No one is better suited to talk about both George Benson and David Sanborn than our very own Marcus Miller. Besides being among the most astute and knowledgeable musical minds, Marcus has collaborated with both of them extensively over the years – performing with and producing and writing tunes for both Benson and Sanborn. We thought it would be very interesting to pose some questions to Marcus about those legendary musicians and, of course, not only did Marcus agree, but his thoughts and comments are particularly insightful. The kind of insights that can come only from another iconic and gifted musician.
Smooth News: Marcus, when you were 17 or so, both George Benson and David Sanborn were in their 30s and on their way to stardom. Were they on your radar at that time?
Marcus Miller: When I was 17, George Benson was definitely on his way to superstardom and on EVERYBODY’S radar in the music community. We’re talking ’76, ’77. His first hit, “This Masquerade”, was on the radio all day every day. So he was certainly on his way to becoming a household name.
BUT, in the Straight-Ahead Jazz community, George Benson was already a LEGEND at that time.
Since the late ’60s, George was universally acknowledged as the heir to Wes Montgomery. EVERY guitar player I knew was trying to learn his licks. He combined incredible technique with down home soulfulness. He was already the Gold Standard on the guitar. To the point where, when we musicians first heard “This Masquerade” we were like, “What is he doing singing???!!” It was like seeing Michael Jordan play baseball!
But we came to realize that George was truly multitalented, as evidenced by his 15-year string of vocal hits that followed “This Masquerade”! So now we enjoy everything George has to offer. But the musicians still wait for that point in the song, after he sings the second chorus, where George rips off a couple of guitar licks! He lets us know he’s still the king!
Now, David Sanborn in the late ’70s was just starting to make his mark. The thing I remember most about him during that time was that we had never heard a sound like that coming out of a saxophone. No matter whether he was a special guest on a Stevie Wonder record (“Tuesday Heartbreak”) or a David Bowie record or the Rolling Stones, that sound of David’s always cut through and got your attention. Everyone recognized the sound – and when David started making his own records in the late ’70s, we were finally able to put a name to the sound.
Smooth News: We know how much you respect and enjoy both George Benson and David Sanborn and look forward to being onstage with them on the “Back to Sea” edition of The Smooth Jazz Cruise ’22. What emotions do you feel when you perform with the Greatest Living Guitarist and Saxophonist?
Marcus Miller: The main emotion is joy, the joy of still having opportunities to play with these guys.
Smooth News: How do you think George Benson will be remembered as a guitarist and as a vocalist?
Marcus Miller: Like I was saying earlier, George’s reputation as a guitarist has been locked since the ’70s. He’s one of the greatest ever. As a vocalist, I think people are just starting to realize that in the era (the ’80s), when Michael Jackson was No. 1 on the charts and Prince was No. 2, or vice versa, George Benson was quietly and consistently there at No. 3 for at least a decade! You don’t realize how many hits he had until you hear him in concert and he strings them all together. I think George will be considered in the same category as Nat King Cole, who started off as a highly influential pianist before his voice propelled him to pop superstardom.
Smooth News: David Sanborn has inspired an entire generation of saxophonists, many of whom try to duplicate his sound and manner. What is the “magic” that they all wish to capture?
Marcus Miller: When David Sanborn puts the horn to his mouth and plays a couple of licks, all heads in the room turn to see who’s creating that sound. It happens at rehearsal, in the studio, or in the sax store when he’s trying out mouthpieces! The sound is that distinctive. It’s an intense, piercing, emotional, bittersweet sound that contains equal parts joy and pain.
Smooth News: In 4 words or less, describe George Benson and do the same for David Sanborn.
Marcus Miller: George – Elegant, Joyful, SupremelyGifted, ICONIC. Sanborn – Wintelligent (Witty AND Intelligent!!), Agitator, SupremelyGifted, ICONIC.
Smooth News: For many, many of the musicians on The Smooth Jazz Cruise, YOU are their model musician and performer. Do you feel that?
Marcus Miller: I don’t do much modeling. There were a couple of photo shoots, a couple of GQ magazine covers … but for the most part I stick to music. More seriously though, if that’s true, it’s very nice. We ALL have a lot of respect for each other, which is what makes the cruise so cool!