As famed guitarist George Benson stepped to the microphone at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino near Hollywood on March 21, he did so with a reverence most might reserve for meeting the Pope or shaking hands with the president.
You see, Benson is a student of music. He has invested time in learning the craft the great ones refined, and – for Benson – honoring these musicians is an effort worthy of reverence.
“It’s all about musicianship and lyrics,” Benson told me in a phone interview. “And no one quite embodies that perfect balance between musicianship, song writing and delivery like Nat King Cole.”
Benson’s intimate show at the Hard Rock Live Arena was a dedication to Cole that had been long in the making.
“Nat King Cole is one of my all-time favorite artists,’’ he said. “He was the best of his era. In a time when it was hard for African Americans to make headway in the industry, he made headway. He made music that crossed over because it was music that people could relate to.”
Benson performed most of Cole’s all-time classics, and made a point to stay as true to the original renditions as possible. As you watch Benson perform, it is clear that the man is a purist. On “Too Young,” Benson sang with the diction and orchestral accompaniment fitting of a Nat King Cole tribute.
“Nat kept his ears planted in the right places. He knew the songs that would stir emotion,” Benson said. “After World War II he knew that the country needed love songs and he provided them.”
Benson said Cole helped him fashion his own musical concepts. As a result, the nimble-fingered guitarist has learned several other instruments in an effort to become as musically adept as Cole.
He displayed these talents on the Hard Rock stage to an audience, at least in my immediate vicinity, that looked on almost dolefully. I’m not even kidding. One couple next to me rested their heads against each other and bobbed rhythmically to the orchestra.
“This is a reminder of a good era in music. It was a time where people wanted to hear something other than the death report,” Benson said.
Even though Benson took great pains to preserve Cole’s “Unforgettable” ballads (pun intended) he is still a guy who likes to cut loose on his guitar.
“I want to give people something different than they expect. The best recommendation is a great show because a great show makes a memory,” Benson offered.
This is the second time I’ve seen George Benson in concert. The two experiences couldn’t be more different in content and temperament, but neither lacked for passion, musicianship and great lyrics.
Photo by Sayre Berman. Singer/guitarist George Benson performs March 21 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino near Hollywood.