of spirituality and the hereafter.
Assisting Benson in his 2004 hit mission is renowned songwriter/producer Joshua Thompson, whose platinum touch has graced the albums of R&B stars ranging from The Temptations and Luther Vandross to Alicia Keys and Tyrese. Indeed, a duet he co-wrote for singers Case and JOE titled “Faded Pictures” is arguably one of contemporary soul music’s finest hours within the last decade. He is a hit maker with exceptionally high levels of musicality an taste by today’s standards. With guitar as his primary axe, Thompson was the perfect candidate to usher Benson back to the R&B chart top.
Shrewdly strategic in his approach to creating music for Benson, Thompson explains that his goal was, “to maintain the romance and integrity of his artistic history as well as try something more youthful and new. George is a gentleman, so there are certain things he’s not going to sing. We kept the lyrics clean…but interesting. The songs reflect his perspective on certain situations. Take ‘Whole Man,’ which talks about a guy who once had more than 50 girls’ phone numbers in his auto dial, but who finally finds ‘the one.’ That was co-produced by Hakim Bell (son of Kool & The Gang founder, Robert “Kool” Bell) and his partner William Irving. Then there’s ‘Loving Is Better Than Leaving,’ co-produced by Joe Thomas (a.k.a. R&B star JOE, who co-wrote four of Irreplaceable’s songs). The way that story unfolds is almost like a movie. We tried to get George to communicate in the language of the youth. Artists have to do that sometimes, otherwise (fans) get too much of what they’ve already heard.”
It says a lot that an artist as established as George Benson would even be open to such a makeover at this stage in his illustrious career. However, change is nothing new to a man who has pretty much done it all, though he does admit it wasn’t easy. “This record was very tough for me…to go back and sound like I’m 25 or 30. But Josh had young vocal producers come in, and they really helped me get into the spirit of this record. I’m used to working with different producers/songwriters whose ideas can seem a little ‘out there’ at first, but they hear me in a way I could never hear myself. It’s hard sometimes, but the end result can be a record that lasts all your life. That’s how you learn. You go to school and listen to what’s going on.” Of course, Benson was not without some advice for the young producer he green-lighted to produce his entire album. “The one thing I told Josh,” Benson stresses, “is that my personality must be on the record. The guitar must be present throughout. When they hear that sound, they know it’s me.”
To that end, Thompson tailor made several of Irreplaceable’s songs. “‘Strings of Love,’ ‘Six Play’ and ‘Irreplaceable’ were written specifically for George,” Thompson shares. “We tried to keep it accessible to your average listener, but have enough color in the melody and harmony to make it interesting for him as a singer and improviser on his guitar--giving him space to create.” The (12)-song album also includes a vocal cover of the Babyface hit “Reason For Breathing” and a primarily instrumental cover of Case’s hit “Missing You,” the latter a personal favorite of Benson’s that spent four weeks at the top of the R&B chart in 2001. Little did he know then that the hit was yet another feather in the production cap of Thompson. Benson’s new version prominently features Verve label mate Richard Bona playing lovely lead bass against George’s ever-tasty guitar. In praise of Bona, Benson states, “He’s got a great sound, his personality is in the instrument and he’s got great chops, but makes it sound easy. You’d have to be a player and try some of that stuff to know just how great he is.”
Other little instrumental highlights abound on the mostly vocal album – from George doing a tandem solo with harmonica player Gregoire Maret on the shimmering dream “Stairway To Love” (available in vocal and instrumental versions). There’s Benson’s signature sound on the solo and sweets spots of the sexy “Six Play.” And then there’s “Strings of Love,” which, Thompson notes with pride, marks the first time Benson has played acoustic guitar on a recording. George and Joshua are both playing Jose Ramirez Spanish guitars on that selection. “That was a real pleasure,” Thompson states. “George is a real mentor who set the standard for jazz guitarists--guitar players, in general--around the world. And he’s still taking that to higher levels. He’s quite an inspiration. You can’t replace the experience of working with an artist of George’s caliber.”
Though few people know it, George Benson’s first recordings were as a 10-year old singing sensation. It wasn’t until a few years later--as a member of a vocal group that needed a guitarist--that Benson shifted his focus. Following a featured stint in organist Jack McDuff’s trio, Benson began releasing albums as a leader on the Prestige and Columbia labels that were mostly instrumental but dotted with occasional vocal numbers. His renown on guitar overshadowed his singing for many years as he released more jazz discs on Verve and CTI, also becoming a prolific first call sideman for everyone from Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard and Dexter Gordon to Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Minnie Riperton.
In 1976, after a move to Warner Bros. under the production of Tommy LiPuma, Benson finally broke through as a singer with his crossover smash cover of Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade,” which sent the album to multi-platinum sales status (a rare feat for a “jazz” album). From that point on, George Benson has managed to enviably surf the chart tops of the jazz, R&B and pop worlds, defying confining categorization year in, year out. A 2003 singles compilation, The Greatest Hits of All, has been swiftly earning gold and platinum plaques in territories around the globe. And ever since Benson’s reunion with LiPuma (now Chairman of Verve) as a GRP artist with the albums That’s Right (1996), Standing Together (1998) and Absolute Benson (2000), he has consistently earned heavy rotation at smooth jazz, NAC and Quiet Storm radio.
Now, with Irreplaceable, the time has arrived for George Benson to remind the world where his talents all began with a soulful album precision tuned to the tenor of the times.