George Washington Benson
Jazz/crossover guitarist, singer and songwriter
Born: March 22, 1943, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Lives in: Englewood, New Jersey
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2021: Performing Arts
A 10-time Grammy winner, George Benson is one of the most successful pop/jazz crossover artists ever. Widely respected as a jazz guitarist, his crossover success came largely thanks to his smooth, engaging vocal performances on such late 1970s hits as “This Masquerade” and “On Broadway.”
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Benson picked up the ukulele at age 7 and made his first R&B recordings at age 9. At 17, he had formed a rock band, in which he performed on a homemade guitar. But Benson was drawn to jazz, and at age 22, signed his first major-label deal with Columbia Records, where he made several notable albums and performed on recordings by Miles Davis and other top artists.
Benson initially became a star in the jazz world, but broke through to pop success with the 1976 album “Breezin.’” The record reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Pop Albums chart and became the first jazz album to sell more than a million copies—thanks to its one vocal track, “This Masquerade,” a top-10 hit on Billboard’s pop singles chart. (The album eventually was certified for U.S. sales of 3 million copies.)
The success of “This Masquerade” confounded jazz critics and label executives, who were unimpressed by Benson’s earlier singing and saw him primarily as a talented instrumental artist. But at least one fan had a different view. In a 2020 interview with The New York Times, Benson recalled the moment when no less a vocal giant than Frank Sinatra told the guitarist that he loved his voice. “When he said that to me,” Benson told the Times, “I dismissed all those bad reviews of [my] music, talking about my voice and treating me like a dog. Sinatra said he loved my voice. That’s it!”
Benson’s career as a crossover artist soared, with the singles “On Broadway,” “Give Me the Night” and “Turn Your Love Around,” all reaching the top 10 between 1978 and 1981.
Four decades after that career peak, Benson continues to tour worldwide. He has released dozens of studio and live recordings, many of which have turned up on the pop, R&B and jazz charts—further testifying to Benson’s crossover prowess and popularity. Throughout his career, Benson, a longtime Englewood resident, also has performed as a sideman on guitar for a range of major artists, including Freddy Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, Tony Bennett, Mary J. Blige, Rod Stewart and, yes, Frank Sinatra.