George Benson: how we made Give Me the Night

George Benson, singer and guitarist

Quincy Jones was looking for artists for his new label, Qwest Records. I’d started to cross over from jazz and Quincy asked: “Do you want to make the world’s greatest jazz record – or go for the throat?” I laughed and said: “Go for the throat!” I’d seen what he’d done with Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall. He said: “George, put yourself in my hands. I know more about you than you do yourself.” I was insulted at first, but calmed down, and things started happening.

I asked for the same musicians he’d used on Off the Wall. The sound they made inspired me. Quincy also brought in Rod Temperton, formerly of the band Heatwave, who’d written wonderful songs for Michael. Rod was always in the background except for when something went wrong. He didn’t mind saying: “George, you’re singing in the wrong key.” Quincy was afraid of driving so I’d give him a lift to the studio in Burbank. In the end, we made a great team.

After a month in the studio, I’d packed my bags when Quincy called and said they had one more song for me. I wanted to go home but he insisted: “Man, it’s a good song. It won’t take long.” So I went back to the studio – and from bar one, Give Me the Night had a good feeling. We did the song in a day. Quincy heard my guitar part in the middle and said he wanted it all over the record, including the intro. That became the hook.

I was too tired to put a proper vocal on it and went into this crazy, affected voice. He promised me he wouldn’t use it on the record, but when he sent me a test pressing, sure enough, he’d used the crazy vocal! My kids never used to ask me about my music but when I played it at home, my little boy said: “Dad, can you play that song that goes, ‘Give me the night’?” So I knew it was special.

Patti Austin, backing singer

I had the same feeling about Give Me the Night as when I did my first backing session, on James Brown’s It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World, and heard the strings against his sandpaper vocals. You just know when something is going to be gigantic. Before we started the Give Me the Night sessions, Quincy and Rod would go out clubbing. Everyone thought they were just being playboys, but they were doing research, listening to tempos. The song is about the club scene – they immersed themselves in it.

Songwriting was a storytelling process Rod had down to a science. He could not read music and could barely play the piano. He would hear a chord in his head and play each note individually. But his chord changes are insanely sophisticated, constructed through sheer tenacity and genius. We’d all worked together on Off the Wall, and by the time we got to George we were on fire. When I went in to the studio the tracks were already recorded. I used to be a jingle singer. You have to be able to walk in, sight-read and make whatever product the jingle is plugging sound orgasmic. So I worked very quickly.

Rod sang the melody to me in his horrible voice: “Patti, go ‘Dibby dabba dabba dabby whoo whoo.’” And I had to interpret it. It was hilarious. Rod heard entire productions in his head – his demo versions were finished songs. Quincy made small but crucial changes, the master tweaker. Then engineer Bruce Swedien created a sound nobody had heard before, using synthesisers, which were new then.

George was under pressure to have a crossover hit. Nobody yelled at each other but there was tension, because he wouldn’t always do what Quincy told him to. It was a clash of the titans at first. Meanwhile, Rod would sit on the side smoking, constantly, giving this dry, magnificent, wisecracking narrative. He was brilliant at defusing situations. He was quietly writing amazing pop music, while his persona was like John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. He once came into the studio in a tiger onesie complete with a tail and said: “Right let’s go!”

George was a dandy, and enjoyed flashing these $50,000 Piaget watches, while Rod would look at him and roll his eyes. Eventually, Rod said: “You may have a Piaget but I’ve got all these” and he rolled up his sleeve to reveal a whole armful of cheap Timex watches. Everybody hit the floor. Great people, brilliant music, and an all-time classic.

George Benson’s new album Walking to New Orleans is out now via Provogue. He plays Eventim Apollo, London, on 18 and 19 July.