That singer-guitarist George Benson is one of the most successful crossover artists of all time can be seen not only in the chart and sales data but in the caliber of fellow musicians who acclaim him. Fellow jazzbos like Herbie Hancock and Earl Klugh -- you'd expect them to sing his praises, which both have done in interviews as recently as the last few months. But even rocker Lenny Kravitz gushed in a recent conversation: "Benson, please! He's unbelieeeeeeeevable! Have you heard 'The Other Side of Abbey Road'?"
Benson's come a long way since that 1970 album, a dreamy set of Beatles jazz translations -- but not too far.
with Boney James
• 7:30 p.m. March 23
• Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
• Tickets, $39.50-$250; (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
He began as a sought-after session guitarist in the early '60s, playing alongside rising luminaries like Hancock and Miles Davis, and by the late '70s he was singing, too, logging hits on the jazz charts, R&B charts and pop charts ("Breezin'," "Give Me the Night" and "On Broadway," respectively).
Today, he's still singing but back to spotlighting his first love, the subject of his latest album, "Guitar Man."
"'Guitar Man,' yeah, that's what I am," Benson chuckles during an interview from his home outside Phoenix. "This one's got a good selection of songs, not really connected to each other but just telling one story -- about the guitar. It was the obvious title after hearing what we got. You know, I got a great band together, and we tried to pick songs we thought we could do well, things the public will believe. People have heard me do so many things, I've just got to find things that speak to my guitar."
Recorded with plenty of space for improvisation, "Guitar Man" features pop standards from various eras ("Paper Moon," "Since I Fell for You" and an intriguing "Danny Boy," as well as "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "My Cherie Amour" and the lightest "Tequila" you've ever heard). The focus is definitely on the fingers.
" 'Paper Moon' -- I mean, c'mon, man!" Benson says. "I was supposed to sing it. I taught the guys, and I played it. We heard it back, and I thought, man, it doesn't need any vocals. It captures that '40s mood, the vibe I heard under Nat King Cole. That was a good era. Nat played it very simple, but he was quite sophisticated in his approach."
Even before he began recording as a player, a very young Benson began his showbiz career as a singer: Little Georgie Benson, age 9.
"I wasn't a guitar player till many years later," Benson recalls. "Guitar gigs were everywhere in the '50s, and I started diddling around so I could keep working. Playing honky-tonk, simple stuff. I took a few gigs with an organ band that put me out front. I was 19 and touring with Brother Jack McDuff. People would see me and shout, 'Sing something, Little Georgie!' Jack did not like singers, period. But by the time I left his band, I was a bona fide guitar player."
By 1970, Benson was the No. 1 jazz guitarist in America.
"But I wasn't making any money to prove I was No. 1 anything. I wasn't getting ahead. I was existing," Benson says. "So I started dabbling back into vocals. The club owners loved it. If I did one vocal in the first set, the house wouldn't change over; people would stay for the second set. So I started doing that, and one day [producer] Tommy LiPuma came to me and said, 'George, I heard you sing five years ago, and I've never understood why they don't use your voice.' I told my manager: 'That's my next producer.'"
After signing to Warner Bros. in 1976, the LiPuma-produced "Breezin'" album hit the Top 10 on the strength of Benson singing a ballad, Leon Russell's "This Masquerade." A surprise hit, Benson kept trotting out his silky smooth tenor, scoring more hits from the Quincy Jones-produced "Give Me the Night" two years later. The album sold 5 million copies.
In between, Benson sang a song for a 1977 film about boxer Muhammad Ali. "The Greatest Love of All" reached No. 2. Barely a decade later, a new singer named Whitney Houston would take the song to No. 1.
"I met her just before she recorded it," Benson says. "I met her on the street near the Empire State Bulding. She got her hair done at the same place I took my boys. She saw me on the sidewalk and fell backwards, saying, 'You're one of my favorite artists! I'm recording that song!' One day I heard it on the radio and said, 'I wonder if it's that kid.' Sure enough."
Benson's band in Chicago will include local native Oscar Seaton, an alumnus of Ramsey Lewis' pop-jazz trio in the '60s.