The George Benson QuartetView in iTunes
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These days, George Benson (born March 22, 1943, Pittsburgh, PA) is often described as a commercial R&B/pop singer who sometimes moonlights as a pop-jazz guitarist. But early in his career -- when Benson was still in his twenties -- the jazz world thought of him as a guitar-playing hard bop/soul-jazz instrumentalist whose primary influences were Wes Montgomery and Charlie Christian. In the early to mid-'60s, Benson was the epitome of straight-ahead jazz -- and jazz purists loved the bop-oriented direction of the George Benson Quartet, a hard-swinging combo that he formed in 1965 (11 years before he enjoyed a major pop breakthrough with 1976's multi-platinum Breezin'). Although the group was short-lived, many jazz purists insist that it was Benson's greatest achievement. The formation of the quartet came not long after Benson had left the employ of organist Jack McDuff; by 1965, the guitarist was ready to be a full-time leader, and Benson was exactly that when he formed a hard bop/soul-jazz quartet that employed Ronnie Cuber on baritone saxophone, the Jimmy Smith-influenced Lonnie Smith on organ, and various people on drums (including Jimmy Lovelace, Ray Lucas, and Marion Booker). During its short existence, the George Benson Quartet recorded two excellent John Hammond-produced albums for Columbia: It's Uptown in 1965 and The George Benson Cookbook in 1966. Occasionally, Benson sang with his quartet, but the vast majority of its work was instrumental -- and it was during the group's brief existence that he wrote such bop instrumentals as "Clockwise," "The Cooker," "Benson's Rider," "The Borgia Stick," and "Myna Bird Blues." Much to the dismay of bop lovers, the George Benson Quartet never celebrated a second anniversary; the group called it quits in 1966. ~ Alex Henderson