After his Grammy nomination-dappled team-up with Al Jarreau, 2006’s “Givin’ It Up,” veteran guitarist George Benson again wanted to work with artists he had long admired. This time, he decided to pay tribute to some of his favorite songwriters from the worlds of jazz and R&B;, so he and bassist/co-producer Marcus Miller put together a wish list of names.
Tracks from many of the writers on Benson’s dream roster, including Rod Temperton, Lamont Dozier and James Taylor, appear on his new collection “Songs and Stories,” which was released Tuesday Also featured, though, is one of the artists he and Miller considered a longshot at best: Bill Withers.
Landing the reclusive singer-songwriter, who’s been semiretired since the ‘80s, wasn’t easy.
“We hounded him!” admitted Benson, who’s due to perform at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles on Sept. 10 and at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Sept. 12. “We had a nice breakfast with him one morning. . . . He came to the conclusion, ‘You know something, I haven’t done anything in years. I wouldn’t even know how to begin to approach writing today. But if I do, I’ll give you call.’
“I had a feeling that he might,” Benson added with a laugh. “I knew it would be a privilege to work with him again and I knew he would not come up with anything ordinary.”
He didn’t. Withers eventually delivered the slinky ballad “A Telephone Call Away,” which in Benson’s hands became a breezy but spirited vocal duet with singer Lalah Hathaway. Granted, Benson’s butterscotch-smooth guitar tone is relegated to the sidelines on the song, to shine more light on Withers’ unique storytelling.
His playing, however, is at the forefront of one of the record’s standouts, a string-accented cover of Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia.” In a lengthy instrumental passage, Benson adds an elegant flourish to the song, a hit for Brook Benton in 1970.
“I never thought anyone would top that, and I don’t think we did either,” Benson admits. “My guitar solo I think is the thing that is my invention . . . [that] really makes the difference.”
Throughout the recording process, a number of Benson’s songwriting collaborators, such as Withers, Smokey Robinson and Steve Lukather, would stop by the studio to offer input. Benson said their perspectives proved invaluable.
“I’m getting ready to tell somebody else’s story, but I have to be authentic in the sense that I have to tell it the way that they meant it to be told,” he said. “And the only way I can get that is to go straight to the horse’s mouth.”