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Solid Soul

Updated: 2012-07-30 10:05
By Rebecca Lo (China Daily)

Solid Soul

Benson got emotional in Macao as he sang his own song that became a monster hit when recorded by Whitney Houston. Provided to China Daily

Jazz legend George Benson rocks Macao's Venetian Theater and tells Rebecca Lo why digital downloading is killing the industry for established recording artists.


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George Benson is feeling the love. After alternating between vocals and electric guitar, grooving to hits such as This Masquerade, Turn Your Love Around and Take Five, the 69-year-old 10-time Grammy-winning jazz and crossover musician is enticed back for an encore.

The born storyteller remembers how his next song was originally recorded for the 1977 Muhammad Ali biographical film The Greatest because their voices sounded the same: "It's all about the fuzz," he jokes, referring to the trademark whisky-edged burr that had women swoon the world over whenever the grandfather of 20 crooned a love song.

"I was in front of the Empire State Building and a girl, maybe 16 or 18, came up to me and said that she was my biggest fan," he relates on a recent visit to Macao. "She then said that she was going to record my song and that it would be a big hit. I said, sure. She was right. This is a tribute to the greatest vocalist of our time: Whitney Houston."

He began the familiar ballad, putting his own unique stamp on The Greatest Love of All while conjuring up ghosts of Houston's more popular cover version. The Venetian Theatre became choked with emotion as every member of the more than 1,000-strong audience keenly relived the tragic loss of Houston earlier this year. As he sang the last ballad, his voice broke and he stated: "This is hard for me to sing" and walked off the stage without another word.

His band, professional to the last note, proceeded to finish the song, packed up and followed Benson. We were all feeling the love by that point. Benson is the kind of man to inspire emotions, and those emotions transfer to songs that sell like hot cakes.

Born in Pittsburgh, Benson famously began his musical career on the ukulele at the age of seven. He grew up during the golden age of Motown and at a time when records sold in the millions. Though he has been making music as diverse as jazz, adult contemporary and pop for decades, he still loves what he does and still retains a wide-eyed wonder at being able to do what he loves best.

"I never expected to do any of this stuff," he admits in the green room before his Venetian Theatre's one night only show. "I always felt like a scientist when I was a kid-I love solving problems. The song may have a good melody and good harmony, but it needs some excitement. I hear the boring parts of a song and I think, let me fix this."

Illustrating his point, he sings: "They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway," and continues speaking, "and I would change what Quincy Jones had done. I didn't want to record it because I had such great respect for his voice. But the song bored me, so I changed it from a one bar phrase to a two bar phrase, then added my improvisations."

"A big mistake would be to change what an audience knows," he cautions. "People came to hear what they know. After you finish with that, if you want to go to the moon and go crazy, that's up to you. But I learned this from Duke Ellington: once a song becomes a classic, you don't mess with it. You leave it alone. And he was right. So I leave it alone. And it works.

"I love This Masquerade, Turn Your Love Around, On Broadway. If people want to hear it, I'm happy to play it. It's a two-way street: What can I do to make them remember why they loved the song in the first place?"

In Macao as the end of an Asian tour that started in Seoul and included stops such as Singapore, Benson admits that it was his first visit to the former Portuguese enclave.

"Yesterday, I went on a long tour to see all the different aspects of the city," he recalls. "Where normal folks go to shop, the residential areas with nice houses. Then the casinos. I've never seen anything quite this extensive. Inside, you can play football and baseball in any one of them - they are massive. We have a brand new casino where I live in Scottsdale, Arizona. It's very nice, but it looks like a toy compared to this.

"When I hear (casino mogul) Steve Wynn talk, I know that he's a guy who understands. He says that he is building another casino in Vegas. He must have confidence in the future. I don't gamble myself. I'm a family man. I've got seven boys and eight granddaughters. I want to make sure that they have a couple of dollars to spend.

"When I see people sitting in front of a slot machine, it may not be about winning. People want to be a part of some kind of action. They don't just want to sit at home and fade away. They take their retirement money and they come to places like this."

Benson's latest album, Guitar Man, contains a tribute to the late Michael Jackson and was at the top of the jazz chart in the US for 25 weeks. "The album is very successful and it will never stop selling," he predicts. "That's what jazz record companies like: catalogues that keep selling year after year.

He acknowledges that though digital downloads make his music accessible to a much wider audience, it is also killing the industry for established artists such as himself.

"Digital downloading is destroying the industry as we know it. If you're performing, it keeps people abreast of what you're doing, which is cool. But the money is nowhere near what we used to pull in. We can't bargain with record companies now. Multi-million dollar contracts are gone, unless you're Lady Gaga. These kids - they're the ones who dominate the top."