Photo: Tabatha Fireman/Redferns
George Benson Talks Tribute Album To Chuck Berry & Fats Domino: "The Songs are Still Ripe"
When Provogue Records asked GRAMMY winner George Benson to record a covers album of Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, he enthusiastically jumped into what could have been a tired set of oldies -- and recorded a fresh romp through the origins of rock ‘n roll.
Not that the singer, songwriter and guitarist hadn’t tackled standards before. His body of work is filled with renditions of the Beatles, Miles Davis, Sam Cooke, and dozens more; his last album, 2013’s Inspiration, paid tribute to Nat King Cole.
Mmmmm....yummy yellow vinyl. PRE-ORDER!!!! https://t.co/j1W1UK6jBM
— George Benson (@GBguitar) April 2, 2019
Berry and Domino are a heady pair to pay tribute to, but Benson’s masterful touch makes it look like a breeze. Their outsized personalities made them early rock icons -- and much like Benson himself, they transcended musical lines of race, color and genre. And to him, the songs still have “poetic value” in 2019.
“They’re talking about the basics of life,” Benson says with a hint of awe. “Things that people come in contact with every day. And they put those lyrics together in a genius way.”
Berry and Domino are Rock ‘n Roll 101 at this point -- but as he dug deep, Benson found plenty of surprises. Producer Kevin Shirley suggested Berry’s “Havana Moon”; Benson had never previously heard the song. “It sounded very strange to me,” he admitted. “Like something Harry Belafonte would sing.” He let out an irresistible laugh. “But every woman who heard that song loved it!”
His covers of Domino, too, display an affection for the foundations of rock. When the record company asked him to tackle his “Walking to New Orleans,” his ears pricked up; he knew that would be the title.
“It gives them a little hint of what they’re going to be listening to,” he says. “It’s going to have a blues tint.” If you want a fun, breezy crash-course on how that blues sound shaped early rock, Walking to New Orleans is your trusty guide.
Here Benson talks more about about his musical roots, the challenges of covering Berry and Domino and how he balances his music career with being a family man of faith.
What made you want to honor Chuck Berry and Fats Domino in 2019?
The record company are the ones who inspired this record. They’re the ones who made the request for me to do this music. I thought it was strange at first, but after a while, I said, “You know, what a great idea!”
Because these were two icons who crossed over in a day when that was almost impossible. They crossed over in a big way, because they were two very, very strong personalities and their music was highly unique.
These two composers and musicians already had their hands on the vibe. Just to bring that forward is already a big reason why the record is successful so far. I think that’s the main thing. That people think you meant to play this record. You lose that vibe, I think you’ve lost them.
The lyrics to the songs were ripe for the time, and they’re still ripe. Because they’re talking about the basics of life. Things that people come in contact with every day. Their trials and tribulations. And in a genius way, they put those lyrics together. These guys were poets, you know? The stories have a poetic value, and they translate and communicate very well.
What inspired you to cut this music in Nashville?
In Nashville, they wouldn’t question what you were doing. You wouldn’t have to make up things like you would in L.A. They know me too well. They know what I can do. And they would want to be on something different in L.A. In Nashville, they never ask one question, except “What are we playing next? What key is it in?” That’s about it.
There’s a crackly energy between you and the players. Were you trying to let your hair down and play some rock ‘n roll this time?
No, that was another decision on the record company’s part. They had heard me in that context. I couldn’t until it came back to me, because I used to play a lot of that type of music way back in the day, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
We had to play a little bit of everything and listen to a little bit of everything, because that was what was on the radio and on the jukebox. I kind of filed that into a bag that I had gone through. I thought that was the end of it!
Do you remember the first time you heard Fats and Chuck? Did you ever come in contact with those guys?
Only once. I came into contact with Chuck Berry at a music store in L.A. I was doing a video interview and he was in there buying some strings or guitar picks or something like that. I went over and I said, “Mr. Berry, my name is George Benson.” He turned around and shook my hand. “Yeah. Hi.” And then he went right back to what he was doing.
I had to quickly think of something to say. I asked, “Mr. Berry, in my show, I do the duck walk. Do you mind that I do the duck walk in my show?” And he turned around very quickly and said, “Can you?” And then he went right back to buying his guitar picks and his strings. That was the end of that.
Fats Domino, I had the offer to join his band many years ago. I think I was about 16, 17 years old, maybe. One of the guys who was working with him saw me playing somewhere and said, “Man, how’d you like to go on the road?” I never liked that idea, because I never saw anyone on the road who had anything. They all looked like they were tattered and broken-down.
So I said, “No, I never thought about going on the road.” And then he said, “Well, how would you like to gig with Fats Domino?” And I said, “Wow, that’s too heavy for me. I’m not that good a player. No, I couldn’t.” So I didn’t take the gig.
You picked some deeper Chuck Berry cuts, like “Nadine” and “Havana Moon.” Were you trying to honor his more lyrical side?
That might have been the conscious choice by the producer and the record company executive. I think they made a good choice of tunes. I had never heard “Havana Moon” before. It sounded very strange to me. Like a song that maybe Harry Belafonte would do. I didn’t think it particularly meant that much, but every woman who heard that song loved it. So they made good choices!
The title track is a poignant version of Fats’ “Walking to New Orleans.” What struck you about that song?
They had a name for the album. I can’t remember what it was. But when it came around to me, I said, “No, the obvious to me is Walking to New Orleans.” It gives them a little hint about what they’re going to be listening to. It’s going to have a blues tint to it and some very basic ideas. I thought that worked better. And they loved the idea. So that’s what we named it.
You’re a family man and a longtime member of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Is music still a big part of your daily life in both respects?
Keeping the balance was, is, difficult. Trying to get to the meetings when I was home. We put in our time every month. In forty years, I missed maybe one or two months, because I was out on the road. But yeah, music in my house every day. I practice almost every day, because it’s been the best way for me to keep abreast of things.
I learn something from every project. But music moves around a lot. You can’t depend on something you did 40 years ago. You’ve gotta keep coming up with something. They’ve already got those albums on their shelves. To try to keep new ideas going forward has been the challenge. We’ve been very successful at that.