George Benson was another of A&R legend John Hammond’s famous discoveries, alongside the likes of Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen. This put Benson in a tough position when he was signed to Columbia in ’65, and he set out to prove himself with his first album for Hammond, ’66’s It’s Uptown, followed the next year by The George Benson Cookbook. Hammond’s hunch proved correct: these two albums cemented Benson’s reputation and became the cornerstone for his later best-sellers. Columbia has now re-released both albums with extensive liner booklets and a handful of previously unreleased bonus tracks.
These early albums offer a fascinating look back at Benson’s talents “in utero,” as it were. All of his strengths were there from day one; beautiful post-bop jazz guitar playing ripe with melodic licks that were less hard-core jazz and more radio-friendly; and R&B-tinged vocals that were penthouse cool and ready for Top 40.
While Benson has gone on to produce bigger and better albums, these are classics. Looking back, they may well have formed the beginning of smooth jazz.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Nov. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.