Sunday 27 July 2014

George BENSON: The Love Songs

love songs cd: Music

(#322: 26 October 1985, 1 week; 9 November 1985, 1 week)

Track listing: Give Me The Night/Lady Love Me (One More Time)/Love X Love/New Day/Feel Like Making Love/20-20/Never Give Up On A Good Thing/Inside Love (So Personal)/No One Emotion/In Your Eyes/Turn Your Love Around/The Greatest Love Of All

Last weekend on BBC Four I watched Jon Brewer’s documentary Nat King Cole: Afraid Of The Dark. It was an intriguing and somewhat unsettling watch. There is unlikely to be a more definitive or comprehensive Cole study; practically all of his surviving family, friends, associates and peers are interviewed – including his widow, Maria Cole, who lived on until July 2012, less than a month short of ninety - and much long unseen archive material was incorporated, including footage from Cole’s sixties television shows.

The reason why the documentary was unsettling to watch was the underlying question of whether, over the nearly half-century since Cole died, things had really got any better for mainstream black entertainers. Cole was the first black performer to get his own TV series, and his fame did not preclude repeated, nauseating incidences of ingrained racism from others who really ought to have known better.

As I said, many of his musical peers get a chance to speak in the documentary (including archival interviews with Frank Sinatra and Oscar Peterson), and amongst their number – Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte, Buddy Greco, Johnny Mathis, Nancy Wilson – the most striking interviewee was George Benson, a man with fair claim to being heir to Cole’s mantle, having similarly crossed over from respected jazz musician status to mainstream stardom. Benson is now seventy-one, but throughout his comments there still lay a politely buried rage. More than once, Benson emphasised the importance and unprecedented nature of what Cole had achieved. In relation to his crossover to easy listening territory, Benson remarked on how Cole’s style and approach had made him – and, by extension, his people – “easy to accept.”

It is an approach which Benson has been careful to maintain throughout his career, which almost exactly coincides with, and leads on from, Cole’s death. He is from Pittsburgh, and if I say that other jazz musicians of note from that city include Erroll Garner, Earl Hines, Art Blakey, Ahmad Jamal, Roy Eldridge, Maxine Sullivan, Paul Chambers, Kenny Clarke, Geri Allen, Billy Eckstine and, by extension, Billy Strayhorn (who actually came from Dayton, Ohio, but grew up partly in Pittsburgh and partly in Hillsborough, North Carolina) then you may discern a common purpose; none of these musicians has ever shouted out their newness or radicalism, but instead prefer to propose an unassuming but determined alternative to the musical norm.

As a jazz guitarist, Benson is, stylistically, a relative conservative; his fingering technique was apparently inspired by Django Reinhardt, his simultaneous soloing and vocal scatting derive from Slam Stewart, and there is always the feeling in his work that Grant Green’s Idle Moments was about as far as the electric guitar should dare to go (this is, incidentally, no idle comparison; Benson was a great friend and admirer of Green, and uses a not dissimilar style, turning down the treble and bass controls on his amplifier to zero and turning the mid-range control up to ten, thus highlighting a certain rhythmic bite in his playing. In addition it should be noted that Green, beaten down by a history of heroin addiction, heart problems and overwork, suffered a fatal heart attack at the end of January 1979, not yet forty-four, on his way to a gig at Benson’s Breezin’ Lounge in New York).

Most of Benson’s early recordings are unfussy, meat-and-potatoes soul-jazz affairs; he worked for some time with the organist Jack McDuff (who also appeared on Benson’s debut The New Boss Guitar), and records issued under his own name – e.g. It’s Uptown With The George Benson Quartet and The George Benson Cookbook (both 1966) – were generally straight-ahead fare, featuring one Dr Lonnie Smith (not to be confused with Lonnie Liston Smith) at the organ.

But by early 1968 he was invited to guest on Miles Davis’ Miles In The Sky album – a record whose title was inspired by “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” – and appears on the twelve-and-a-half minute-long “Paraphernalia.” This was a Wayne Shorter composition, and sounds it; a knotty harmonic maze repeatedly thrown off-balance by Tony Williams’ seismic, onomatopoeic drum rumbles. Miles digs in and concentrates; Shorter is as inventive and elusive as ever, soloing with the faintly distracted air of a professional assassin attempting to complete a crossword puzzle; Herbie Hancock is in his “guess which chord I’m going to be playing next” mood; while Williams plays so obscurely away from the beat that it’s hard to determine whether the beat remains (N.B.: this is a good thing).

In this environment, the casual listener might be forgiven for mistaking Benson for a lost tourist who’s turned up in the wrong departure lounge. He comps, mostly rhythmically, throughout and his solo space is relatively limited and restrained (note how, when Hancock launches into his solo, Ron Carter’s bass immediately bends with and follows the pianist, which does not happen at all with the guitarist). However, more attentive listening will reveal that Benson is actually the anchor holding the entire performance together. His tone and foot pedal control are strangely prescient of what Derek Bailey would do on the Tony Oxley Quintet’s “Stone Garden” the following year, but unlike Bailey, he is there to bring all of the stray elements flying around him together.

As the sixties turned into the seventies, Benson moved on to Verve records, then A&M, and thence to Creed Taylor’s CTI, reaching steadily further into the mainstream. It is reasonable to say that much of Benson’s CTI work is Formica-pleasant but unthreatening; his The Other Side Of Abbey Road is nowhere near as radical a reconstruction as those offered by Booker T and the MGs or the Mike Westbrook Band, and his “White Rabbit” is the equivalent of Wes Montgomery having a go at “A Day In The Life.” Perhaps his most telling work of this period was his gutsy and moderately exploratory contributions to the only album by the Harlem Underground Band, recorded for Paul Winley and including the much-sampled “Smokin’ Cheeba Cheeba,” although his first British hit single, 1975’s “Supership” was released on CTI, and still credited to George “Bad” Benson.

Thereafter Benson moved to Warner Brothers and became a superstar; it is telling that, unlike Cole, he did not end up in a situation where he had to choose between being a singer and being an instrumentalist; even on mid-eighties affairs like “20/20” the scat unisons remain intact. And so the fork in the road which would eventually lead to The Love Songs making number one was reached.

But things like “Breezin’,” “Nature Boy,” “This Masquerade,” “On Broadway” and even 1979’s “Love Ballad” do not make it to this compilation; of its dozen songs, only one dates from the seventies. A more extensive anthology such as Music Club Deluxe’s 2011 2-CD set The Essential Collection includes all of this material and may serve as a better entry point for neophytes. The Love Songs was intended for an “export” market and was only released in Britain, Holland, Germany and Japan. Moreover, it was the final number one album to be released by K-Tel, thus bringing a thirteen-year reign to a relatively subdued close.

So the compilation centres on eighties audiences’ notions of George Benson as a pleasing and acceptable MoR-soul-jazz performer. In the context of the autumn of 1985 it is worth remembering what “soul music” had become. The most prominent steps forward appeared to have been taken by two albums; Luther Vandross’ The Night I Fell In Love (arranged and produced by Marcus Miller, who would render a similar service the following year on Miles’ Tutu), and the eponymous debut album by Alexander O’Neal (essentially the work of Jam and Lewis). Both took recognised soul man tropes and advanced them; in Vandross’ case discreetly and elegantly, in O’Neal’s case, alternatively aggressively and elegiacally. Of the old school, Bobby Womack (on whose Poet II album Benson had appeared) impressed with the fury-under-a-lake-of-serenity of So Many Rivers, Al Green’s Going Away was his best and most purposeful record since The Belle Album, and Shirley Brown’s magnificently angry Intimate Storm was something more than either, while, on the spiritual side, Steve Arrington’s Dancing In The Key Of Life was a spaceship gospel sermon. Womack and Womack’s Radio M.U.S.I.C. Man was a more than worthy second album, including a heartstopping rendition of “Here Comes The Sun.”

Set against all of this, Benson can come across as slightly old-fashioned, but in a way that makes it work as an attribute rather than a distraction. Nowhere better did he achieve this than with Quincy Jones: 1980’s Give Me The NightOff The Wall grown up and enrolled at Berklee – whose two hits are repeated here. As with other artists, Rod Temperton appears to set off something in Benson that otherwise might have gone unreported; hence the dopey naivety of world-peace-via-dance that is “Give Me The Night” is turned into a declaration of authority. “Love X Love” is also sublime; both songs benefit from Jones’ ceaselessly inventive producing and arranging - the way, for instance, that Patti Austin & co’s 200-miles-from-the-microphone echoes of backing vocals overlap each other to tectonic shift levels worthy of disco Steve Reich. Meanwhile, Benson plays much as he had done on “Paraphernalia,” holding this parallel landscape together.

He never quite hit those heights again; the pair of 1981 songs recorded for The George Benson Collection (has all the seventies stuff, but 45 edits only) with various people from  Toto, “Turn Your Love Around” and “Never Give Up On A Good Thing,” do not hold the same magic but are both fine pop singles in their own right. In this environment, however, the songs suggest a scenario of Benson as a kind of agony uncle with a rather stern moral rectitude. Both examine the problems of lovers from both perspectives and arrive at the conclusion that it’s worth working at them to overcome them because what is there is so precious and important that it cannot be tossed away.

Is this record therefore an update of Love Is The Thing, or a musical setting of Erich Fromm’s The Art Of Love (on “In Your Eyes,” Benson sings of “trying to write a love song with just a single note”)? Throughout these songs, Benson is very careful to distinguish between everyday romantic  love and a greater, more universally encompassing songs; in both “Never Give Up” and “In Your Eyes,” the importance of looking at and understanding love is made key. But a sense of purpose is certainly made evident; appreciate what you have, and just because things aren’t working out so well right now doesn’t mean that you mustn’t work on the problems and retain your essential faith; don’t worry, things will get better.

Four songs appear from 1983’s In Your Eyes, and as great a producer as Arif Mardin was, he wasn’t quite Quincy Jones, and so “Lady Love Me” and the title song drift harmlessly by, enough that either would fit snugly into Chinnery’s early eighties notion of Radio 1 as offering comforting muzak to young couples driving, on their way from the theatre, or to the restaurant. His “Feel Like Making Love” does show a good deal more vivacity and enthusiasm, however, and one can tell from its accompanying geometric rhythm arrangements that Mardin is already making other plans.

Once we get to 1985, however, we are in 1985, so to speak, and so “20/20” – late 1984, but who’s counting? - is hackwork which doesn’t deserve the dignity Benson bestows upon it, while “No One Emotion” is ruined by some horridly squidgy rock guitar (not played by Benson).

But 1985 also gives us “New Day,” composed by Womack and Womack, both of whom are very evident in the song’s background – and suddenly, all of the anger harboured over the previous two decades surfaces as a melancholy lament.  The “it makes me wonder” refrain may come from “Stairway To Heaven” but the song’s message is far closer to There’s A Riot Goin’ On; “Where is so much of the beauty that we see?” Benson asks in dignified despair. “Now I'm wondering if it's all been in a dream/Times, they go from bad to worse/Seems it's all been rehearsed/We were standing here acting out this scene.” In other words, have things really got better for black performers – or, for that matter, black people as a whole – in the three decades since the Klan burned the “N” word into Cole’s Hancock Park lawn? The refrain of “And that new day’s coming soon” dissolves into aerated Afrofuturist ethereality, voices and rhythms slipping out of comprehension and consciousness; as with Vandross’ “The Other Side Of The World,” the song absorbs itself, becomes its own planet, could wander through space forever. Or was Terry Callier’s “Love Theme From Spartacus” already on premature radar?

There is also the fourth single from In Your Eyes – a club smash, it really should have been the first – “Inside Love (So Personal),” co-produced by Mardin and Kashif, which is quite, quite brilliant, and not just for its use of such infrequent pop words as “topics” and “intensity,” but also for a staggeringly adventurous musical template which more or less sets the stage for Mardin (and Gartside)’s Scritti Politti. It is another song to have love as its subject, but one feels, listening to this compilation overall, that Benson is actually playing a very smart and purposeful game – he knows exactly what he can get away with proposing.

I have left until last the record’s last song, its only song from the seventies, and perhaps one of the most misunderstood of all pop songs (not least, in the past, by myself). We need to get over the Bateman notion of “The Greatest Love Of All” being the ultimate hymn to the ego, and remember exactly why this song was written and the way in which Benson performs it.

It was written for The Greatest, a Muhammad Ali biopic in which the great man plays himself, with a surprisingly effective Ernest Borgnine as Angelo Dundee; and knowing the details of Ali’s life, it is reasonable to claim that this song, at the very least from his perspective, is justified. Benson – in one of the record’s few songs where he does not play guitar at all – sings, as he does elsewhere, in a style very close to that of Donny Hathaway (with the odd nod to Mathis).

But there is no doubt that Benson means what he is singing, or about his greater meaning. For “learning to love yourself” isn’t a green flag to narcissism and is probably not about an individual person; why else does the song linger on the notion of children being “the future” and the importance of teaching them the right way to go, and why else does Benson sing of failing to find any “heroes” – how could he, when Cole had been gone for over a dozen years, or Coltrane for over a decade, or whatever/whoever?

In other words, Benson sings “The Greatest Love Of All” as a message to his people, his race; the celebrated Curtis Mayfield iron fist in benignly velvet glove technique. In many ways, this song serves as a good bridge from the end of Hounds Of Love, wherein the protagonist returns to the world and learns to love and relate to other people; but Benson takes it one step further, addressing the need for his people to push for something new and better to happen, and, as always, making the message easy to accept. Some revolutionaries prefer persuading to shouting. This is not to say that either notion is not valid. But The Love Songs, in its own welcoming way, proposes changes much more far-reaching than those of the Style Council; its subtle message is: well, the war’s still on, and who’s to say we can’t still win it? At the time of “The Greatest Love Of All”’s original release, Obama was sixteen. There was never any need to be afraid of the dark.