George Benson is happy to be returning to New Zealand. He is happy to be playing the music of Nat King Cole, music that has been constantly inspiring, and he is happy to be working with New Zealanders on this tour.
"We are backed by your wonderful Vector [Wellington] Orchestra and chorus, which I am so looking forward to. I have heard great things about them and I know they'll play the songs beautifully".
Benson's show is called An Unforgettable Tribute to Nat King Cole and it is, he says, a lifelong dream to offer "some of the greatest songs and some of the greatest arrangements".
For Benson, it is "the mix of nostalgia and sounds that are still fresh" that has created the constant pull towards Cole's music.
"And then we get to do a wee George Benson showcase too," he adds a warm chuckle. "We come out at the end and we play all the big George Benson hits from across my career, which is still a lot of fun. I'm really proud of my songs still and very honoured to be able to sing some of Nat King Cole's songs for you too."
Benson was a child prodigy. He started singing at seven years old. His family had him out working a year later. "I was Little Georgie Benson," he says, with more, rich chuckles.
"I started off on the street corners, singing, and then I moved in to the nightclubs. I was a singer first and foremost, a singer with a guitar in my hand." He would reverse that, becoming a guitar player who just happened to have a microphone in front of him.
"In my teens, I would go to the jam nights and that is where I got more into the guitar playing. I would be playing across from the top jazz place. I was in the corner of a tiny wee R&B club. And I remember I had seen the name Wes Montgomery [famous jazz guitarist]. I went over during one of the breaks and I was just knocked out by what I saw. The drinks were cheaper at the club where I was playing though," he says laughing.
"So Wes's brothers would come over and see me and I guess they reported back. But that was the start of a great friendship and I learned so much from Wes. His guitar was like Nat King Cole's voice had been to me – a guiding light."
Benson recorded his first full-length album by the age of 21. From there, the brushes with the big names in jazz continued. He was called to work with Miles Davis. "Well, Miles was the most recognised name in jazz – certainly at that point. He had the pulse of the people. They loved him for being mysterious. People wanted to see what he would do next. He called me up to ask me to play with him. I was shocked. I actually thought it was a prank call. He was a brilliant man, tremendously high IQ, always spoke his mind, a genius."
By the mid-1970s, Benson was using his voice more, but was moving away from singing standards. He still used jazz as a lexicon, but was adding elements of soul, R&B, even disco.
The album Breezin' introduced him to a whole new audience. "We were in Australia and New Zealand around that time and the big album of the time was The Bee Gees with Stayin' Alive, but I remember seeing a poster that said my album was the baddest record in the world – that was a real buzz".
Benson uses the word "bad" to mean "good" again when he tells the story of the best compliment he ever received.
"Marvin Gaye and I were friends. We used to hang out a little. We were in this club one night and the band playing was really horrible. I suggested we go up to play and Marvin said: `Nah, man, I can't get up there with you'. I asked him why. I wondered if he didn't want to hurt the band's feelings. He said: `Nah man, I can't get up there with George. You are the baddest cat on the planet!'
"So that is the story of the best compliment I ever received". There are now peels of laughter.
From there, it was to 1978's Weekend in L.A. live album – a huge success. "We recorded that in three days. There were two shows a night. So we had six chances to get it right and the version of On Broadway – that was the second show of the first night. We just listened to the tape after the show and we knew straight away we had captured something pretty special. We couldn't take it off. We played it all night."
For the album that would follow, the "something pretty special" happened right at the end.
"The Give Me the Night album was all finished. Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton and I had been writing off the cuff. Then Q says, `We need to try for one more song', and so at the very last minute, we came up with the song Give Me the Night, which was an instant smash. Q said, `George, can you approach this differently?' so I sang it with what I call my Donald Duck voice, but I guess it worked?"
Benson says he has been blessed with his career – "I've worked with some truly great people and I've performed all over the world, playing some great songs".
He doesn't believe he is any one kind of performer, saying that genres don't interest him. Music does. He makes no apologies for moving away from the early be-bop that captivated audiences. He believes the longevity comes from changing his approach.
"People love to pigeonhole you, but life is not that simple. I like to move around, do different things. I'm so looking forward to playing for you all, sharing some wonderful music and memories".
George Benson, with Vector Wellington Orchestra, performs An Unforgettable Tribute to Nat King Cole, Wellington Town Hall, tonight.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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