Those familiar with Nat King Cole’s singular croon might be hard put to imagine anyone replicating it with even a modicum of success. But 10-time Grammy-winning guitarist and vocalist George Benson is a true believer that imitation can be the sincerest form of flattery. He has long envisioned paying his respects to Cole — his favorite singer — by performing his songs the way Cole once did them. Four years ago, he began doing just that: playing Nat King Cole tribute concerts to audiences around the world who seem to know the words to every song.
Benson brings the show to the Kennedy Center Friday and Saturday, where he will be backed by the NSO Pops and conductors Randy Waldman and Steven Reineke. Part of the Kennedy Center’s “Swing, Swing, Swing” winter jazz series, the concert features original arrangements of Cole’s signature songs, such as “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” “Route 66” and “Unforgettable.” The second part of the show also features songs from Benson’s new album, “Guitar Man.”
Benson discusses the origins of the tribute project and what it’s like to “become” Nat King Cole:
“When they used to ask me in interviews throughout my career who my biggest influences were as far as vocalists are concerned, Nat Cole was at the top of my list, always.
“Not only did he have a very different voice, very suave, but the clarity in his delivery, . . . he came across very soft, very romantic. And that seemed to work across the board, which to me was different from so many other artists who were in a particular genre.
Nat Cole is loved by people from all sorts of walks of life. That’s what I wanted for myself. I wanted to be able to relate to the whole planet, not just the owner of it.
“I’ve been trying to put this idea over for many, many years. I could never convince my manager that I could do a good job. My own manager didn’t have any confidence in me. So after I got rid of him — well, let’s say, after my manager left — I got a new manager, and finally got my idea across.
“. . . I have to become Nat Cole. I studied acting, and I did a little acting way back, about 25 years ago. And the one thing about acting, you have to become the person. You can’t play it off. And nobody can do it better.
“I’m friends with Freddy Cole (Nat’s younger brother) and his (Nat’s) daughter, Natalie. And if there was a fuss to be made, they would have been the first ones to make it.
“I knew how he talked because I’ve been listening to his speaking voice since I was a little boy. He had this kind of vibe, you see? [In a voice mimicking Cole’s] And if you don’t learn to talk like Nat, it’s impossible to sing like him.”
Friday at 1:30 and 8 p.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m. Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. 800-444-1324. www.kennedy-center.org. $20-$85.