George Benson

Guitarist/singer George Benson is one of the best-selling jazz artists in music history.

Benson, born 56 years ago today in Pittsburgh, has had hits with the #1 "This Masquerade," as well as "Turn Your Love Around," "Give Me the Night," "On Broadway," and (before Whitney Houston) "The Greatest Love of All."

Benson won a singing contest when he was four years old and became a radio singer as Little Georgie Benson. He continued singing in Pittsburgh soul groups before shifting emphasis toward guitar playing.

He became a session guitar player and recorded for Amy Records with groups such as the Altairs and George Benson and His All-Stars. In 1965, Benson met jazz guitar legend Wes Montgomery in New York. Benson idolized Montgomery and began to emulate his guitar style.

Benson was soon signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond, the legendary talent scout who had discovered Bob Dylan and would later sign Bruce Springsteen to the label.

Benson recorded jazz albums featuring greats such as Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, and Earl Klugh, but none became a big seller. In concert, Benson began drawing pop-music fans by tackling jazzy versions of rock classics such as "California Dreamin'," "Come Together," and "White Rabbit"(RealAudio excerpt of Jefferson Airplane version). Benson also recorded The Other Side of Abbey Road, an interpretation of the 1969 Beatles album.

When Warner Brothers Records signed Benson in 1975, the label's executives wisely urged Benson to go back to singing. The tactic resulted in one of the best selling jazz albums in music history, the multiplatinum, multi-Grammy Award-winning Breezin' (1976). Its single, a cover of Leon Russell's "This Masquerade," was the first to make #1 on the Billboard pop, jazz and R&B charts. On Warner Brothers, Benson accumulated three other platinum LPs and two gold albums.

In the '80s, Benson became a Jehovah's Witness. In 1991, his son was killed in a bar fight. Also in the '80s, Warner Brothers had to pay CTI Records, an earlier Benson label, for breaching a contract with Benson.

In the latter part of his career, Benson began touring with jazz compatriots such as Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, and Lionel Hampton. Benson and pianist McCoy Tyner had a #1 jazz LP with Tenderly (1989). In 1993, Benson knocked one of the many artists he has influenced out of the #1 Contemporary Jazz album spot, when his Love Remembers displaced Kenny G's Breathless.

In 1990, Benson toured the U.K. with the Count Basie Orchestra. In 1996, he issued That's Right on GRP records. Last year, Benson released Standing Together, including tracks such as "Fly By Night" and "Cruise Control." Benson remains one of the few artists to have major commercial and critical success in more than one musical genre.

Other birthdays: Jeremy Clyde (Chad and Jeremy), 55; Harry Vanda (Easybeats), 52; Patrick Olive (Hot Chocolate), 52; Stephanie Mills, 42; and Keith Relf (Yardbirds), 1943-1976.