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George Benson: Walking to New Orleans
by George Graham
(Provogue Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/15/2019)
With rock & roll pushing 65 years or so of popularity, world is replete with musicians who have have had careers and hits over the decades. Usually as artists, especially those who have had memorable hits, get older, they tend to stick with the style which brought them fame, or they may settle into the oldies circuit. We like to point out long-time artists who stay creative by trying new things and approaches to their music to stay fresh. We recently reviewed the new album by Bruce Hornsby as a good example of that.
This week, we have an interesting project with a venerable artist paying tribute to even earlier musicians but whose music was quite different than his own. It’s by well-known jazz guitarist George Benson in a new recording of songs by rock & roll pioneers Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, not by making their music jazzy, but plunging into the styles of each. The album in called Walking to New Orleans.
A native of Pittsburgh, George Benson was something of a child prodigy, making his first record for RCA at age 9. After graduation, he began a several-year association with organist Jack McDuff, playing the soul-jazz style popular at the time in the early 1960s. He released his first album under his own name with McDuff at age 21. In the mid 1960s, he began a stint with Miles Davis, recording on Davis’ 1968 album Miles in the Sky.
Then in the 1970s, Benson became one of the stable of artists recording for the CTI label, which was a kind of jazz crossover company which released his hit album Bad Benson in 1974. By 1977, Benson was recording for Warner Brothers Records, with producer Tommy LiPuma and released the album Breezin which was a multi-platinum hit, with Benson on the vocals as well as the guitar. Later, he also worked with producer Quincy Jones, and made several album that were straight-out pop hits. More recently, Benson has been emphasizing his guitar playing more. In addition to his ten Grammy Awards, Benson also received the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award in 2009.
Now at age 76, Benson has taken an interesting but fun turn on his new album Walking to New Orleans. Perhaps moved by the deaths of Chuck Berry and Fats Domino in 2017, Benson decided to take up their music, and perform it in a kind of Memphis soul style.
Interestingly, the album was done mostly in Nashville, with a group lead by drummer Greg Morrow, and featuring rhythm guitarist Rob McNelly who has played wuth Dolly Parton, pianist Kevin McKendree who was the Delbert McClinton’s musical director, and bassist Alison Prestwood, who gigged with Little Richard and Peter Frampton among others,. There are also three horn players in the Memphis soul tradition, and three backing vocalists, who interestingly, were recorded in Australia.
Although the arrangements have a classic sound, the tracks on the album are not imitations of the original. While pianist Kevin McKendree often plays the kind of piano triplets that were Fats Domino’s trademark, Benson make no attempt to sound like Chuck Berry on the guitar. He is quoted as saying “I never even thought of emulating Chuck Berry,” but instead often plays in the warm restrained sound with his big hollow-body jazz guitar set up for the clean sound that has been Benson’s trademark.
The album alternates more or less between Chuck Berry and Fats Domino tunes, with some of the better-known compositions by both included.
Opening is the Chuck Berry classic Nadine (Is It You), which Benson and company give the Memphis-style treatment to, with the horns and the like. <<>> Benson does the guitar solo in his own distinctive style including his unison wordless vocal with the guitar. <<>>
The first of the Fats Domino tunes is Ain’t That a Shame, which is a brims with musical good spirits despite the lyrics. <<>>
Chuck Berry’s You Can’t Catch Me is one of his car songs. Benson and company give it a kind of Gospel influenced sound, which is also a lot of fun. <<>>
Domino’s Rockin’ Chair is another strong track with McKendree’s piano emulating Fats Domino, but with a bluesier arrangement featuring strong horn work. <<>>
From the pen of Chuck Berry is Havana Moon which provides Benson and company a chance to take a slightly different musical direction, including the use of a string section. <<>>
One of Berry’s best-known tunes Memphis, Tennessee is served up by the band, with the a sound hinting at the original. <<>> But when it’s time for the guitar solo, Benson shows his jazziness. <<>>
The title track, Fats Domino’s Walking to New Orleans pretty much follows the original in its arrangement, though there is a string section here which actually sounds rather authentic for the period. <<>>
The album closes with the Berry tune How You’ve Changed which is basically a slow blues, and is nicely done, again with the string section. <<>> The guitar solo, though, is pure George Benson. <<>>
George Benson’s new album Walking to New Orleans is certainly a departure for the septugenerian guitarist, known for his music which was pretty much the origin of “smooth jazz.” But in his 2014 autobiography, Benson said he went “from blues cat to blues-jazz cat, from blues-jazz cat to jazz cat, from jazz cat to soul-jazz cat, [and now from] a from soul-jazz cat to R&B-jazz cat.” The album is a musical good time from end to end, with the tunes sounding authentic but not slavish imitations, and the arrangements and playing thoroughly tasteful.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A” with the recording clean, and free from attempts to throw in the sonic imperfections of the analog days as many retro albums have tried to do. The mix came together quite well with the recording of the added players being made in scattered locations, with most of the recording done in Nashville, but with the backing vocalists in Australia, horn players in Canada and California, and the mixing done in Malibu, California.
George Benson has done something interesting and fun for a veteran artist, make an enjoyable album paying tribute to music that was quite different from that upon which he establish his career. Kudos to Benson.
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