…the light bulb came on as to what I needed to do if I wanted to have a sustained career in music. With that credit I was able to go on and work with Ronnie Laws, Hubert Laws, and Sadao Watanabe—as well as getting my feet wet in the studios. In 1981, my dreams came true when I became a member of George Benson’s band. And here we are 40 years later, still really good friends as I continue my work with him.Michael O’Neill
If you’ve ever seen the great George Benson live, you may have wondered “who’s that other cat playing guitar on stage with George”? Well wonder no more! Jazz Guitar Life’s own Dr. Wayne Goins had an opportunity to talk with Michael O’Neill about his role in the George Benson Band, a “dream gig” which has lasted for 40 years and still going strong!
In this exclusive interview, O’Neill shares with us his experiences playing with Mr. Benson, his gear and his early years playing with the biggest and greatest acts out there. Enjoy….but before you do… 🙂
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JGL: Where are you from, where did you grow up?
MO: I was born and raised in Santa Monica, California—my family moved around the greater LA area a bit.
JGL: How long have you been playing? Who were your influences?
MO: I’ve been playing the guitar since my teenage years. My first exposure to music came from my Mexican godfather who was a founding member of the first trio folklorico named “Trio Calaveras.” He was my grandmother’s brother, and the trio would come to LA annually to perform at the majestic Million Dollar Theater located in downtown LA. From the age of 4, I would be at the family parties with all the music and great food. I’m told that they put me up on the table to do my imitation of Elvis Presley doing “Hound Dog.” I think that is part of why I’ve always felt a sense of entertainment—like, that was what I was supposed to do.
Describing my influences requires a timeline as early on as an avid listener of AM radio. Some of my favorites were The Beach Boys and, of course, bands from the British Invasion—The Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc. My interests then evolved into the blues masters: B.B., Albert, and Freddie King, all of which leads to my all-time favorite rock artist, Jimi Hendrix. With a lingering hunger for more, a friend one day put on a record by this guy named Wes Montgomery—and that changed everything. Needless to say, it led me to my 40-year relationship playing with my guitar hero, George Benson.
JGL: Do you play any other instruments?
MO: I actually started out playing bass guitar, and still do play it on my productions. I play basic piano/keyboards, which is necessary for my composing efforts.
JGL: When did you develop the singing aspect of your career?
MO: From the beginning, singing has been an integral part of my musicianship, being a lover of good songs that tell great stories.
JGL: How do you know Rodney Jones? How long have you known him?
MO: I met Rodney Jones probably around 10 years ago when he and fellow guitarist Henry Johnson came to a George Benson show in Chicago. Recently, I’ve become very taken with his brilliance in his “Facebook Live” videos, and I reached out to him in advance of our show at Sony Theater in NYC and we’ve become friends. Rodney has a spirit that resonates with my own in that he’s on a quest to connect with the infinite in his expression. He’s at the top of my list of guitarists right now—and equally as a human.
JGL: What career path did you have before joining GB?
MO: I had a steady diet of all kinds of gigs in LA, but I studied with the late great Ted Greene for six months, and was always searching for more depth. In 1979, my first big break came when I got the gig with The Crusaders at the height of their popularity during the Street Life Tour with Randy Crawford. Being kinda green, “rough around the edges,” and not really attuned to how to play good backup guitar, I only lasted six months with them. But the light bulb came on as to what I needed to do if I wanted to have a sustained career in music. With that credit I was able to go on and work with Ronnie Laws, Hubert Laws, and Sadao Watanabe—as well as getting my feet wet in the studios. In 1981, my dreams came true when I became a member of George Benson’s band. And here we are 40 years later, still really good friends as I continue my work with him. You can’t pay for this kind of education and mentorship.
JGL: So what’s it like being in the GB band?
MO: Being in GB’s band is like experiencing being at the highest-level university while having the most fun time of your life at the same time. Having seen most of the world many times over on tour with George, I’ve had the privilege of many one-on-one conversations and hangs with him on the tour bus. The thing that always hits me is the fact that his stories are all firsthand and involve all the icons—he is the ultimate storyteller, complete with sound effects and facial and voice expressions! He is so entertaining to listen to that it’s easy to miss the lessons that are actually behind all of it. I, for one, pay close attention to what he has to say, and have benefitted greatly because of it. On the bandstand, he wants the essential parts to be there. At the same time, though, he gives me plenty of space to find my own voice in his music. The reality of playing with one of the greats is that the longer you hang in there, the stronger you get. And that is a huge blessing.
JGL: How long have you known GB and how did you meet him?
MO: I first met GB in the late 1970’s as I was about to sit in on “Jam Session Night” at Jimmy Smith’s Organ Lounge in North Hollywood, California. He literally sat right in front of me, and I was petrified. And to add to it, I didn’t know the song—so I had to put my ear down close to the guitar body and figure it out and join in. Of course, as the ultimate “Ambassador of Jazz Guitar,” he had some positive things to say. It was a few years later that I got the gig playing with him.
JGL: What does it take to get a gig like that?
MO: For me, it was a product of constantly expanding my circles of playing situations and getting new knowledge through all of the varied settings and genres required to play in them. The “who you know” factor also plays a huge part in it. I’ve found it to be true that half the battle of being successful is a combination of a) developing people skills, b) knowing how to get along with others and c) learn to be a fun person to be around. Knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses and staying in your best lane also goes a long way toward success. We can’t be all things to all people.
JGL: How would you best describe your role in the band?
MO: My role with GB has many layers. On the one hand, I’m there to cover all the rhythm guitar parts and background vocals. On the other hand, I’m also there to pick up some of his parts when he’s singing and to play some solos when called upon. For as long as I’ve been doing it with him, I also think my memory of the body of the whole catalogue—and it’s a big one—comes into play, and he depends on me quite a bit to be a consistent force in sort of knowing the music to maybe help any newcomers that might join…and even remind him of some of his parts.
JGL: Do you have any regular features where you get to step out and do your thing?
MO: There are some songs in the show where I have solos, and I make it a point to always serve as a contrast to GB’s playing; that usually occurs, for example, when I’m playing some melodic rock/high energy stuff, or maybe some bluesy stuff. One example is a song from the George Benson and Earl Klugh record, Collaboration, where we do trades [swapping solo lines], so those spots have provided an avenue to develop a personal voice. Because I’m drawn to want to play like GB, but that’s not what is needed.
JGL: What’s a typical rehearsal/tour schedule like?
MO: Considering the fact that we’re no longer “spring chickens,” but now rather “high-energy elder statesmen,” the tour schedule allows for enough time for rest: No more than two or three back-to-back show days, followed by multiple days staying in one place for recovery. On a show day, the band typically heads to the venue for soundcheck and GB joins us in the second hour, where we’ll maybe work on something new or brush up on stuff we’re doing as we get the sound together.
JGL: Do you get to have any influence over the song list?
MO: For the most part, until recently. Usually, GB will only set the first couple of tunes, then read the audience—just like all his years in the jazz clubs. Sometimes I might suggest a song on the spot and often he will go with it. Recently we’ve been sticking to a set list that is working very well.
JGL: Have you done any recordings with GB?
MO: I’ve been involved with several recordings with GB, the most recent being a live album entitled Weekend in London recorded at the famous Ronnie Scott’s Club in London, during the summer of 2019. I think it’s a good representation of the live energy the band brings to the show. Back to the early 2000’s, we did another live recording that was also a DVD entitled Absolute Live with special guest [piano/kepyboardist] Joe Sample. Then, while on a tour of Brazil, GB asked me to help him produce a recording session with some of Brazil’s best musicians. Concord Records cherry-picked two of the songs I produced—the original tracking session on the James Taylor song, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” and the Christopher Cross song, “Sailing.” Later, I joined GB in the studio in France to do his vocals and guitar solo and my rhythm parts for the title track, “Givin It Up” from the album he did with Al Jarreau. And finally while on tour in Europe, GB enlisted Randy Waldman and myself to help with producing a track for a compilation record entitled Jazz Loves Disney 2 with the Phil Collins song, “You’ll Be In My Heart,” where I also provided background vocals.
JGL: What’s your favorite aspect of being in GB’s band?
MO: Probably my favorite aspect of being in GB’s band is to continually be an “up-close-and personal” witness to how a “Slam-Dunk, Hall Of Fame, Master Artist” navigates the waters in delivering his performances. I’m constantly and continually blown away by his genius. And although this might sound strange, maybe I’m even more blown away with how he navigates things when he’s not at his best—it’s just amazing.
JGL: Any specific gig locations/moments on tour that stand out for you?
MO: Playing at the first “Rock in Rio” Festival in Rio De Janeiro in the mid 1980’s was monumental, as we played for an ocean of close to 300,000 people at 2 am. Also, playing at Hampton Court outside of London multiple times was memorable. Considering the fact that King Henry VIII and the others spent some of their time there, it’s sort of crazy to think that we’ve occupied such hallowed grounds. Not far from there, one of our usual stops has been Royal Albert Hall—an equally hallowed and revered place.
JGL: You ever have any private moments where you guys (you and GB) talk guitar shop stuff?
MO: I’ve had numerous one on one opportunities to talk with GB about all things guitar. While he certainly has an instantly recognizable style and sound, it’s fascinating how much he is interested in all types of guitar sounds and styles. From the simplest old school style to the most complex classical style, GB has a deep love of it all and finds a unique way of it in some way showing up in his playing. His chord melody approach is particularly mind blowing as he uses wonderful counterpoint and dramatic surges which create a sort of a self-contained symphony, almost always playing with his thumb which of course is a really warm sound. There are so many things that it could take an entire interview to cover it all.
JGL: What do you do when you’re not with GB band?
MO: When I’m not working with GB it’s a potpourri of activity. Over the last decade I got into film and TV scoring, and as a result I currently have music I’ve composed and produced on over fifty TV series and twenty-or-so independent films. I do guitar sessions for many people, usually in my home studio, just downloading and uploading the files. At the moment there are two main things I’m involved in: The first is playing guitar with the Hammond organ great Ronnie Foster. I recently did his new album on Blue Note Records entitled Reboot, and we’re playing lots of gigs. The second is that I’m serving as musical director for a live reoccurring showcase for singers called “Singers LA.” Each show we roughly have about twenty amazing singers each doing a song—it’s a lot of prep work, but really rewarding come showtime.
JGL: Let’s talk gear—amps, guitars, pedals, sponsorships?
MO: I’ve been a Yamaha Artist for many years and they’ve been great in outfitting, customizing etc. all my guitars—chiefly archtop, solid body electrics, silent nylon, steel string acoustic, and guitalele [small, tenor ukulele-size 6-stringed, nylon-stringed instrument]. In addition I have a whole slew of other stringed instruments which serve me when doing the scoring thing: Dobro, baritone guitar, banjo, mandolin, charango, tenor guitar and hybrid Cubano Tres all show up here and there in the various shows or films. I just love the Strymon pedals. My main pedalboard is quite streamline, and has Blue Sky, Ola and Dig from Strymon. I also have their latest larger reverb called Nightsky which stays in my studio. You can create an infinite number of atmospheres with Nightsky, so it’s great in the scoring realm.
As far as amps go, I love Fender amps and I’m about to get the latest 1968 SilverfacePro Reverb Reissue, which features 12ax7 tubes for the pre amp and 6L6’s for the power amp. The speaker is a 12 inch Celestion Neo Creamback which is much lighter than usual so the amp is a total of 35 lbs with a very powerful 40 watts of clean headroom. I also have a Yamaha THR Stereo Amp head which works really nice for direct recording. I have a pair of these cute little ZT Lunchbox amps which are 100 watts with a 6” speaker and they work well in small rooms.
JGL: Wow—that’s a helluva setup! Oh, I almost forgot to ask—any solo albums or side projects to speak of?
MO: I’ve recorded six solo albums: True Love; Never Too Late; Funky Fiesta; Touch The Past; Stringtime Serenity; and The String And I. I also have a collaboration—Amin El & Michael O’Neill’s Let It All Go. I’ve also produced some artists—my daughter Sadie Rose O’Neill’s Child Be Brave and a bass guitar artist Victor Gonzalez’s Victor and Los Gatos and Club PM.
JGL: Sounds like you work all the time! What do you do for fun?
MO: My side interests include viewing sports: baseball, football, basketball, as well as body surfing in the beautiful nearby Pacific Ocean. I also like to spend some time in self-reflection in order to better fully know myself. I love going to the movie theater as it’s such a great escape; and also spending quality time with family and friends.
JGL: What’s the future look like for you?
MO: The future looks very bright for me—filled with so many enriching activities. As an outgrowth of my film scoring, I connected with a film maker who came up in the same barrio of San Fernando and Pacoima—where I cut my teeth musically—and now I’ve co-produced two documentary feature films with him and we’re about to shoot a music video on the end credits for a song I wrote and produced for one of the films. I continue to stay open to discovering what might come next—ya’ never know!
JGL: Thanks so much for providing our readers with such wonderful answers to questions about you and your important role in GB’s band, and also for giving us a sneak peek into your incredibly rewarding life!
MO: Thanks so much for reaching out!
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