Back in 1986 Rhino issued a double gatefold album (remember those?) of Brook Benton's greatest hits, covering the years 1959-1970. Even back then we saw the need for a retrospective of this marvelous baritone.
Surrounding himself with lush orchestral arrangements, Brook could glide effortlessly through R&B, blues, and pop material. Of course this was at a time when it wasn't out of the ordinary for an artist to sing a Johnny Mercer song like "Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear To Tread)" and then follow it up with a cover of "Frankie And Johnny."
For the most part, oldies radio has ignored Benton in favor of later-'60s soul artists. Unfortunately we can't do much about that. What we can do is provide you with this long-overdue CD collection celebrating the smooth voice that deserves to be heard "endlessly." Enjoy.
-- James Austin
One of the most often overlooked grand traditions of American black show business is that of the big-voiced basso/baritone. In all the fuss over the seemingly more flexible tenor voices of singers such as Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Clyde McPhatter, and Marvin Gaye, it is easy to forget the deep richness of the baritones and basses. Yet it is in these virile tones that we hear the strength and masculinity that many women find so appealing and comforting.
The basso/baritone tradition goes back to the Billy Eckstines, Arthur Prysocks, and Bull Moose Jacksons. Think of Percy Mayfield, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Ricks, or, in modern times, Lou Rawls, Isaac Hayes, and Barry White. Or the subject of this anthology, Brook Benton.
In his book, The World Of Soul, former music publisher Arnold Shaw states that "Brook Benton popularized the type of boastful, self-satisfied masculinity projected in earlier songs like [Muddy's] 'I'm Ready' and 'I'm Your Hoochie Cooche Man.'" Shaw further opines that in songs such as "It's Just A Matter Of Time" and "Thank You Pretty Baby," Benton "projected the image of the black man-about-town, the former expressing a relaxed vengefulness and the latter a smug appreciation."
Hmmm, I like that. Next time somebody breaks my heart, I'm gonna get me some relaxed vengeance. Or, next time I get lucky, I'm gonna show a little smug appreciation.
Brook Benton was the kind of recording artist that every A&R man prays will walk in the door: a singer whose style will appeal to all ages and socioeconomic groups, and one who can consistently come up with his own material so that the producer can avoid the frustrating task of having to wade through the mounds of demos and lead sheets containing bad songs presented to record companies by, in the words of legendary King Records chief Syd Nathan, "starry-eyed amateur songwriters who don't have an ounce of talent."
To top it off, Brook was a real pro, one who conducted himself as a gentleman. By all accounts, it was never any trouble to get him into the studio and no problem getting a satisfactory performance out of him. He was the kind of artist who showed up, suited up, and did his job without giving anybody any grief.
Brook Benton was a Southerner, born Benjamin Franklin Peay in Camden, South Carolina, on September 19, 1931. His father, Willie, was the local choir director of The Camden Jubilee Singers. In addition to coaching him as a vocalist, the elder Mr. Peay taught his son the patience and professionalism that would keep him going during his long, slow journey to the big time.
In 1948, at age 17, Brook moved to New York, where he joined the gospel group Bill Langford's Langfordaires. In 1951 he became a member of another gospel group, the Jerusalem Stars.
During his years as a gospel singer, Brook met up with Newark, New Jersey, disc jockey "Broadway" Bill Cook, an entrepreneur, songwriter, talent manager, and promoter who also managed the great Roy Hamilton. Hamilton was a star on Columbia Records' subsidiary label Epic, where he repeatedly struck gold with his powerful renditions of "You'll Never Walk Alone," "Unchained Melody," "Don't Let Go," and "You Can Have Her," the latter penned by his manager, Cook. Roy was also an influence on a young Elvis Presley, who recorded a Hamilton B-side, "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry (Over You)" on his own first album.
Bill Cook helped Brook secure his first record deal with another Columbia subsidiary, Okeh, as lead singer of the short-lived Sandmen in early 1955. Benton took the lead on a Cook composition, "Somebody To Love," while he and the group backed Okeh star Chuck Willis on "I Can Tell." On both recordings the band is directed by a 22-year-old Quincy Jones.
Sensing something special in the Sandmen's lead singer, Columbia brass began recording Brook as a soloist, first on Okeh and then on Epic, with disappointing sales. One of the tunes he cut during this period was "The Wall," written by an ambitious New Jerseyite named Clyde Otis. The song did little, either in Brook's version or in a cover by Patti Page, but a partnership was formed between Clyde and Brook that, thanks to the latter's characteristic Southern patience, would eventually enrich both men.
In 1957 the pair changed labels when RCA A&R man Bob Rolontz signed Brook to the company's Vik subsidiary. More commercial failures ensued over the next two years, including "If I Only Had Known," which Benton performed in the Alan Freed quickie flick Mr. Rock And Roll.
To help make ends meet, Brook pursued his songwriting and sang on demos of other writers' tunes for instant cash. In this way he was able to pay the rent and make valuable contacts as well. Between 1955 and 1958 his voice was heard on an estimated 500 demos.
Understanding that music is a business of contacts, Clyde Otis proceeded to make many. Brook's earlier contact with Bill Cook resulted in several recordings of Benton/Otis songs, such as "Everything" and "In A Dream," both by Roy Hamilton. Ruth Brown cut the team's "I Don't Know." But it was a pair of smash songwriting hits that made the New York music scenesters stand up and take notice of Brook Benton.
Atlantic Records' legendary producer Jerry Wexler recalls being in the middle of a Clyde McPhatter date when "my friend, [publisher] Happy Goday, came in and begged me to listen to a tune. I stopped the session and put the demo on the turntable." The song, "A Lover's Question," turned out to be McPhatter's last Top 10 hit for Atlantic before switching to Mercury.
Written by Brook with Jimmy Williams, "A Lover's Question" takes Clyde into a lower register than his normal range, more like the style Brook would become known for, with some of the dips and scoops that would become the latter's trademarks. One can only surmise that these were used by Brook on the demo of his tune.
Another Benton composition, "Looking Back," penned with Otis and arranger Belford Hendricks, became a #2 R&B and #5 pop smash for Nat King Cole. The song was the kind of Southern-styled introspective ballad of rue, regret, and remorse in which Brook himself would specialize over the next several years.
Brook Benton was now a known entity among Broadway's close-knit denizens, albeit one who had already had several major-label shots as a recording artist and had, as of this time, failed to come up with the goods as a singer of hits. It was, ironically, one of Brook's demos, of Clyde Otis' tune "The Stroll," that got him noticed in the inner sanctums of his next label, Mercury.
"The Stroll" became a hit by a Mercury act called The Diamonds. The group's manager, Nat Goodman, was impressed enough with the demo singer that he leaned on Mercury brass to sign him. By the end of 1958 Brook, Clyde Otis, and Belford Hendricks were in the studio, recording "It's Just A Matter Of Time," a tune of theirs that Nat Cole must have wished could have been his.
The career-making "It's Just A Matter Of Time" was, after so many years and so many recording affiliations, worth the wait. It spent nine weeks at #1 on Billboard's R&B chart and shot to #3 pop. The public was finally in love with the voice of Brook Benton. Even the B-side, "Hurtin' Inside," charted. "Hurtin' Inside" found Brook and Clyde in the company of another pair of writers, Cirino Colacrai and Teddy Randazzo.
Colacrai, also professionally known as Del Serino, was the leader of a rocking lounge act called Cirino & The Bowties, which recorded for Royal Roost and also appeared in some of Alan Freed's movies. As a songwriter, his biggest claim to fame was as composer of "Runaround," a hit for the Three Chuckles in 1954 and later covered by The Orioles and pop vocalist Karen Chandler.
The Three Chuckles, who also were seen in Freed's rock 'n' roll flicks, had a handsome accordion-playing lead singer named Teddy Randazzo. Teddy is remembered with envy as the lucky man who gave a 13-year-old Tuesday Weld her first screen kiss, in Freed's Rock, Rock, Rock! A decade later, after a minor singing career, he would become the songwriter/producer responsible for the comeback recordings of Little Anthony & The Imperials. The resulting standards, "Goin' Out Of My Head," "Hurt So Bad," and "I'm On The Outside (Looking In)," would make Randazzo a wealthy man, one who could kiss anybody he so desired.
Brook's follow-up was another two-sided hit, "Endlessly" b/w "So Close." Both made the R&B Top 5 and the pop Top 40.
In the meantime Clyde was hired by Mercury as an A&R man and given the responsibility of reviving the career of the label's biggest black female star, Dinah Washington. The first record out of the box was the one for which she will always be remembered, "What A Diff'rence A Day Makes."
Realizing that they had in Brook Benton a performer with broad, mass appeal, Mercury had Clyde Otis record albums with the artist as well as jukebox singles. His first album, named after his first hit, contained, as was the custom of the time, a number of standards recognizable by potential adult consumers.
Throughout the rest of 1959, the hits kept coming. Both "Thank You Pretty Baby," written by Brook and Clyde, and "So Many Ways," by Bobby Stevenson, a writer affiliated with Clyde's Eden Music, reached #1 R&B. Eden Music, with its connection to a prolific A&R man, became a successful publishing enterprise on its own.
By the end of the year, somebody got the bright idea to record Mercury's two hottest acts as a duo. From the resulting album, "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)" zoomed to #1 R&B and #5 pop. On records, at least, there was a wonderful spark between Brook Benton and Dinah Washington. Their sexy, humorous banter was stronger than the lightweight material, again from the Clyde Otis publishing machine.
For a duet follow-up, Otis dusted off "A Rockin' Good Way (To Mess Around And Fall In Love)," a Benton/Otis number that had been a flop a year earlier when released on Vee-Jay Records featuring Priscilla Bowman backed by The Spaniels. Again, the blend of these two great voices and compatible personalities resulted in huge sales figures, as well as another #1 chart position. A month later, in June 1960, Dinah reached #1 R&B without Brook -- the first time on her own since 1949's "Baby Get Lost" -- with "This Bitter Earth," penned by Clyde under a pseudonym.
Not to be outdone, Brook borrowed the title of a near hit from a few years earlier by his friend Teddy Randazzo for his own #1 solo smash, "Kiddio." "Kiddio" was a relaxed, medium-paced tune cut from the same cloth as the Brook/Dinah duets. In live performance, Brook could just stand there and smile and snap his fingers while the audience bobbed their heads.
For their next hit Clyde and Brook chose to modernize the Johnny Mercer/Rube Bloom standard "Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear To Tread)." They turned the ballad on its head with an up-tempo arrangement that completely revamped the old war-horse.
In 1961 Benton had another double-sided hit with "For My Baby" and yet another Clyde Otis cautionary tale, "Think Twice." By now he was constantly on the road, working night clubs, theaters, and television shows.
Recalling his Southern roots (and rural audience), Brook and Clyde concocted "The Boll Weevil Song," based on a subject familiar to cotton farmers and pickers from that part of the country. Thanks in part to the then-current popular trend toward folk music, the record sold well in the North, too, soaring to #2 on both the R&B and pop charts.
While the next several releases failed to crack the Top 10, they kept the name Brook Benton alive in the minds of his fans. Brook's adaptation of the oldie "Frankie And Johnny" was backed with "It's Just A House Without You," another tune that Clyde and Brook cowrote with Cirino Colacrai and Teddy Randazzo.
"Revenge" and "Hit Record" found Brook exploring the novelty side of pop music. Often when an artist known for ballads and love songs gets out before his public, he finds it difficult to pace his show with too many downs and not enough ups. This may explain why Brook tried his hand at so many finger-popping ditties during this period -- to lend more variety to his live shows.
The lack of runaway midtempo hits prompted a return to the original hit formula toward the end of 1962, with "Lie To Me," cowritten by Brook, and Earl Shuman & Leon Carr's "Hotel Happiness," which made it to #3 and #2 R&B, respectively.
The crossover acceptance of Brook Benton helped bring about the soul revolution. He paved the way for other gospel-based singers vocalizing over lush string arrangements, like Ben E. King, Chuck Jackson, and Jerry Butler. There were even Benton soundalikes, such as Joe Henderson, formerly of Nashville's Fairfield Four gospel quartet. Many record buyers mistook Henderson's "Snap Your Fingers" for Brook Benton's latest hit. Brook paid tribute to his background in spiritual singing with the biblical "Shadrack," which failed to chart despite considerable airplay.
Around this time Brook was tapped to sing the title song to the motion picture Walk On The Wild Side. His outstanding performance was eclipsed later in the year by an instrumental version by jazz organist Jimmy Smith, orchestrated by Oliver Nelson, on Mercury subsidiary Verve.
Another great Benton performance of a movie title song was his version of Burt Bacharach & Hal David's "A House Is Not A Home," from the Hollywood film adaptation of the story of madame Polly Adler and her years running a brothel. Those more familiar with Dionne Warwick's later version will be pleasantly surprised by Brook's take on Bacharach. Track this one down; it'll be worth the effort.
By the end of 1964 the taste of the masses had shifted as America began its long love affair with all things British. Homegrown rock 'n' roll and soul artists suddenly found themselves tossed out with yesterday's trash. Brook Benton was no exception, and a new regime at Mercury did not renew his contract.
There is a saying in the record business: "There's always RCA." The label was known for its habit of taking on acts whose careers had already peaked. RCA Victor was also known for paying too much for acts who were past their commercial prime.
Thus, Clyde and Brook found a home at RCA Victor in 1965, where they managed to eke out one midlevel chart record, "Mother Nature, Father Time." In other words, they took the money and ran.
By 1967 Brook was at Reprise, where all involved hoped that house producer Jimmy Bowen might be able to work some of the same magic he'd worked on Frank Sinatra ("Strangers In The Night") and Dean Martin ("Everybody Loves Somebody"). Alas, what looked good on paper failed to excite either disc jockeys or fans.
Just when things were looking darkest for our hero, along came Atlantic Records with an offer to bring Brook into their fold. Atlantic was hot in 1968, with a constant flow of soul hits by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Solomon Burke, not to mention the company's successful distribution of the Stax/Volt combine, whose output included Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, and Booker T. & The MG's.
Atlantic placed Brook on their new Cotillion subsidiary, and some of the company's top producers, Leiber & Stoller and Arif Mardin, took their best shots. The results brought Brook back to radio playlists, but, except for mild chart action with a revival of Toussaint McCall's "Nothing Takes The Place Of You," nothing caught the public's fancy.
In mid-1969 Atlantic honcho Jerry Wexler had become enamored with the sound of another deep-voiced Southerner, Tony Joe White. Like Benton, White was a talented songwriter, but, unlike Brook, he was signed to Fred Foster's Monument Records and was therefore not available to Atlantic.
Wexler did the next best thing: he dispatched Arif Mardin to his favorite studio of the period, Miami's Criteria, to record Brook with Wexler's then-favorite house band, The Dixie Flyers, on one of Tony Joe White's best songs, "Rainy Night In Georgia."
Lightning struck in the studio during the session. From Charlie Freeman's magical opening guitar lick to the shimmering background chords preparing the way for Brook's rumbling bass on the first words, "Hovering by my suitcase, tryin' to find a warm place to spend the night," the listener is hooked. The story, and Brook's warm telling of it, are perfection. The singer expresses all the lonely longing Tony Joe must have felt when he put those words on paper: "Feels like it's rainin' all over the world."
In the early months of 1970, Brook Benton and "Rainy Night In Georgia" hit a home run, rising to the very top of the R&B chart and #4 pop, despite a marketplace closed to just about anything not psychedelic.
As so often occurs in the music business, it was impossible for Brook to repeat a success of such magnitude. Possibly fearing to pigeonhole himself, he declined to cut a second Tony Joe White ballad, but, instead, covered Frank Sinatra's signature song, "My Way." When this didn't work, he released a song by another Southerner, guitarist Joe South, "Don't It Make You Want To Go Home." Both were mild charters, thanks more to Atlantic's powerful promotional machine than to any commercial merit the sides may have possessed.
Brook Benton's last chart success was with Atlantic. From there, he found himself involved in increasingly humble recording affiliations, such as All Platinum and Olde World. He continued to perform where he could, but the times had passed him by, and the audience for his style of singing diminished. He died on April 9, 1988, at the age of 56 of complications from spinal meningitis.
Today Brook Benton's voice is far too seldom heard on the airwaves, but his songs live on in versions by artists such as Don Williams and Glen Campbell. Not long ago, I coproduced a version of Brook's tune "A Lover's Question" by Lou Rawls and Phoebe Snow for Blue Note. You could still hear traces of Brook in Lou's beautiful low notes.
-- Billy Vera