Jun 2, 2013
It was four years back that I caught George Benson onstage in Saratoga, New York performing "An Unforgettable Tribute to Nat King Cole." Benson brought along his usual backing band, but also added a small orchestra to supply the necessary string power that the ballads needed. The result was tremendously entertaining. Benson is a natural performer, and his selection of Cole standards was impeccable.
It took some time, but Benson has finally recorded his paean to one of his early role models, and Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole is released on Concord Records. Rather than just replicate the stage show (Benson mentioned that there may be a DVD of the show in the offing soon), he has gathered original Nelson Riddle arrangements, and made an album that reflects the historical importance of the late great singer and pianist.
There is certain symmetry to Benson recording a tribute album to Cole. Both came to prominence in the jazz world as hot instrumentalists, before releasing the strength of their singing. Each then moved to a repertoire heavy on ballads, but peppered with the occasional up-tempo number that allowed them to show off their chops. Both were wildly successful with both Black and White audiences, successful “crossover” artists.
These similarities were not lost on George Benson when we spoke about the album. Click here to listen to Podcast 353, which features our conversation and musical selections from Inspiration and the Benson catalogue, including:
Brother Jack McDuff – Title track from Hot Barbecue. Way back in 1965, a teen-aged George Benson rounded out this organ quartet with sizzling results. The group was “Brother” Jack McDuff on Hammond B-3 organ’ Benson on guitar; Red Holloway on sax and Joe Dukes on drums.
George Benson – “This Masquerade” from Breezin’. Producer Tommy LiPuma brought this Leon Russell song to George and said that he had heard Benson was a singer. The result won Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards in 1977, one of two statutes he took home that year. The bank was an electric jazz dream – Benson on guitar and vocals, Phil Upchurch on rhythm guitar; Ronnie Foster and Jorge Dalto on keyboards; Stanley Banks on bass; Harvey Mason on drums; the late Ralph MacDonald on percussion; and strings arranged by the incomparable Claus Ogerman.
George Benson – “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” from Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole. Quintessential “King” Cole, who had a hit from the song in 1952, twenty years after it first hit the charts. An interesting lyrical note – African-Americans Benson and Cole sang the last verse of the tune: Hand in hand to a barbeque stand/ Right from her doorway we roam/ Eat and then it's a pleasure again/ Walking my baby, talking my baby/ Loving my baby, I don't mean maybe/ Walking my baby back home.
The white Johnnie Ray and Dean Martin did not include any mention of barbeque in their versions.
George Benson – “When I Fall in Love” from Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole. Benson recorded two duets on the album, this one with Broadway star Idina Menzel, and “Too Young” with Judith Hill.
George Benson – “Straighten Up and Fly Right” from Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole. Those who only think of Nat King Cole as a balladeer should check out this swinging number written by Cole and Irving Mills in 1943 and recorded by the King Cole Trio as one of the first releases on Johnny Mercer’s Capital Records. No less a rocker than Bo Diddley counted this song, and Cole’s singing on it, as one of his main musical influences. Cole was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.