There are legends in the world of music… and then there are icons. Nat King Cole broke barriers and literally changed the face of music. Two decades later GEORGE BENSON did the same by redefining the world of jazz by garnering the first platinum jazz album in 1976. In the universe of masters and mentors, the torch has never been passed as impeccably as from Cole to Benson. With Cole’s spellbinding voice and his unforgettable catalog of classic songs in the `50s and `60s, he paved the way for the level of tremendous international crossover success that dynamic ten-time GRAMMY winner Benson earned in the `70s to the present - from jazz to pop, and from instrumental innovator to vocal sensation. The keys were ambition, accessibility, all-around quality and strict attention to the wants and desires of their audience. In honor of this, George Benson delivers an album he has literally been preparing for all his life: Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole, available on CD, digital and vinyl LP – worldwide on Concord Records, June 4, 2013.
With conductor Randy Waldman, The Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra, special guest trumpeters Wynton Marsalis and Till Brönner, and singers Idina Menzel (Broadway star, best known for her work in Rent, her Tony Award-winning performance as Elphaba in Wicked and her recurring role in the hit TV series Glee) and Judith Hill (featured in the documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom), Benson explores the many facets of Cole’s legacy. There are big band blasts (“Ballerina” and “Just One of Those Things”), intimate balladry (“Mona Lisa” and “Unforgettable”), and finger poppin’ trio hits (“Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Route 66”). Benson and Waldman went back to the original charted arrangements of Cole’s great orchestrators Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins for all of the numbers for utmost authenticity of expression.
Reflecting on where this all began, Benson takes us back to his inspired street corner beginnings as Little Georgie Benson, “At the opening of Inspiration, you hear me playing my ukulele and singing ‘Mona Lisa’ at 8 years-old. I couldn’t even play guitar yet – my hands were too small. At that time, of all the stars I heard on the radio, Nat was the one who stood out. There was a lot of blues & R&B goin’ on but Nat had songs. They were very musical and once you heard them you never forgot them. As I grew older, Nat stayed at the top of the roster doing the same things – great arrangers, great songs and great musicianship all around him – the best of the best. Even though he was considered one of the great jazz pianists, it was his voice that catapulted him to the top of the heap.”
Just after Benson’s career sprung into the stratosphere with the success of his 1976 LP Breezin’ (the first jazz album to be certified platinum) and the single “This Masquerade,” he recorded a progressive version of Cole’s classic “Nature Boy” for his next LP In Flight that reintroduced the song to fresh audiences worldwide. However, for Inspiration, Benson is providing fans with the kind of experience Cole himself would deliver. “Nat knew the value of surrounding himself with expert everything! That’s what gave his music timeless value. I keep my radio tuned to stations that play the classics - Sinatra, Sammy, Torme’ – so I’m used to hearing spectacular arrangements. That’s what made these cats so big – you were thrown into the story by the way the arranger surrounded the artist and helped to paint the picture. Not only could you hear the music, you could see it, so to speak. You were in the story.”
Benson’s arranger of choice was Randy Waldman. “When John Burk (Producer and Chief Creative Officer of Concord Music Group) asked me to do this, we started by calling Randy to co-produce. Randy said, ‘George, saluting Nat is a great idea, man.’ Randy knows what he’s talking about, he’s worked with Barbra Streisand for years! Randy gathered all of Nat’s original arrangements together for me, knew every nuance, and as a conductor, made sure we got all the juices out of `em. He also created a new arrangement on ‘Smile’ that is totally different than Nat’s. I always call Randy when I have something special to do. He’s a man that looks forward to a challenge...and I do, too.”
A star in his own right, Benson did not disappear into the “role” of Cole. You still hear signature Benson-isms including his trademark guitar scat style (with nods to King Cole Trio guitarist Oscar Moore in the harmonies) and glimpses of his dynamic top range flourish. “If I’d done this a few years back, it would have been closer to Nat’s voice,” he says. “I had it down pat! Nat was a natural baritone. I’m a tenor. That creates a challenge, but I decided to just lay into the material with the vibe that Nat had. There’s great value in singing down in that register. When you have songs where the words and stories are so good, people understand you better. Nat’s songs were of that intimate quality. His overall approach to music was very romantic, instantly identifiable and approachable. However, we also knew that to get airplay today, we had to have a bit of me in there. We can honor his music and put a touch of what I do in there without spoiling it.”
Benson was also able to give back to today’s generation of players on Inspiration. “The musicians of the Henry Mancini Institute are youngsters playing these arrangements, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to this record,” he beams. “When I walked in they were elated about what they were doing - giving it their all. It was one of the greatest things I’ve done in my life.”
Though Benson never got the opportunity to meet Cole (who died in 1965), it is not surprising that he first started down the road of tributes to Cole with a show he played in the mid-70s with the daughter of his idol, Natalie Cole. “She was one of the people to first give me the inspiration,” he confesses. “The very first show that I did was with Natalie at Alice Tully Hall in New York. She had done it first with Johnny Mathis. I was her second. Her mother Maria Cole was there. I opened up with ‘I Love You for Sentimental Reasons’ and she cried her eyes out. Maria came backstage after with her eyes still red and said, ‘You sounded just like my husband.’ That was my inspiration right there. I later had Nat’s brother, Freddie Cole, on two of my concerts. He and I are very good friends. Freddie and I sing “Bidin’ My Time,” which is one of my favorite songs by Nat, and we tear it up! While I was in Florida recording with the orchestra I also performed a show. Freddie opened with his quartet AND came back to sing a duet with me. That was exciting.”
Giving an opportunity to his fans to get in on the excitement, Benson went about the making of Inspiration by including the process of "crowd funding" through a Pledge Music drive where fans were invited to pledge money towards the financing of the project in exchange for production credit and other perks not otherwise available to his thriving social media fan base. “We did that to allow people that love what we do to be a part of the process of birthing the record. It really helped. I have a more interactive community of fans now. I’ve never done a record like this before but it worked beautifully. Everybody’s doing it so we had to get with the modern times.” A portion of those proceeds were earmarked to assist victims of Hurricane Sandy. “There are always people on this planet that need some help. I feel good when I can go in my pocket but this way we could do it on a bigger scale.”
Doing things big has always been the case with George Benson. Pouring his heart into Inspiration began with a special concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and has grown exponentially through signature shows done in locations from the Sydney Opera House to Istanbul, Turkey. Speaking to the legacy of Cole, Benson puts it best saying, “The way to honor Nat is to get new people to hear his material and understand how great he was. We can’t bring Nat back, but we can bring back his warmth, his magic and his vibe.”