Saturday, March 3, 2012

George Benson Must Think I'm an Idiot

Over the years, I've gathered a few fancy pieces of paper that hang on my wall and purport knowledge gained. I don't dispute that I learned a few things in the hallowed halls of academia, but I had another school just as important. For a while in the early 1990s, I got to study at the feet of a guitarist named Billy Thompson and class met anywhere and anytime he let me hang out with him.

Billy (BT in my mind) was the leader of the Mighty Penguins that were regarded as the top-flight blues act in San Diego, but they hadn't been working much at the time due to some internal differences. For reasons I've never understood but always appreciated, BT took to me and let me play in his pick-up bands for several months while he was trying out some new ideas and deciding what direction to take his material. Getting to jam with him night after night and hearing his blistering explorations and rhythmic ferociousness was sometimes overwhelming. He would wrap up another of his seemingly effortless, bad-ass solos and give me the nod to go next and I'd think, "You've got to be kidding me!" But I hung in there, studied the homework he implied, and kept coming back to the classes he held for me in the various bars and juke-joints we performed in.

Guitarist Billy Thompson

One of the most important things BT ever taught me was to not get caught up trying to be the baddest cat in town. He said, "Man, I don't give a rip if somebody says I'm the guitarist to beat around here. I only compare myself to my heroes, not some fool in a local beach bar." That one has stayed with me everyday of my life for over twenty years now. Any time I get complacent, start to get soft, or stop pushing myself to improve as a man or musician, I take heed of BT's lesson. As soon as I feel like I'm becoming the big fish, it's time to move my tail to a bigger pond.

My esteem for BT as a mentor is all the more poignant when I recall the unfortunate afternoon when it was me who became the fool at a local bar. Elario's Bistro Sky-Lounge was an elegant dinner-showroom on the top floor of a hotel overlooking the beach in La Jolla, California, and BT had a steady gig there, not as a guitarist, but as production manager and soundman. Besides booking some of the better local talent, Elario's also attracted rising national artists and a few big names. As another component of BT's tuteledge, he called me one day and said, "Hey Bud, I need to get the piano dialed in for an act tonight. Come on down to the club and bang on the keys while I move the microphones around." Always eager to help the man, I obliged and soon found myself entering the main dining room to be awestruck by the gorgeous view that day: crystal blue waters under a tangerine sky.

Elario's Bistro Sky-Lounge was on the top floor of the Hotel La Jolla

I proceeded past the bar and noticed a well-groomed man seated by himself sipping a cocktail. The bar didn't officially open until closer to dinner so I noted that he must be a high-rolling businessman for the management to accommodate an afternoon drinker. I moved on towards the stage and took a seat at the baby grand. "Ready when you are BT," I announced. "Sweet," he responded. "Just play anything for awhile and I'll try some different settings."

It's not unusual for musicians to fall into rituals when preparing to perform. After putting on new strings, many guitarists will go straight to an open D chord to check the tuning. Singers might repeat a favorite catch phrase or melodic fragment when checking microphones. And drummers often have an elaborate series of warm-ups they play while tuning their drums to the room. Somewhere along my musical journey I acquired the habit of getting familiar with a new room or piano by playing the opening two chords that were popular in the smooth-jazz hit, "This Masquerade." Musicians know these chords as F minor 9th followed by B-flat 13th. And so I sat there and began my ritual like I had so many times before without any hesitation. I noticed BT immediately gave me a questioning raised eyebrow, but I figured he was just dismayed by the frequencies coming through the sound system and I continued to plod ahead with my warm-up chords for the next several minutes.

Finally, BT got the microphones set in a position he found pleasing and said, "Okay, that's enough. Come on down from the stage." I approached him thinking I might hear some words of appreciation, but instead BT asked, "So, you think you're gonna get a gig or something doing that?" "What you talkin' about Billy? I was just jamming so you could get a sound check." "Dude," he exclaimed, "That's George Benson sitting at the bar: the guy who made 'This Masquerade' famous, and you just spent the last five minutes stickin' it in his face!"

The words were like a punch to the gut. I was horrified at the thought that I had just spent all that time inadvertently saying to the great guitarist-vocalist, "Look at me, look at me," like some annoying local hack. Now, if this were a 1940's Hollywood movie, Benson would have come over to me and said, "Kid, you've got moxie and I like your style. It just so happens I need a new pianist so give me a call." Well, he did eventually saunter over, but only to talk with BT. Earlier in his career, Benson played Elario's and remembered the incredible view, so while he had some time to kill before his show that night at a larger venue, he came by for a drink. He and BT were soon chatting it up like old friends and doing what guitarists always inevitably do: talk about gear. Meanwhile, I disappeared into the corner and kept my mouth shut.

George Benson

Later, when BT and I were alone, I asked, "Benson didn't say anything about my silliness on the piano did he?" "Nope," he answered. "Never came up." I was immensely relieved and yet slightly disappointed at the same time. Pride and vanity have often battled for dominance in my musician brain.

In the months and years to come, BT and I slowly drifted apart, though there was no malice or disagreement. He had other opportunities and I moved away from blues towards genres that tended to pay better. These days he's tearing it up along the east coast still making great music. George Benson has continued on to be a legendary figure in jazz and popular music. And me, well, I make my way engaging various endeavors in the music world, but come check out one of my gigs sometime to see if I don't still warm up with those same two chords and chuckle at myself while I'm doin' it.


[Check out my man BT at]

[The pre-release buzz about my Johnny Hartman book is really picking up and has resulted in me just being offered my own ongoing column in a very prominent jazz website. I'll announce more as soon as the details get worked out. Thanks for your support everybody.]

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