A royal tribute, by George

By Graham Reid

Guitar legend George Benson wants to reintroduce the music of Nat 'King' Cole to today's audiences. Photo / Supplied
Guitar legend George Benson wants to reintroduce the music of Nat 'King' Cole to today's audiences. Photo / Supplied

Just the thought of it amuses George Benson and he lets out a low chuckle: he'd recently found a tape of himself at age 7, playing ukulele.

"This was before I started playing guitar, and I was singing Mona Lisa. You know, I think you'll hear that, because we'll play a bit of that before our concert. It'll knock your socks off.

"You think, 'That cannot be George Benson'. But it is."

More interesting than the sound of guitar master Benson on ukulele is the choice of song, one of the great hits by Nat "King" Cole whose smooth sound stopped hearts and conversations from the 40s to the early 60s. And in the first half of his forthcoming concerts Benson - with a full orchestra and back-up vocalist, as well as his own band - pays tribute to Cole, who died in 1965 just as a new kind of pop from Britain was sweeping away all that went before.

Almost overnight Cole became the voice of an earlier era.

"Yes, radio was changing," say Benson, "and when a person dies, a lot dies with them. But Nat Cole was an incredible gentleman who brought romanticism, perfection and some jazz elements, just a twinge, which went along very well with his pop performance.

"When a person dies and radio switches to something new it cancels out the old to a certain degree. So we're trying to reintroduce people to one of the greatest voices of our time."

Cole was certainly that. In the 40s he was predominantly a jazz pianist helming his own small groups. By the 50s - when he refused to play to segregated audiences - he was a popstar whose songs like Mona Lisa, Too Young, Unforgettable (a hit again in'92 when his daughter Natalie added her vocals to his version) and Stardust were massive sellers.

Cole's dark and dusty vocals - which he attributed to heavy smoking - were quite singular, and took him to mainstream America. He even had a short-lived television variety show in 1956, the first fronted by a black American, which had guests such as Mel Torme and Ella Fitzgerald.

"But he couldn't get sponsors in the South," says Benson. "But cream rises to the top and Nat Cole rose to the very top and will filter down to all our young people: white, black, brown, green ... it doesn't make any difference.

"He was one of the most incredible vocalists of his time and he brought something that was not so common in those days, romanticism. In the ghetto where we were loaded down with the blues and songs about how bad you can do, here were great melodies and good lyrics - and he was relating to the whole world. People who didn't have the problems, he could relate to them in a way they could understand.

"When he came on the radio he was so different to everything else you had to pay attention, he was a cut above."

Benson says despite radio changing in the 60s to embrace the new styles of pop then rock, soul and funk, Cole had achieved such crossover success "he still maintained his radio play in the ghetto neighbourhoods and r'n'b stations. They didn't put him away.

"Nat Cole also had many of the greatest arrangers of the time, one being Nelson Riddle who wrote for Frank Sinatra's best-known songs. Sinatra realised Nat Cole had one of the best so he wooed [Riddle] away."

Benson is pleased to say they are bringing Riddle's original arrangements for Cole with them on the tour. And that he gets the chance again - in the second part of the show - to play some of his many hits, such as This Masquerade, On Broadway, Breezin', Give Me the Night ...

But the tribute to Cole gives him special pleasure and he remembers clearly seeing the film China Gate in the late 50s - in which Cole had a significant part - and hearing Cole's music through the cinema speakers.

"They could carry the full range of the recording and as a young man I heard him like I never had before - and it just increased my desire to be like him, and to hear more of his music."

Who: George Benson and band, playing a tribute to Nat "King" Cole

Where: Vector Arena, November 19 with the APO and chorus

- NZ Herald

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