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.