Whitney Houston may have sung a more popular version of “The Greatest Love of All”—but, the vocal pipes of that show-stopping ballad’s original interpreter are nothing to scoff at, either: George Benson—who popularized the hit singles, “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For you,” “Give Me The Night” and “In Your Eyes”—first sang the song for the soundtrack of “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali’s 1977 biopic.
With the release of “Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole,” it’s Benson’s turn to pay affectionate homage to one of his musical heroes: The 13-track collection is an extraordinary, two-in-one treat that has the jazz luminary singing the premier crooner’s greatest hits, like “Unforgettable” (with Wynton Marsalis on trumpet), “Smile” (with Till Brönner), “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “Route 66,” “Just One of Those Things” and “Nature Boy”—and giving them a warm, jazzy spin!
His heartfelt renditions brim with nostalgia, and are made more evocative by Nelson Riddle’s arrangements, as interpreted by the 42-piece Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra.
The participation of formidable guest vocalists is an added attraction: In “Too Young,” the succulent high notes of “The Voice’s” Judith Hill complement the masculine heft of Benson’s voice, while theater star Idina Menzel’s emotive theatricality elevates “When I Fall In Love” beyond schmaltz.
Benson shares, “You can’t put together an album like this without investing your heart in it. —That’s what I got from Nat King Cole—he put his heart into everything he did!”
But, the similarity doesn’t end there: Cole and Benson initially established themselves as exceptional jazz instrumentalists—the former was a pianist, the latter a guitarist—before finding crossover success as hit-making singers in the pop-dominated mainstream market.
Cole’s big break came after he added his deep baritone to a 1943 recording of “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” while Benson was introduced to pop-music aficionados when he added his cool tenor pipes to his jazzy 1976 cover of “This Masquerade.”
Of course you can’t wax a Nat King Cole “essentials” album without his Oscar-winning 1950 classic, “Mona Lisa” (from “Captain Carey, U.S.A.”)—which bookends the collection:
“Inspiration” opens with a rare recording of 8-year-old George singing the song, accompanied by a ukulele, after winning an amateur singing tilt, and ends with a moving, fully lived-in rendition of the well-loved standard that started it all for the now 70-year-old jazz legend!