Nearly half a century after recording his debut album The New Boss Guitar of George Benson, the legendary, 10-time Grammy winning guitarist and vocalist at last pays homage to one of his greatest influences. Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole is a testament to the enduring spirit of Cole and his timeless body of work, combining Benson’s unique interpretations with the classic Nelson Riddle arrangements that Cole used, performed by the 42 piece Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra.
The 12-track collection features renowned classics like “Smile,” “Nature Boy” and “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” in addition to beautifully rendered duets by Benson and Tony Award winner Idina Menzel (“When I Fall In Love”), rising star Judith Hill from the current season of “The Voice” (“Too Young”) and multiple Grammy and Pulitzer Prize winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (“Unforgettable”). The recording is framed with now and then versions of “Mona Lisa”; the opening one minute track is a rare recording of “Little Georgie Benson” (age 8) singing “Mona Lisa,” which stemmed from a singing contest Benson won and the award was the opportunity to record a song at a recording studio.
Benson, whose career traverses six decades and has alternately embraced traditional and contemporary jazz, pop and R&B (sometimes simultaneously), was a 2009 honoree as an NEA Jazz Master, awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts as the highest honors that the U.S. bestows upon jazz musicians.
JazzMonthly: You’ve been recording for almost 50 years. Nat King Cole passed away nine months after you released your first album. Considering how big an influence he was on you, why did it take so long to do a tribute? Why was now the right time?
GB: I tried to do this many years ago but I couldn’t convince my manager that I could do Nat Cole! He was afraid that I might get bad publicity and said I had so many hits on my own, so why do it? My response was always, “to pay homage to a man who had an incredible career who contributed so much to the development of my career.” About five years ago, Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles approached me about doing a show there. Rather than just do my regular jazz show, they asked if I might be interested in doing a tribute to Nat with a full orchestra? I thought it was a fantastic idea, and the show was a giant success. We came in there and tore the place up. It was very inspiring to be in an environment with Nelson Riddle arrangements being played by the orchestra and a six member choral group. I was mesmerized when I saw that. I have done a variation of that show throughout the world in the years since then, and finally enough people started asking me to create a recording based on the concept -- and my label, Concord Jazz agreed it was time.
JM: Inspiration is cleverly framed with a minute long recording you did as a child of Mona Lisa. Tell me about that recording and how it came about.
GB: I stumbled upon that recording after many years. My mother had it in her house. I must have been from when I won a singing contest award and earned my first trip to a recording studio. I hadn’t done it before and I was so excited to have that opportunity. The studio was run by local people and was not up to par, but they put me in this tiny booth with my ukulele and it was an amazing experience. I remember I was not only playing along, but hitting all the right chord changes. I have had that tape for the last 15-20 years and it was just a novelty, and it’s nice that I finally found some use for it on an album.
JM: When was the first time you ever heard Nat King Cole. What was the circumstance, what was the song and what was your reaction? What role did his inspiration play on your development as a guitarist and later as a vocalist?
GB: It’s hard to recall the literal first time, but it was probably one of the classics, like “Nature Boy” or “The Christmas Song.” I was a little boy so I couldn’t appreciate all the talent he had then. But I knew he had it and it was immense. Once I heard him, anytime someone was around who played him, I knew it was that Nat King Cole guy. As a kid emulating his recordings with the ukulele and my singing, I went over with people like a fat rat!