Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

George Benson: For Love & Money

The guitarist and singer balances art and commerce on Nat King Cole tribute

George Benson at New Orleans Jazz Fest 2013, Weekend One (photo: Greg Aiello)
George Benson at New Orleans Jazz Fest 2013, Weekend One (photo: Greg Aiello)
George Benson
George Benson in 1967

George Benson’s new album, Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole (Concord), isn’t the singer-guitarist’s first recorded tribute to Cole. Back in 1951, when Benson was 8, he won a local singing contest with the prize of a free recording session. The youngster chose Cole’s “Mona Lisa,” which had spent eight weeks atop the pop charts the year before. For his version, Benson accompanied himself on ukulele while warbling the lyrics in his boyish tenor.

Not only did that unreleased recording survive, it is now the leadoff track on the new album. It demonstrates that Benson has been taking cues from Cole for a very long time. It also reveals that-much to the surprise of those who live outside Benson’s hometown of Pittsburgh-he was a professional singer before he was a professional guitarist. Most folks assume that he stepped forward as a vocalist only when he sang “This Masquerade” in 1976, but no, Lil’ Georgie, as he was known, enjoyed a brief fling with local fame between 1951 and 1954. These two facts-his longstanding admiration for Cole and his early career as a child singer-cast a whole new light on his still-controversial 1976 shift from jazz instrumentalist to pop-soul singer.

Start Your Free Trial to Continue Reading

Become a JazzTimes member to explore our complete archive of interviews, profiles, columns, and reviews written by music's best journalists and critics.
Originally Published

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.