Before there was a George Benson — a phenomenal jazz instrumentalist who found mainstream success as a smooth-voiced pop singer — there was a Nat King Cole. So it seems almost inevitable that Benson would headline Unforgettable: A Tribute to Nat King Cole, the show that opens the fifth Jazz Roots season at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. He’ll share the stage Friday with singer-pianist Freddy Cole, Nat’s youngest brother, and the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra.
“I found a tape of me when I was 7 years old and played the ukulele,” Benson says in an interview from his home in Arizona. “It was me singing Mona Lisa. You gotta hear that,” he adds, breaking into laughter. “I was trying to be Nat Cole even back then.”
Cole was one of the great pianists in the history of jazz. He left a legacy of memorable instrumental recordings, including several with saxophonist Lester Young and also those of his piano trio, which influenced the development of the jazz trio and the work of venerated jazz pianists such as Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson.
But that contribution has been overshadowed by Cole the suave entertainer, singer of hits such as Mona Lisa, Nature Boy, Sweet Lorraine and Straighten Up and Fly Right. And perhaps with good reason. His warm, velvety voice with just a hint of rasp, his seemingly effortless delivery, his impeccable diction and talent for storytelling combined with exotic good looks and innate elegance, turned Cole into a pop icon. That he was an African-American star of music, film and television at a racist time in America also made him into a figure who transcended pop culture.
Star or not, he was attacked on stage at a 1956 show in Birmingham, Ala., and his pioneering 1957 network TV show was canceled because of advertiser concern about Southern audiences. And Cole had to battle to buy a house in a white suburb of Los Angeles — though his neighbors probably had his records in their collections. He was, in short, an enormously talented and complex figure who remains intriguing nearly half a century after his death of lung cancer in 1965, a month short of his 49th birthday.
“He wasn’t just cool, he was one of the inventors of cool,” says Benson, an exceptional jazz guitarist once considered the natural heir to Wes Montgomery and a crossover star whose 1976 Breezin’ was the first certified platinum album in jazz history, selling more than a million copies.
“He made people stand up and take notice. And he came up at a difficult time. The likelihood of him cutting through all that and coming out on the other side was not great. There was only one man who crossed over at that time in a big way and that was Billy Eckstine, and not even Sinatra was considered a better singer.
“But Cole came up with his own message, painted his own pictures and captured an audience that stayed with him all his life. So I used him as an example to follow. My career is what it is because of what Nat did. Not because I copied Nat but because he showed that it was possible.”
For Freddy Cole, the youngest of four brothers and Nat’s junior by 12 years, his brother’s achievements seemed to cast a long shadow for a long time. A superb singer in his own right, he embraced the legacy, performing songs from Nat’s repertoire, but at the same time felt compelled to write I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me, the title song of a 2004 album.
Still, he dismisses the notion that being Nat Cole’s sibling could be both a blessing and a curse, especially for a singer and pianist. “It could never be a curse. It was a blessing,” says Cole, reached in Switzerland, where he was performing as part of a European tour. “And I feel proud of myself. I proved to nobody but me that I was a man and I didn’t have to go around getting crumbs behind somebody. But I’m very proud of my brother… . As I tell people all the time, had there not been a Nat Cole there might not have been a Freddy Cole.”
Benson has been touring with Unforgettable since 2008, but this is the first time Freddy Cole will be part of the show. “George and I have been friends for many years,” he says. “And a couple of years ago we were at the Umbria Jazz Festival and he called me up on stage and we did a couple of things.”
For Benson, who has been including some of his own hits in the show, performing a tribute to Nat King Cole doesn’t mean simply singing his songs; it means embodying his approach and evoking a certain sound, a certain way of making music. “I’m trying to bring about the style of that musical era, the class of that time, because it all fits together,” he says. “It’s like a puzzle. If you leave a piece out, you won’t get it. You need Nat’s approach to make it all make sense.
“When he sang A Blossom Fell, you could see that blossom falling. He sang with such finesse. He didn’t just sing the words, he told a story and created an image so we could see ourselves in the song, and that made him exceptional to me. I was there in the story. There wasn’t one song that I’ve heard him do that didn’t have that effect on me.”