George Benson Follows The Path Of His 'Unforgettable' Idol

Jul 6, 2013
Originally published on July 6, 2013 10:22 am

You could say George Benson's latest album, Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole, was conceived decades ago. Benson was just a kid when he first mimicked Cole off the radio, singing his own version of "Mona Lisa" while accompanying himself on the ukulele. He even made a recording.

Benson is still singing those songs today — although now it's alongside the same Nelson Riddle arrangements Nat King Cole made classic. But to him, making a proper album of Cole songs always felt funny, disrespectful or just plain wrong.

"A comparison to Nat Cole I did not want to do," Benson says. "The great difference was that he was a true baritone, and he had this silky voice to go along with it, and great diction and elegance. And that you cannot copy."

Instead, Benson tried to conjure Cole's spirit. Still, the similarities between the two are hard to miss: Benson started out as a hot young instrumentalist, playing guitar; Cole did the same on piano. In fact, Benson says, Cole's bandmates didn't want him to sing.

"What had happened was his wife, Maria, said, 'Nat, they're asking you to stop singing and to just play,' " Benson says. "'If they're asking you to make the choice, then don't play. Sing.' "

In Benson's case, it wasn't his wife who encouraged him to change.

He explains, "My manager came to me and said, 'George, don't play the guitar — just sing.' I said, 'No, I will not.' If I never played for anybody, I'd still be playing guitar because that's what I do. And I said, 'When my voice runs out, my guitar will still be plucking and I'll still be able to play.' "

Both men's careers hit obstacles. Cole faced racism as the first black man with a national variety show on TV. Decades later, those attitudes were changing, but Benson took flak from jazz critics when he hit the pop charts.

"The curmudgeons and the jazz purists, they complained about that, but I never had a problem with that," Benson says.

Jazz guitarist Russell Malone, like Benson, was largely self-taught. When he was 12, Malone says, he was mesmerized seeing Benson on TV.

"When you can sing like that and play guitar like that, it would be ludicrous not to take advantage of that," Malone says. "[Benson] showed us that being a jazz musician is not necessarily synonymous with being poor. As far as I'm concerned, there's no glory in being a starving artist. I mean, what's that about?"

For his part, Benson is a pragmatist. After his first job, working in brother Jack McDuff's organ combo, he had to build up his reputation. Club owners and jazz musicians in the early 1960s weren't digging his style.

"I would bend a note and they'd say, "Whoa, you're a blues player! You're not a jazz player,'" he says. "And I said, 'What difference does that make?' "

So Benson's manager booked him in R&B clubs.

"He had us playing behind go-go girls," Benson recalls. "I remember the club owner said, 'Before you go to work tonight, I want you to know that if you play any jazz in here, you're fired.' He couldn't tell jazz from rock, R&B, country music. When I found that out, we started swinging all night long."

Benson and his band were playing down the street from the Apollo Theater in Harlem when famed record producer John Hammond came to check them out, as bandmate Dr. Lonnie Smith recalls.

"Well there was some go-go dancers up there, so George told the dancers to get down — we're going to play now, play some jazz," Smith says. "John Hammond loved it. Him and his wife, he wanted to sign us right on the spot."

And so began Benson's recording career as a jazz musician. Guitarist Russell Malone still likes what he first admired about Benson's musicianship.

"George is one of those kinds of guys that can make the complicated sound simple," Malone says. "That's why he's been able to maintain a career for so long — because he has that thing that just appeals to everybody, that has universal appeal."

Benson says he's put his trust in an even simpler principle.

"If you put something on that record that people want to hear, they'll buy it," Benson says. "So I never gave up on that idea, that jazz musicians have the same opportunity as everybody else. And it's what you put on that record that makes the difference, whether you sell it or not, or are able to get it into people's households."

In the end, Benson is content with who he is — and even happy. But it still took him decades to finally get around to putting on record his debt to Nat King Cole, the other jazz artist who turned into a pop star. He says he had to be convinced, but then he got into it.

"I began to feel like I was substituting for Nat," Benson says. "There is no such thing, but if he got sick on a certain night and requested me to sit in for him and do the show, could I refuse?"

Of course he couldn't.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Celebrities George Benson and the late Nat King Cole have a lot in common. Both started as acclaimed jazz instrumentalists - Benson on guitar, Cole on piano - and both became pop stars when they started singing. Cole was a huge influence on Benson, and the guitarist pays tribute to Cole on his latest album called "Inspiration." NPR's Walter Ray Watson reports.

WALTER RAY WATSON, BYLINE: George Benson was a kid when he first imitated Nat King Cole off the radio. He got a ukulele and even made this record when he was eight years old.

GEORGE BENSON: (Singing) Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep. They just lie there and they die there.

WATSON: Benson still singing those songs today. Here he is at a sound check with the National Symphony Orchestra Pops in Washington, D.C.

BENSON: (Singing) Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa, or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?

WATSON: Benson sings to the same Nelson Riddle arrangements Nat Cole made classic. But for Benson, recording always felt funny - disrespectful or just plain wrong.

BENSON: A comparison to Nat Cole I did not want to do, you know, I didn't want that to happen.

WATSON: For one thing, Cole was a baritone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONA LISA")

NAT KING COLE: (Singing) Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you. You're so like the lady with a mystic smile...

BENSON: The great difference was that he was true baritone, and he had this silky voice to go along with it, and great diction and eloquence, and that you cannot copy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONA LISA")

COLE: (Singing) For that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile...

WATSON: But Benson tried to conjure Cole's spirit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

BENSON: (Singing) Won't you get hip to this timely tip. When you make that California trip. Get your kicks on Route 66...

WATSON: Still, the similarities between the two are hard to miss. Benson started out as a hot young instrumentalist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WATSON: And so did Cole.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WATSON: It turns out Cole's band mates didn't want him to sing.

BENSON: What had happened was his wife, Maria, said, you know, Nat, they're asking you to stop singing and to just play. She said if they're asking you to make a choice, then don't play, sing.

WATSON: In Benson's case, it wasn't his wife who encouraged him to change.

BENSON: My manager came to me said, George, don't play the guitar, just sing. I said, no, I will not. If I never played it for anybody I'd still be playing guitar because that's what I do. And I said when my voice runs out, my guitar will still be pluckin', I'll still be able to play, you know.

WATSON: Both men's careers hit obstacles. Cole faced racism as the first black man with a national variety show on TV. Decades later, those attitudes were changing, but Benson took flak from jazz critics when he hit the pop charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUSSELL MALONE: The curmudgeons and the jazz purists, they complained about that, but I never had a problem with that.

WATSON: Jazz guitarist Russell Malone, like Benson, was largely self-taught. When he was 12, Malone says he was mesmerized seeing Benson on TV.

MALONE: I mean, when you can sing like that and play guitar like that, it would be ludicrous to not to take advantage of that. And he showed us that being a jazz musician is not necessarily synonymous with being poor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS MASQUERADE")

BENSON: (Singing) Looking for what to say...

MALONE: As far as I'm concerned, there's no glory in being a starving artist. I mean, what's that about?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS MASQUERADE")

BENSON: (Singing) Searching but not finding understanding anyway, lost in a masquerade.

WATSON: For his part, Benson is a pragmatist. After his first job working in Brother Jack McDuff's organ combo, he had to build up his reputation. Club owners and jazz musicians in the early '60s weren't digging his style.

BENSON: Well, I would bend the note and they say, well, you're a blues player; you're not a jazz player. And I said what difference does that make?

WATSON: So, Benson's manager booked him in R&B clubs.

BENSON: And he had us playing behind go-go girls. And I remember the club owner said before you go to work tonight I want you to know that if you play any jazz in here you're fired. He couldn't tell jazz from rock and R&B, country music. When I found that out, we started swinging all night long.

WATSON: Benson and his band were playing down the street from the Apollo Theater in Harlem when famed record producer John Hammond came to check them out, as band mate Dr. Lonnie Smith recalls.

DR. LONNIE SMITH: Well, there was some go-go dancers up there. So, George told the dancers to get down. We're going to play now, play some jazz. John Hammond loved it. Him and his wife, he wanted to sign us right on the spot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WATSON: And so began Benson's recording career as a jazz musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WATSON: Guitarist Russell Malone still likes what he first admired about Benson's musicianship.

MALONE: George is one of those kinds of guys that can make the complicated sound simple. That's why he's been able to maintain a career for so long because he has that thing that just appeals to everybody, that universal appeal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BENSON: If you put something on that record that people want to hear, they'll buy it.

WATSON: Again, George Benson.

BENSON: So, I never gave up on that idea, you know, that jazz musicians have the same opportunity as everybody else and that it's what you put on that record that makes the difference whether you sell it or not or are able to get it into people's households.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WATSON: In the end, Benson is content with who he is and even happy. But it still took him decades to finally get around to putting on record his debt to the other jazz artist who turned into a pop star. He says he had to be convinced but then he got into it.

BENSON: I began to feel like I was substituting for Nat. There is no such thing, but if he got sick on a certain night and requested me to sit in for him, you know, and do the show, could I refuse?

WATSON: Of course he couldn't. Walter Ray Watson, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.