That Weekend in L.A. with George Benson

benson

 

In late September of 1977 jazz guitarist and newly minted crossover R&B crooner, George Benson landed in Los Angeles to record his landmark live album at the legendary Roxy Theatre.  At the time, Los Angeles was in the midst of creating incredible historic and enduring moments.  The months leading up to Benson’s performance on the night of September 30th at the Roxy Theatre, Angelinos had not only witnessed the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter with the rest of America, but locally experienced remarkable events that ranged from the unforgettable imagery of NASA’s Space shuttle Enterprise soaring across the sky piggy-backed on a Boeing 747 jet, experiencing the frenzy of the redefining sci-fi soon to be juggernaut film Star Wars, to welcoming Mayor Tom Bradley—arguably the most politically and socially significant person west of the Rockies in the ‘70s—into his second term, collectively breathed a sigh of relief with the capture of the sick “Freeway Killer” all while watching new Dodgers’ manager Tommy Lasorda lead his team into the NLCS*.  Los Angeles was indeed primed and ready to receive a George Benson performance.

A year prior, Benson’s popularity reached the zenith of his career with the release of his hit single “This Masquerade” from his two time Grammy award winning album Breezin’. His sure-fire vocals and scats, which mirrored his guitar melodies and jazz riffs, catapulted him into the upper echelon of R&B crooners of the era.  Benson, for the first time, effectively crossed over from the jazz genre solidly into the world of R&B and pop. Attracting new and larger audiences for his live performances, Benson was indeed primed to deliver for a slick and beautifully complex L.A. audience.

On the afternoon of September 30th, Benson made his way up Sunset Boulevard amid fancy cars, infamous traffic, Hollywood sunshine, larger-than-life billboards, palm tree-lined streets, and of course a bit of that iconic L.A. smog on his way to the Roxy Theatre. The theatre on Sunset, commonly known as The Roxy, was founded by producers and Hollywood insiders Lou Adler, Elmer Valentine, David Geffen, Elliot Roberts, and Peter Asher who together opened its doors for business just four years earlier.  In a short time, The Roxy had emerged as the venue of choice for up and coming artists to showcase their talents to a consuming audience bent on catching a glimpse of the new hot thing. Upon Benson’s arrival, he was met by his well rehearsed and longtime band, which consisted of Stanley Banks on Bass, Ronnie Foster on synthesizer, the late Ralph MacDonald on percussion, Phil Upchurch on rhythm guitar, Harvey Mason on drums, and the late Jorge Dalto on piano.  He quickly rehearsed the setlist and worked out any kinks to create a flawless show.  After rehearsal, Benson met with the late producer Tommy LiPuma to work out stage sounds and board mixes.  In conversation with Benson, LiPuma agonized over what to name the album and pondered a few ideas. Ultimately, not wanting to apply a common and yet all too mundane moniker like George Benson Live at the Roxy, which is a style that has been used to name other albums recorded live at The Roxy, rather LiPuma settled on George Benson Weekend in L.A.  The title implied a happening–an event that was not to be missed.  Benson loved it.

That very night in late September, Benson stepped on stage to a sold out and packed Roxy.  The audience was filled with Angelino fans eager to be lifted to the next level by the magic of Benson’s performance.  Music industry heavy hitters such as Aretha Franklin, the late Minnie Ripperton, the late Natalie Cole, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Scott, the late Leon Russell, and even actors David Soul and Keith Carradine were nestled into the crowd to certify Benson’s rising star as an R&B and pop artist.  Benson’s music swept over the audience and filled the gritty theatre with a lively atmosphere of celebration, which aided in the release of tension for residents of L.A.  His skillful jazz licks and well-seasoned vocals easily carried the audience to a place of both respite and pleasure.  Benson and his band opened with songs such as the aptly named “Weekend in LA,” written especially for this live event.  Then in grand style, summoned for the first time, he performed  “On Broadway,” which, after this night, would become his signature song. Next, Benson dug in on the heartfelt “Down Here on The Ground,” which was followed by  the driving “California P.M.”  And finally, to round out half of the album’s set, he sang out in fantastic fashion “The Greatest Love of All,” which he recorded a few months earlier for the Muhammad Ali film, The Greatest.  The late Whitney Houston’s recording of “The Greatest Love of All” became the first of her many signature songs.  The Roxy audience cheered, shouted, and erupted in applause throughout the lively performance while Benson continued to perform the rest of the evening.  His songs’ fed L.A’s appetite for epic and uniquely cultured music.

In the end, Benson performed at The Roxy for three nights.  The L.A. audience embraced his music amid the electric climate of the late seventies.  Certainly, Benson was ready for his proverbial “Hollywood close-up,” which was made possible by his newfound crossover appeal. The Roxy was the perfect venue to bring together the complex and slick L.A. audience.  The live recording of George Benson Weekend in L.A. captured a magical evening that not only demonstrated how a guitar and jazz riffs could bring a crowd to a frenzy but more so, spoke to the issues of the era.   The entire live album, upon a contemporary listen, is infused with the promise of hope and change.  Without question, the 80s kept that promise.  That weekend in L.A. with George Benson was indeed a happening, which we can revisit and experience anytime. The album is a classic. 

George Benson Weekend in L.A. was released three months later in January of 1978. Benson’s weekend effort garnered him the Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for the song “On Broadway.”  Benson’s album, which turned 40 years old earlier this month is impeccably recorded and is a must listen.

 

*Not to get all sporty here but the Dodgers won the NLCS in a 3-1 victory over the Phillies and went to the World Series to battle the Yankees.  Reggie Jackson with a little help from the rest of the Yankees sent the Dodgers packing 4-2. It’s a good thing they had George Benson Weekend in L.A. to soothe the hurt.

Scandal: I Know Why Bey Lip-Synched!

Beyonce Lip SynchingOk, it’s been over a week since Beyonce sang the Star Spangled Banner on the Capital steps in celebration of the historical second inauguration of President Barack Obama.  The following day of the event it was revealed that she lip-synched her performance on such a momentous occasion, which set off a firestorm of commentary and opinions that ranged from it being the best performance of her life to so what!  Well, the following is my commentary and opinion of her performance and most likely not the last public discharge on the happening before Beyonce’s next performance: the Superbowl Halftime Show.

So what is it that I have to say that has not already been said?  Well I hope to put into context the reason Beyonce decided to lip sync the tune and the reason we were all talking about it.

First let me say that to me her performance was not surprising.  During her live performance, I thought it was just good.  It wasn’t spectacular or all that! Just good. I’ve heard better. The next day, when I heard she might have lip-synched her performance I thought, “Ok, I’m not surprised.”  Please understand the Star Spangled Banner is a relatively easy song to sing.  I can sing it (albeit it may not be pleasing to your ears).  Its melody, which has it’s origins in an 1800 century English social club was composed no doubt while inebriated, is catchy and memorable which is why you can hum along when you forget Francis Scott Key’s words, which he scribed almost a century later.  Although it is an easy song to sing, what makes its performance special lies in the ability of the singer.  Here is the reason why shower singers or alone-in-the-car singers like me will never be asked to sing the song in public.  The song’s simple melody provides plenty of space for the gifted singer to seemingly perform vocal miracles at will.  Not many can do this.  Able gifted singers are free to explore the boundaries of their gift with this song. The ability to perform at this level is what makes it an amazing anthem and exciting to listen to, especially when sung by someone who is indeed capable.  Enter Bey.

Let me be clear here, I’m not hating on her, she is simply neither capable nor gifted enough to perform the song in a spectacular manner.  And for that matter a lot of folks are not either.  Bey’s vocal prowess is limited.  She lacks the range and power needed to create a memorable performance.  A few articles, penned in her defense last week, announced she was one of the greatest singers of all time.  Ha, this is laughable.  Her mentors are still around, right?  She possesses nowhere near the vocal talent of Patti, Chaka, Gladys, Anita, and certainly not Aretha.  These truly gifted singers at Bey’s age were unrivaled in their talent.  Bey, to no fault of her own, does not have what it takes in terms of her physical voice to match any performance of her mentors.

Aretha at 30 around Bey's age.

Aretha at around Bey’s age, 30.

Even in comparison to her contemporaries such as Ledisi, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys and I’ll throw in the untouchable and seasoned Rachelle Ferrell just to f**k with the curve, she falls extremely short of the mark.

What Bey did was not unprecedented. That day the choir, not the soloist, lip-synched to a prerecorded track.  Also in 2009, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the violinist Itzhak Perlman “string-synched” their performance because string instruments are notoriously temperamental in cold weather.  They did this because they had no physical control over their instrument . . . like Bey.

Ok knowing this about her lack of ability, it’s great she did in fact lip sync her performance.  Can you imagine what it might have sounded like?

So, why was this a scandal if others have in essence faked their performance as well?  It’s the expectation created by the event.  We the people expect the best when it comes to such events like the Presidential inauguration.  For decades the best and most significant/impact-ful singers, poets, writers, and politicians were gathered together to help set the tone of the up coming Presidency.  With this type of talent we the people expect the best.  Bey’s lip synching performance was not the best for the American people.  Of course her fans beg to differ or simply shrug it off and say, “so!”  Along with the fact that most Americans hold high expectations of all portions of the inauguration we also expected the best from Bey, which would have been a live, sincere, and authentic performance.  However, when it comes to the singing talent of Bey, I feel most of the world has been duped into believing what she is not.  I believe we have confused her ability to entertain with the ability to sing.  These are two very different things.  Let’s not get it twisted, Bey is not a singer and never has been a singer.  As mentioned, she is not physically capable of sangin’.  What I mean by this is I doubt she can belt out any tune in my living room sans a mic with enough power, conviction, skill, or emotion to move me.  Please realize this, I refer to my vocal luminaries to guide me in the direction of a person who is truly gifted in voice. [a few of my vocal luminaries in terms of women are of course Patti, Chaka, Aretha, Rachelle, but also Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Mahalia Jackson, Whitney Houston, and again Jennifer Hudson . . .] I recognize and embrace those singers who match my vocal luminaries and move me.  I will never embrace anyone who falls short of this high bar as a singer.  Why would I accept anything less or mediocre?  Bey can indeed hold a tune, but so can many others.  Bey is mediocre.  Rather than a singer I define her as an extremely successful entertainer.  She possesses many abilities to entertain her fans and even me.  An entertainer does it all to appeal to a mass audience.  She can hold a tune, dance, and act.  Bey is an entertainer! I like entertainers; I like being entertained.  Ben Vereen and Sammy Davis, Jr. were entertainers who were also in the top ten of the list in all those categories that define an entertainer.  They could sing, dance, and act on a high level.

Davis acting his ass off in the film "A Man Called Adam"

Davis acting his ass off in the film “A Man Called Adam” click here

Unlike Vereen and Davis, I believe Bey being mediocre in all of these is still able to dupe the American public into thinking she is a singer on a high level.  She is not the best singer, she is not the best dancer, and she is not the best actor by any stretch of the imagination.  Today’s entertainer does it all and is categorized wrongly as a singer.  And it is because of this wrongly placed moniker Bey, an entertainer, was chosen and expected to do the work of a singer at the Presidential inauguration.  I believe this was made a scandal because we expected Bey to be that amazing singer and she failed us.

Furthermore, I believe Bey knows she can’t sing on that level.  According to all the reports and articles, Bey at the last minute decided to lip sync her performance.  Why?  Was she nervous? Did she forget the words?  I think not! She has sung the Star Spangled Banner many times before both live and lip-synched.  I believe she did not feel capable of creating a memorable performance with her knowingly limited skill.  I can imagine her saying to H.O.V.A., “I know I’m not going to be able to sing anything better than what I did in the studio yesterday not to mention I have not practiced with the Marine Band.”  She lacked the ability and with this lacked the confidence to even try.  In so many words she had no guts, no courage, no gumption . . . in essence no Balls!  This is completely expected when you don’t believe in your own talent.  Bey demonstrated pure fear.  Any stellar singer worth anything would have marched out on the steps of the Capital and did the damn thang!  Four years ago Aretha Franklin sang her ass off in colder weather and very little warm up time.  In an interview about her spectacular performance she commented that she wished she had more time to warm up because her performance would have been better . . .  Balls!  Oh and she also commented she wanted to give this historical occasion an atmosphere of authenticity.  However when you are unsure of you own instrument or lack the ability you will fold like a wet noodle.  Luckily Bey recorded a stand in the day before and tagged out of the task.

With all this being said I feel Bey’s credibility, as a singer is unchanged in my mind. I didn’t expect her to do anything more.  Hell, if anything it should have been better, after all, she recorded in near perfect conditions in a studio the day before.  In the end, I hope you can understand the context of Bey’s performance or lack there of.  She is a physically limited singer, which she is fully aware of who lacks the self-confidence to perform on the grandest of stages all while an audience who has been duped into believing she is a singer who can create something amazing!

Oh, the scandal!

This coming Sunday when you are watching the Superbowl Halftime Show remember you are watching an entertainer and not a singer, so don’t expect to be amazed much by her vocal performance.  However you will be greatly entertained.

Open Letter to Whitney

Dear Whitney Elizabeth Houston,

I was more than shocked upon hearing about your sudden departure from this world on Saturday.  I literally stood still for a moment to take it all in.  My first thought was,  “could this be a joke?”  But sadly, it wasn’t. Your death was confirmed by a local news reporter who started his “Breaking News” commentary with “we have tragic news for you . . . “ Whitney, it seemed like he was speaking directly to me.  I didn’t want to believe it.  But it was indeed true.  Sadness enveloped me.  I texted a few friends and called my wife (she loves you Whitney) in an effort to reach out in the midst of my sadness.  Whitney, everyone was in shock about your passing.  Folks texted back saying “Oh no,” “What?? . . . No!,” “What happened?,” “When?,” and “How?”  My brother from Atlanta texted me saying, “Please tell me this is all a bad dream!!!”  They loved you Whitney.  My wife stated to me in sadness, “why does this keep happening to us?”  She said “to us” Whitney.  You were a part of our lives.

Whitney, you will be missed.  I will miss your voice.  I know the past few years you’ve had a tremendous struggle with recapturing and maintaining your God-given gift . . . your voice.  Now that you are gone I will not have the opportunity to observe you battle back from that dark place where all seems lost.  Somehow, I felt in time, you would regain that wonderful voice that once demanded my attention.  I know you needed just a little more time to get well and back on top of your game.

Whitney, as I reminisce, I can easily recall how effortlessly you were able to release the magic of your voice.  I remember on several occasions when you were about to belt out a final last note, you would sturdy yourself in a strong stance, take a deep breath, stretch your arms out toward the crowd, and then actuate a sound from your throat and mouth that would give the choirs of heaven goosebumps.  Your voice was only limited by the physical confines of the human body.  Whitney, your gift, that immutable passion, and confidence will be missed.

Whitney, you must know that every time you sang your song you brought joy not only to my life but to the lives of others as well.  You were the voice of my generation.  You were the gold standard that all aspired to come close to.  Whitney, I watched your majestic rise to success and your awful demise.  The witnessing of this fall has been painful for me.  I wished and prayed that you received deliverance from the evil that taunted you.  Girl, what was it that gripped and cast such a dark shadow on you and led you to the horrors of addiction?

Whitney, now that you have moved beyond this world my thoughts are with you and your family.  I sympathize with your daughter Bobbi as I have lost a mother too.  Bobbi will struggle with your passing and in time she will make sense of your life.  She will remember everything you taught her.  Whitney, my heart goes out to your mom who has lost a child.  I cannot truly understand the dept of her loss for you.  I hear that to lose a child is devastating to ones soul.  Whitney, I have a daughter and at this moment cannot phantom the thought of losing her without great great sorrow.  Whitney, please know that their grief is out of an irreplaceable love for you.

Cissy and young Whitney 1979

In the end, Whitney, I know at this moment you are in a good place.  You are now a member of that heavenly choir.  You are in full embrace with the one who gave you your gift.  Knowing this gives me great comfort and eases my sadness.

Sincerely,

One of but many who love you!

P.S., Jennifer Hudson laid it out for you at the Grammys!