Eric Gale and Phil Upchurch put their driving, R&B based rhythm guitar behind George Benson and helped make him a star. As studio stars, they also heavily influenced the sonic world of 1970s rock and pop.
by Marshall Bowden
George Benson has become, in the minds of many listeners, an example of the overly smooth R&B-soul-jazz music that all too easily slipped into smooth jazz. His guitar chops have never been up for argument, it’s just that most jazz fans wanted him to do something more like his early soul-jazz work with Jack McDuff or at least his first few CTI records where, despite the smoothness of the arrangements and overall aesthetic, the band usually still worked up some sparks of improvisation and energy.
What’s less clear is that George Benson didn’t negotiate the combining of the guitar’s history in jazz, soul, and funk into a new aesthetic that would influence popular music by himself. He worked over the late 1960s and early ’70s with a group of guitarists who helped define the guitar’s role in music that was not specifically blues or rock. These guitarists included Earl Klugh, Eric Gale, and Phil Upchurch. All three worked with Benson and together with him they profoundly influenced the studio aesthetic of the time.
Good King Bad, Benson’s 1976 CTI release, featured “Theme from Good King Bad”. That single earned Benson a Grammy Award for Best R&B Instrumental Performance, and it featured Eric Gale playing rhythm guitar. The formula of a solid R&B-style guitarist fueling Benson’s Wes Montgomery-style guitar solos was one that he would use on his first Warner Brothers album Breezin‘. That record, produced by Tommy LiPuma, was judged by many jazz fans to be a bridge too far, but it earned Benson multiple Grammy Awards and it cemented his sound going forward.
Eric Gale was already a member of the group Stuff, a group of studio musicians organized by bassist Gordon Edwards and guitarist Cornell Dupree. The original band included Gale, keyboardist Richard Tee, and drummer Steve Gadd. They recorded several albums of superior jazz-funk fusion that included tracks that were popular in dance clubs and gay clubs, and they played, together and separately, on a huge number of pop and rock records from the mid-seventies into the eighties. If you listen to their debut album, Stuff, released in 1975, you hear the kind of soul/R&B/gospel-tinged music that you hear on releases from the era by Paul Simon and John Lennon, among others.
Studio musicians reigned supreme, and at the time I considered the life of a studio musician to be the ultimate goal of a well-trained musician who didn’t want to necessarily lead their own band or deal with the economics of touring. Studio musicians were appearing on the recordings of pop artists and sometimes, they were collaborating with them in ways that created a whole new sound for the singer with whom they worked. Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, and Van Morrison would be examples of musicians who came to rely on studio musicians to interpret their music.
A deep listen and look at musician credits reveal that by 1976 or ’77 studio musicians had become so prevalent on rock albums that there is little difference between the sound of the decade’s biggest artists and the sound of the decade’s biggest studio musicians and bands. I think it’s one reason the music of that era tends to reverberate so much more through the years than the music of the 1980s. By the eighties, technology had become a much more common aspect of recording records that it began to replace the sounds of individual musicians with the sounds of machines.
Gale recorded on several other records with Benson as well as working with Bob James on his CTI recordings and releasing his own records on Columbia. Gale’s two 1977 releases, Ginseng Woman and Multiplication are both good examples of his work from this period. Gale plays the same bluesy, jazz-inspired riffs but the band sounds very similar to the CTI projects by other musicians to which Gale was contributing. That’s not surprising considering the musicians who play on these records: Steve Gadd, Anthony Jackson, Bob James, and Grover Washington, Jr. In fact, the title track is a Bob James composition and it’s not hard to imagine this on one of his easy, breezy ’70s recordings as well.
Phil Upchurch came from Chicago, playing for R&B vocal groups and jazz artists like The Dells, Richard ‘Groove’ Holmes, and Oscar Brown, Jr. He played as a session guitarist at Chess Records and hooked up with musician, arranger, and producer Charles Stepney and his Soulful Strings group as well as playing on Rotary Connection albums.
In 1969 Stepney, a pioneer of modern black music produced the album Upchurch for Phil. Released on the Cadet label, the album finds Upchurch playing a similar style to that which would lead George Benson to musical gold. Yet Upchurch’s work is infused with both a hint of psychedelia (aided greatly by Stepney’s horn and string arrangements) and some of the anger of the soul music he interpreted. His version of “Inner City Blues” from his 1971 album Darkness Darkness is probably my favorite Phil Upchurch track, demonstrating that he could play economically, smoothly, and yet still work up the sparks. By the way, both Upchurch and Darkness Darkness feature the work of Donny Hathaway–he plays keyboard on both, and he produced and arranged most of Darkness Darkness.
Fast forward to 1976 and George Benson’s Breezin‘ album, a huge hit and just as responsible for ushering in the smooth jazz era as any other recording of that time. What drives the title track along, despite the Tommy LiPuma production and the overkill of Claus Ogerman’s strings and woodwinds (compare to Stepney’s work on Upchurch or Hathaway’s on Darkness Darkness) is Phil Upchurch’s top-notch, unheralded rhythm guitar. Upchurch also plays bass on the track, and his composition “Six to Four” is a mild hit as well.
Benson once said that if you gave him a million dollars he’d drop the best jazz album you’ve ever heard. Always a practical musician, Benson understood that if you choose to make music your life’s work you have to find a way to pay the bills. But he, Gale, and Upchurch were able to find ways to play the soulful music they enjoyed while maintaining solid careers.