George Benson readily shared his secret strategy for making hit records.
“People like simple things they can get with,” said Benson, a guitarist and vocalist who will perform at Taste of Black Columbia Friday night at the Carolina Coliseum. The event precedes the Columbia Black Expo on Saturday at the Colonial Life Arena.
He used “Turn Your Love Around,” a R&B hit from his 1981 album “The George Benson Collection,” as an example. The song is built on drum samples, layered synthesizers and horns.
“The secret is to take a song that is sophisticated and make it uncomplicated so people can absorb it,” Benson said. “I jump on it and just get to the essentials.”
The rhythm is simple, but funky and Benson’s vocals cajole and encourage the object of his desire with a hint of blues.
“If you find a good melody, jump on it,” he said.
Benson, who rose to prominence in music circles in the ’60s as a sideman for musicians such as jazz icon Miles Davis and Jack McDuff, became a star in the late ’70s when he began singing lead vocals on his releases. His 1976 album “Breezin’” featured “This Masquerade,” a song that won a Grammy Award for record of the year in 1977.
Benson followed the success with Grammy-winning songs “On Broadway,” “Moody’s Mood” and “Off Broadway.” “On Broadway,” first made popular by The Drifters in the early ’60s, was turned into a soulful and jazzy R&B song by Benson.
He also recorded “Greatest Love of All,” a song that became one of Whitney Houston’s most memorable hits.
The most indelible of Benson’s songs is perhaps “Give Me the Night,” the title track on the album that made him a pop star. The song charted in the top 10 of both the pop and R&B charts, and it won a Grammy in 1981. Benson, who scats along with the opening guitar licks of “Give Me the Night,” was baited by producer Quincy Jones to sing in an unfamiliar manner.
“He tricked me into singing the melody with an attitude,” said Benson, who was trying to invoke Nat King Cole in previous takes. He knew Jones would put the version with attitude on the record.
“ ‘No I’m not. I just want to hear it one time,’ ” Benson recalls Jones saying. “And he did put it out. He took that song to the moon.”
Benson doesn’t recall ever performing in South Carolina, but he’s been to the state at least one time before, he said. His wife, Johnnie Evans, grew up Kershaw County, Benson said.
“I was there one time before, way back there,” he said. “Once I took her out of there, it was over.”
On stage, Benson will be accompanied by two keyboardists, a drummer, bassist and rhythm guitarist. Like a club DJ, Benson plays his setlist by ear.
“I can feel what needs to work at this particular (moment),” he said. “I know the songs that I’m going to play in the show, but I don’t know when I going to play them.”
Even after five decades as a professional musician, Benson still practices guitar every day. He doesn’t retreat to a home studio, though; he plays in his living room.
“Early morning, when there ain’t nobody up to hear,” Benson responded when asked about his daily schedule. “I don’t know any other way to do it. I want to live up to what people think I am. So I practice to stay on top of things."
And he keeps making things — music — interesting. In 2006, Benson and Al Jarreau released the joint album “Givin’ it Up.” The album contained a scintillating jazz&B rendition of the Billie Holiday standard “God Bless the Child” that featured neo-soul vocalist Jill Scott. The song won a 2007 Grammy for best traditional R&B performance.
Benson shifts between jazz, R&B and blues with ease. In live shows, he’s known to throw blues licks into jazz tunes. The notes stick out like a sore thumb — on a hand the listener wants to shake.
“To me, there’s only two kinds (of music),” Benson said. “Good and bad. It’s all in the eyes and ears of the beholder.”
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.