What’s green but also blue? Benny Green’s legacy lives on in his son Leo

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What’s green but also blue? Benny Green’s legacy lives on in his son Leo

Blues singer Leo Green was spellbound when he met Frank Sinatra backstage. Since then he has been doing it His Way

Following in the footsteps of his father, the legendary jazz saxophonist, broadcaster and writer Benny Green, Leo, 50, has carved out his own career as a top musician. He lives in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, with his wife Victoria and their four children, and is proud of his roots: “I love being Jewish. I am fiercely proud of it, but I am not a deeply religious person.”

He is a deeply musical person, though, and has played sax with the likes of Sir Paul McCartney, Van Morrison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Ronnie Wood, but it was Ol’ Blue Eyes who left a lasting impression on Leo when he was a teenager back in 1989. He explains: “My dad knew Frank Sinatra because he’d been invited to a studio to write sleeve notes for one of his albums in 1962, called: ‘Sinatra Sings Great Songs from Great Britain’. We were at the concert and my dad said: ‘Let’s go backstage and say hello’. It was amazing. I’ll never forget how Frank looked me straight in the eye when he spoke to me. I was struck by how decent and polite he was. That one of the most famous people who ever lived took the time to look me in the eye and ask me how I was doing, and that has stuck with me my whole life.”

Born in Leeds, but raised in London, Benny Green was playing saxophone in the 1950s with Ralph Sharon, Ronnie Scott and Stan Kenton. He also had a weekly column in New Musical Express and appeared in the UK charts as part of Lord Rockingham’s XI but was appreciated most of all as the host of his Radio 2 Sunday afternoon show, in which he shared his knowledge of the Great American Songbook.

Benny Green with Leo

Leo recalls: “My father wasn’t show-bizzy, but that night at the Sinatra concert was probably when I realised for the first time that people outside my house knew who he was. Bobby Robson, who was the England football team manager at the time, walked in. I loved football and was in awe, so I was gobsmacked when Bobby came over to talk to my dad about music. He knew him.”

Having grown up in a house surrounded by music, it is no surprise that Leo ended up gravitating towards the ‘family business’. His father and grandfather had both played the saxophone, so it seemed completely normal to him.

Leo explains: “The strange thing is, I always thought of myself as a musician and knew that I would spend my life being one, before I even started learning an instrument – being a musician is not something you decide you’re going to be, no more than deciding if you’re going to be left-handed or right-handed, you just are.”

After much nagging, Leo’s father, Benny, gave him a tenor sax when he was 15. He says: “I loved it straight away and it seemed a very natural thing to do, and I began immediately to play along with records in my bedroom – lots of classic rock ‘n’ roll and Frank Sinatra’s recordings. It’s something I still do today – playing along with recordings is the best way to learn phrasing, timing and how to build a solo.”

Leo Green

By this point, Benny had long retired from being a full-time musician, spending most of his working life as a writer and broadcaster. (He died in 1998, aged 70.) Leo’s interest in the sax and constant asking of questions meant that Benny had no choice but to dust off his own saxophone, which up until that point, only made an appearance at every family birthday to deliver a rendition of Happy Birthday.

“By this stage in his life, Dad was too old to still be kicking footballs about with us, so he and my brother Dominic began doing gigs together,” says Leo. “First of all, just the odd one here and there, but it didn’t take long for us to be out gigging together most weekends. Not long after I got the sax, I also began playing with local bands in the clubs and pubs where I grew up, in Watford and Hemel, and between the gigs with Dad and on the pub and club circuit, along with playing along with the records. I began to build a repertoire that I still constantly call on today.

“I got accepted to the Royal Academy of Music when I was 18 to study jazz and naively accepted the place, despite the advice of my father! I suppose the politest thing I can say, is that I realised after about a week that the people the music college had employed to teach jazz were a million miles away from anything I aspired to be.

“However – and this is really important – when I went there, they had only been accepting jazz students for one year and so it was all in its infancy. Since then, they have had some incredible people come and take control of the course, such as the genius Gerard Presencer, and the course has now become one of the best in the world and turns out fantastic and capable musicians – I should know, because I now employ lots of them in my bands!”

The Leo Green Experience

His latest project is The Leo Green Experience, a high-energy show in London’s Covent Garden which sees Leo and his explosive band and singers take audiences through the hits of the last 30 years. He is also passionate about the show he presents regularly on Jazz FM.

The live show features musicians who have worked with everyone from Rita Ora, Robbie Williams and Ed Sheeran to Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Van Morrison – all of them putting their own funky, jazzy and soulful twists on everything, from current superstars such as Lizzo, Beyonce and Bruno Mars, to 80s bangers from Bruce Springsteen, George Michael and Prince.

“The show is an idea I came up with during lockdown,” explains Leo. “I’d love to see it end up in a West End theatre, or as a television show. I love meeting and working with people who are passionate about music. One of my favourites is Ronnie Wood, because he spent his whole life making other people sound amazing. I also have fond memories of working with Van Morrison in New York. Stars like Robert de Niro would turn up and just want to talk about music. It is the same if you speak to Tom Jones, he just wants to know what music you are listening to. It is probably why these guys have gone on for so long.”

Leo is always hard at work and hopes to soon announce one or two live projects for later in the year. They will be worth hearing about.


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