George Benson is unabashed in his admiration for Nat King Cole.
“Nat was my favorite artist, period,” Benson announces, on the phone before a gig in New York. “He was one of the greatest masters. When he sang a song, you never forgot it.”
Benson’s adoration of the man has evolved into “An Unforgettable Tribute to Nat King Cole,” a salute to the vocalist that Benson has been presenting for the past six years. He sings songs linked with Cole — think “Nature Boy,” “Ramblin’ Rose” and “When I Fall in Love” — and tries to capture the singer’s warm, precise style.
“I feel like I’m substituting for Nat,” says Benson, who has lived in Paradise Valley for the past decade. “That puts somewhat of a pressure on me, but it’s a more of a joy and a pleasure. I like making people gasp when they hear me sing.”
Of course, there are differences in the vocal styles of the two men. Cole, who died at age 45 in 1965, had a reedy baritone. Benson, who will turn 70 this year, boasts a lighter-than-air tenor.
“I have to give up some certain things vocally to get that Nat King Cole aura,” Benson says with a chuckle.
He will be accompanied by the Phoenix Symphony during the show, which not only adds to the lushness of the sound but establishes the mood of the night.
“When you use an orchestra and play in a theater that already has a classical repertoire, it’s much easier to get people to come in ready for this music,” he says. “Otherwise, you get people coming to the door, yelling ‘Turn Your Love Around!’”
Luckily for longtime fans, Benson doesn’t skip over his own career. The jazz guitarist has won 10 Grammys and scored major pop and R&B success with songs like “Give Me the Night” and “This Masquerade.”
“The last part of the show is called the Benson Party,” he says, laughing. “I know what most people came to hear when they bought a ticket for George Benson.”