How George Benson Turned an Early ‘No’ Into a Career of ‘Yes’

How George Benson Turned an Early ‘No’ Into a Career of ‘Yes’

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With “Weekend in London,” Mr. Benson’s first live album in 30 years, due Friday, he not only honors his unique musical path, but also credits those along the way that have shaped him and his career — which includes audiences. “They’re right down your throat,” he said of playing the intimate club Ronnie Scott’s, where the set was recorded, “but I can look into their faces and see the happiness or the response by what they’re hearing on the bandstand.”

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How was Wes Montgomery pivotal for you?

When Wes Montgomery came to Pittsburgh, I had to meet him, because I had heard about him when I was a little boy. They told me there was a guy who played guitar like nobody else, that he played with his fingers, but he actually played with his thumb — there was no pick in his hand. So when I met him, I asked him if he would teach me something and he said, “No.” He was the first guy who said no. I was a teenager then, maybe 17 years old. I said, “Why not?” He said, “I’m still trying to learn how to play myself.”

And that really got to me. [Laughs] He’s the greatest guitar player in the world and he’s trying to learn how to play? I understood later what he was trying to say, because I feel the same way. You know, people ask me about the guitar and I say, “Man, I’m still trying to get it together myself, trying to learn this instrument.” But that’s how him and I met, and we became very good friends.

Years ago, I was supposed to play him in this movie. His story was incredible. His career grew up commercially on records, like “Goin’ Out of My Head,” “Windy,” “Tequila” and all those wonderful records he made, in addition to all the great jazz records he had made. But when he came home to play in Indianapolis, every time he played a commercial tune, the audience booed. I couldn’t even imagine it. And the reason is the only Wes Montgomery they knew locally was a jazz guitar player. And so when he became commercially successful, naturally this was a lash back by the people: “Well, I want him to play more jazz.” People always want what they don’t have.

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