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.