For an artist who has released countless records and garnered 10 Grammy Awards doing what he does best — playing guitar and singing — 73-year-old George Benson still is quite the humble man.
If anything, his popularity has grown with each successive release and, in turn, only helped grow his fan base to include younger generations hungry for solid musicianship.
Although the Pittsburgh, Pa.-based native released “Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole” (2013), a fitting tribute to one of his biggest inspirations, it would seem Benson isn’t always looking back. As such, he has continued to release a steady stream of tribute-based records that include such disparate records as “Guitar Man” (2011), “Songs and Stories” (2009) and “Givin’ It Up” (2006) with his updated signature sound.
While most know him for his popular singles that he did not write, such as “On Broadway,” “Turn Your Love Around” and “Give Me The Night,” Benson’s formative years point to a blues man-turned-jazz musician with much to say. His earlier output showcases his logical progression from jazz to blues and later pop.
“Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole” is a fine collection of 13 Nat King Cole favorites (mostly covers as well) that finds guitarist/singer Benson in his element. Artists Sheila E., Wynton Marsalis and Broadway star Idina Menzel contribute their respective talents.
Highlights include an Irving Gordon-penned "Unforgettable" with Marsalis’ trademark trumpet swells and orchestration courtesy of the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra. "Ballerina” is yet another standout, awash in the big band sound of yore and Benson’s signature phrasing and keen ability delivering clever lines with great effect.
"If you put something on that record that people want to hear, they'll buy it. So, I never gave up on that idea, that jazz musicians have the same opportunity as everybody else,” Benson said about his first releases. “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."
George Benson’s strong suit will always be his guitar playing followed by his ability to deliver blues, jazz and pop fare with relative ease. And while his guitar had taken a back seat to his vocals on the new record, nobody can deny his impressive interpretations of not only the Nat King Cole songbook but, more importantly, his chosen songs by other writers.
"A comparison to Nat Cole I did not want to do," Benson said in an interview with NPR music. "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."
Benson embarks on a short spree of live dates this month, which includes a May 14 stop at the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino's Grand Theatre in Reno, The shows will feature music from his storied catalog, as well as his current tribute record. If anything, these five shows will serve to remind fans and naysayers alike that he was never a one-hit nor one-dimensional player.
Moreover, Benson seems excited to play, and still goes to great lengths to appease his die-hard fans in a live setting.
"The curmudgeons and the jazz purists, they complained about that, but I never had a problem with that," he said.