George Benson could likely call the 1970’s the salad days of his musical career. He began the decade with an instrumental interpretation of the entire Beatles album Abbey Road. And ended it with a double that included a hit version of L.T.D’s “Love Ballad”-redone as an uptempo song. Benson’s musical virtuosity and style of scat singing in accompaniment to his playing made him a contemporary jazz guitar icon of the decade. Especially combined with his strong, soulful singing voice. Still there is one particular George Benson album from this period I’ve had yet to explore all the way through.
Benson’s second live album Weekend In L.A. was recovered over three days in autumn of 1977 at the West Hollywood Roxy Theater. And released in 1978. Its probably his most famous and popular live album too. Its been a fixture in my family’s record collection since I’ve been alive. But still know it primarily for songs such as “On Broadway” and “The Greatest Love Of All”. Decided that, in lieu of having not yet explored the album as its about to turn 40, decided that it would make some sense to take an in depth look at the albums instrumental title song.
Benson’s introductory solo begins the song-with Harvey Mason and Ralph McDonald’s drum/percussion rhythm laying the groundwork for the Nick DeCaro’s string synthesizer providing some beautiful harmony. Stanley Banks’ round, popping bass line joins in on the sunny, major key chorus of the song. The first solo comes from the electric piano of Jorge Dalto-with the harmonic counterpoint coming from Stevie Wonder’s keyboardist Ronnie Foster on synthesizer. Benson takes an extended refrain/choral solo during the center of the song-with everything in the song being built around it until the very end.
“Weekend In L.A.” is, as a song, representative of George Benson’s Breezin’ era late 70’s commercial and instrumental peak.This album showcases his guitar talents. In its 7+ minutes, it gives Benson every opportunity to explore his melodically singable guitar solos. Musicians like Mason, McDonald and Foster understand as Benson how to keep the song jazzy, soulful, funky and poppy all at once. Benson even takes a moment to quote Gershwin’s standard “I’ve Got Rhythm” on guitar near the end of the song. Making it one of his strongest live musical moments.
The Jackson’s were already prepping for their second album self written and produced in June of 1979-just when the finishing touches to Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall album were being completed. It made sense then that musicians such as Michael Boddicker, Jerry Hey and Paulinho Da Costa played strong instrumental roles between both albums. The Jackson’s Triumph album turned out to be no mere extension of MJ’s swiftly developing solo music. It was one of the most truly collaborative albums they made together. With Michael, Randy and Jackie Jackson being its creative triad.
Each member of the family played a different part. Michael and Jackie contributed much in the way of songwriting. While Randy did the same with more instrumental touches as well. The brothers fully flowered independence earned them their most successful album in nearly a decade-both in terms of critical acclaim and commercial status. I’ve had a decades long relationship with Triumph now. And had actually grown up on a truly epic video to very musically like song that turned out to be the opening track of the album. The name of this song, of course, was “Can You Feel It”.
An enormous adult choir sings the songs chorus acapella for the intro. This is arranged masterfully by the talented vocalist/vocal coach Stephanie Spruill . The horns kick into the disco march that makes up for the refrain of the song. And also its central rhythm as well. Ollie Brown holds down the 4/4 beat to perfection. Nathan Watts and Ronnie Foster play a conjoined, clomping bass line. The string and horn melodies go right into Randy’s vocal intro. On the chorus, another drum is added for funkier sound. Along with David Williams chunky, reverbed guitar while Michael sang lead. With flourishes of synths and a choral bridge, the orchestration fades the song out.
Musically “Can You Feel It” starts Triumph off in a manner that would follow it through the entire album. That is showcasing disco’s roots in the cinematic soul/funk of the early 70’s. All wrapped up with a more electronic boogie/post disco twist. As for the songs Utopian message? Its tempting to view its plea that “we’re all the same/ the blood inside of me is inside of you” as being Michael and Randy being a bit removed from earlier civil rights struggles generationally. Yet the general message of seeing racial difference as positive is at its core. And its all pushed forward by a dynamic musical offering.
Ronnie Foster was one of Buffalo,New York’s prime funkateers next to the far more famous Rick James. The primary reason for this was likely because Foster was a session keyboardist who recorded solo albums rather than a headliner. That meant a lot though because the man played on some of the finest sessions of the mid 70’s to early 80’s by Roberta Flack,The Jacksons,Flora Purim and Earl Klugh. He was particularly involved musically with George Benson-playing and composing for his blockbuster mid/late 70’s releases.
What first got me into Ronnie Foster was a funk based blog some years ago that linked the man with Stevie Wonder. Foster was one of an enormous cast of players who participated on Wonder’s magnum opus Songs In The Key Of Life. That led me to his two late 70’s Columbia albums entitled Love Satellite (1978) and the following years Delight. Wonder played drums on one song for each album. On Love Satellite, he did so on the instrumental”Happy Song”. On the follow up Delight,Wonder did the drumming on a vocal tune this time. And the name of that song was “Let Me In Your Life”.
Foster starts the song with an elegant,jazzy melodic phrase played on polyphonic synthesizer-with his acoustic piano tickling the chord changes. After two phrases of this,Wonder’s drums come dancing with their funky swing. On the refrains,the piano and synthesizer are joined by a rhythmic Clavinet and bouncy Moog bass. On the chorus,the melody descends into a minor key gospel key as a synth string ensemble accents the vocal. The bridge of the song features Foster playing a rhythmic electronic organ type solo over a popping disco bass line before the song closes out with the repeating chorus.
Ronnie Foster and Stevie Wonder were born in the same year,one day apart. Today Foster turns 66. This number showcases how much of Wonder’s compositional influence Foster had absorbed while working with him. Playing every instrument on this song,with backing vocals from people such as George Benson himself,Stevie’s musical sound is omnipresent. It’s in the layers of rhythmic keyboards. Not to even mention those Duke Ellington/George Gershwin style chord/melodic exchanges Wonder used. It really showcased what a strong and thoroughly musical influence Stevie Wonder could have on another instrumentalist.
Filed under 1970's, clavinet, drums, jazz funk, Moog bass, piano, Ronnie Foster, session musicians, Stevie Wonder, synthesizer, Uncategorized
George Benson’s vocal style always reminded me a great deal of a higher pitched Donny Hathaway,with just a touch of Stevie Wonder’s melisma for good measure. His vocal tone had such a general strumming quality,his technique of scatting with his guitar became a signature technique. So it was no surprise for me to find out that Benson was in fact someone who knew personally. And they had a musical connection with Phil Upchurch as Benson later covered Hathaway’s “The Ghetto”. Also important is that Benson had always sang AND played throughout his career-long before his 70’s commercial peak. So he is very accessible to appreciate on a purely vocal level as well as instrumental.
In 1976 Benson had a humongous bit of luck with his album Breezin’-produced by Tommy Lipuma and featuring the Bobby Womack penned title hit and his iconic cover of the Leon Russell ballad “This Masquerade”. Also being his debut for Warner Bros. records,Benson was now firmly positioned as a singer/musician who’d have a strong ear as an interpreter. Especially with his back round as a viruosic jazz guitar improviser. His second Warner Bros. release came out in 1977 and was called In Flight. It featured the same lineup of musicians as it predecessor. My personal favorite song from this album is a version of the Nat King Cole standard “Nature Boy”.
Cinematic strings sweep through the beginning of the song. These strings literally segue into Harvey Mason’s drums clipping along at roughly 96 bpm along with Stanley Banks’s two note popping bass,while Jorge Dalto’s Clavinet drives right in the groove along with it. Ralph McDonald’s percussion takes that rhythmic stroll along the way as Ronnie Foster’s electric piano plays along with bell like beauty. This basic groove is the musical atmosphere of the entire song-with the strings moving to the forefront for every other chorus. Benson’s lead vocal carries the first half of the song. On the final minute or two, the melodic focus is on Benson’s guitar/scatting hybrid technique he is so well known for.
When I first heard this,I had no idea Nat Cole wrote it. Benson sings the original melody very faithfully. At the same time,his timing along with the slow crawling, percussive romantic funk called to mind Marvin Gaye’s musical sound of the same period. Gaye had already done a version of this song in 1965. His interpretation was very close to the original. What Benson bought to the song vocally was not only a more modern gospel/soul flavor,but also that more contemporary Brazilian style jazz/funk instrumental atmosphere. It did an excellent job showcasing the evolution of black American music and to me represents an important milestone for George Benson the singer.
Filed under 1970's, bass guitar, clavinet, drums, electric piano, George Benson, Harvey Mason, jazz funk, Jorge Dalto, Marvin Gaye, Nat King Cole, percussion, Phil Upchurch, Ralph McDonald, rhythm guitar, Ronnie Foster, Stanley Banks, strings, Tommy Lipuma, Uncategorized, Warner Bros.