George Benson

The Other Side of Abbey Road

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Fifty years ago this month, the Beatles debuted in America on The Ed Sullivan Show. Since then, popular music has moved far away from them but not far beyond them. Time is the true judge of art, and so far time has been kind to the Beatles—perhaps kinder than any other artist of their era.

I first met the Beatles when my dad played me Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on cassette tape after little league baseball practice when I was about eleven years old. I sat entranced, a feeling that the intervening two decades has only deepened. Lately, after wearing out every Beatles album with thousands of spins, I’ve been most fascinated with the large body of soul/R&B covers of Beatles songs and albums.

One that stands out in particular is George Benson’s The Other Side of Abbey Road. Like the Beatles’ magnum opus, each listen to Benson’s homage reveals something deeper, more complex, and more brilliant than seems possible. His version of “Golden Slumbers” opens the album with a fantastically intricate and delicate arrangement that will raise the hair on your neck, but just as soon as he’s got you all misty he shifts into the supreme funk of “Come Together,” followed by a simply devastating version of “Oh! Darling” that might be better than the original.

The music throughout is so precisely and expertly executed, it is nearly impossible to believe that Benson recorded his album a mere month after the Beatles’ version came out. Of course, such a feat is easier to accept when taking into account the caliber of musicians he recruited. The Other Side is truly an all-star effort, produced by the legend Creed Taylor and featuring the likes of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard, and a who’s who of jazz sidemen like drummers Idris Muhammad and Ed Shaughnessy (who would later play with Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show band) and Grammy-winning percussionist, Ray Barretto. And, of course, there is Benson’s guitar.

The real story of the album, though, is Benson’s voice. The Other Side is perhaps the only time in his storied career that his singing outshines even his guitar playing. Whether it’s the wistful way he phrases “Golden Slumbers,” or the simmering, sexual treatment he gives “Oh! Darling,” or the heartbreaking sincerity of “Here Comes the Sun,” or the jazzy pleading on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” or the spacey, post-coital coos on “Something”—any time Benson sings on the album, his voice is unforgettable. This is an album that will stay with you for a while.

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