Last week I had the opportunity to see not one, but two music legends perform. The first concert I attended was that of George Benson at the McCallum Theater in Palm Springs on February 16, 2013. The second was BB King at the House of Blues in Anaheim on February 22, 2013.

Both of these guitarists (and vocalists) have led extremely successful careers, so it got me thinking about what it is that they’re doing. How is it that these two musicians have remained successful over several decades? What is their formula for success as performers?

George Benson and BB King are both legendary musicians, but why? What exactly are they doing that sets them apart from the thousands of other guitar players whose careers have come and gone while theirs have endured?

The easy answer is “they are both incredible musicians,” but it takes a lot more than that to have a career as prodigious as theirs.

Here’s what I took away from seeing BB King and George Benson perform, feel free to add your thoughts in the comments:

1. It is not enough to be an outstanding musician, you also have to be an outstanding performer. You may be able to take an impressive solo, sing higher than your peers, or have incomparable technique, but that’s not what sells tickets. The performance and the performers sell tickets. People buy concert tickets to see a show. They want the musicians to interact with them and do more than merely play what’s on the album while standing still on stage. They want to be entertained and that’s exactly what George Benson and BB King do. They are both outstanding and engaging performers.

2. Play what the audience expects to hear. When people go to see George Benson or BB King perform, they don’t go to hear something new. They go to hear the songs they love, that they can sing along to at the top of their lungs. They want to hear the hits like BB King’s “The Thrill is Gone” or George Benson’s “On Broadway.” Yes, it’s nice to hear something new and unexpected, but if the audience walks away without hearing the hits, they’ll walk away disappointed.

3. Pay attention to your audience. When you’re performing, pay attention to what gets the audience going. If you play a solo note for note the way it is off the record, does the audience grow excited because they know what’s coming? When they hear the intro to one of your well-known songs, do they start to clap? Both George Benson and BB King listened to what the audience responded to and made that a part of the show. The two performers had signature dance moves that they incorporated into the show that really got their audiences going, so much so that the two would even stop in the middle of a solo to work it into the performance. Every time the audience would scream, laugh and clap. Find out what your audience responds to and do it. It may be something different for each performance, so that’s something to be aware of, but whatever it may be, find something!

4. Engage with your audience. Talk to them, thank them for being there, ask them how they’re doing and if they’re enjoying the music. Don’t let the stage create a boundary between you and your audience, interact with them. At the end of BB King’s show, he allowed a significant portion of the audience to walk up to the stage, shake his hand and hand him things to sign. Now that’s something the audience is going to remember.

5. Give your listeners a unique performance. You need to give your audience a reason to go and see you perform as opposed to some other XYZ [insert your instrument here] player. What makes you different? Figure out what that is and use it to your advantage.

6. Each performance should be your best. Regardless of the conditions on stage (the sound is terrible) or the situation backstage (you and a member of the band are fighting), you should always do the best you can to give your audience a stellar performance.

7. Even if you’ve played the songs 100 times before, play them like they’re still new and exciting. Even though George Benson and BB King have been playing their hits for decades, you’d never know. They play them with the same energy as they do their newer material. If you look bored on stage, the audience will see it and it will affect how they hear the performance.

So what do you think their secret to success is?

Want to learn more about the music business? Check out our popular FREE eBook – Advice for Young Musicians: From Established Music Professionals.

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Published by Shannon Kennedy

Shannon Kennedy is a vocalist and saxophonist living in Southern California. She is author of "The Album Checklist" and the founder of Teen Jazz. She has been contributing articles to music magaizines and websites since 2004.

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