ON THE COMEBACK TRAIL
Famed singer starts new recording career, will repeat club tours
The lady in the elevator thought she recognized him, but she wasn’t sure. She nudged her male companion, who squinted at the tall, dark figure, showed a glimmer of recognition, then shook his head.
“Brook Benton,” someone informed the inquisitive couple.
“Right!” the woman exclaimed, looking closely at Benton. “ I thought I knew your face. You’re in the beer commercials.”
It was one of those awkward, left-handed compliments, but Benton, a natural charmer, smiled graciously and thanked the woman for her attention. Still, the moment was perhaps easier to take than it might have been just a few months ago when the handsome singer was struggling to revive a recording career which had propelled to stardom in the early ‘60s but which had floundered badly in recent years.
Today, though, the usually easygoing Benton is in even better spirits, because it appears that his recording career is once again on the rise. His new hit single, Making Love Is Good For You, taken from his album of the same name, is steadily making its way up the record charts. It seems that the husky-voiced balladeer is about to add a whole new generation of fans to those already familiar with the phenomenal talent that debuted with the million-selling It’s Just A Matter Of Time in 1959 and went on to produce a skein of 36 hit singles over the next five years.
But the amazing consistency of Benton’s early career was followed by an almost equally erratic later period. There were some successes, but the sustained output so crucial to holding a popular music audience proved elusive. Benton’s rich, romantic baritone last made to the top of the charts in 1970 with A Rainy Night In Georgia. Over the next seven years, the talent that was named “Voice Of The Year” in 1963 was rarely heard on records.
The reasons behind the silence were several, including personal difficulties and contractual problems, which made it impossible for Benton to record for three years. But he managed to keep busy, playing nightclubs here and abroad, and, yes, making beer commercials.
“In a way, it was good for me to back away from the scene for a while,” says the 46-year old, relaxing in an East Side restaurant after a visit to the New York offices of Olde World Records, his new label. “It gave me a chance to reevaluate my whole thinking about what was happening in the music world. A couple of record companies had said that I was too old, that I was over the hill,” he continues. “I was just wondering if Frank Sinatra was too old, or if Dean Martin was too old? Bing Crosby wasn’t too old, and Elvis Presley wasn’t too old. I began to think that maybe I was ‘too something else.’ The idea of being ‘over the hill’ doesn’t bother me if it’s the truth, but I’m not going to be ‘over the hill’ just because somebody says that I am.
Apparently, Olde World Records agreed. “Brook has had 18 gold records in his career,” says Scott Lavin, president of Galaxy Communications, Olde World Records’ parent company. “This new record is taking off now, and we feel that we can get 20 more. Things are just beginning to happen. We’re saying, ‘Watch out, world! Brook Benton is back!’”
Wally Roker, president of Olde World, is equally enthusiastic. “Brook is phenomenal recording artist,” he says, “and one of the few who are still around. I think he can go farther today than he did before, because considerably more people are ready to accept him now, and the record industry itself has grown three or four times larger.”
Benton’s current album shows that his vocal skills are still very much intact as he moves easily from the sensuous ballad work that has become his trademark to some of the album’s uptempo dance numbers. The album also marks the reunion of Benton and Clyde Otis, the producer who was Benton’s collaborator in his original string of hits.
Benton and Otis first met as songwriters in 1955. Together they churned out hundreds of songs, with Benton singing on the demonstration records that they hustled around to various companies. Eventually, the hits started to come. A Lover’s Question, Looking Back and other successful tunes written by the pair boosted the careers of such singers as Nat King Cole, Patti Page and Roy Hamilton. Then Benton and Otis penned It’s Just A Matter Of Time and decided that Benton should take a shot at recording the tune. Mercury Records signs the young singer, and It’s Just A Matter Of Time skyrocketed up the charts. Suddenly, Benton, who had come to New York as a 17-year-old kid from a gospel singing family of eight in Camden, S.C., and supported himself as a truck driver and dishwasher, was a major star.
Over the next three years, Benton and Otis became one of the record industry’s most successful teams, reeling off 17 straight hits. Significantly, too, they were largely “self-contained,” a rarity at the time. They wrote, produced, performed, and held copyrights to their music. For a while, the money and the accolades accumulated, then things started to slowly fall apart. In 1961, just after the release of their million-seller, The Boll Weevil Song, personal differences and industry pressures separated Benton and Otis. Benton continued to enjoy some successful recordings throughout most of the ‘60s, but while 1963 brought him the “Voice of the Year” honor, it was also the year in which he was brutally beaten after he objected to performing a second show in a St. Louis nightclub because the orchestra, he says, “didn’t know my music.” For a time, he dabbled in acting, but that generally unproductive interest eventually fell by the wayside. The career that seemed so promising suddenly appeared confused. Then, after 1970, there was the silence, which has just now been broken.
“I think I’ve grown some,” says Benton, and I think I have better understanding of just how successful I want to be. Before, I never really had enough time for myself or my family,” says the father of four. “We were touring all the time under some very tough conditions, and sometimes there were no places to stay. No phones, nothing. But you don’t know these things until you experience them for yourself. Now I know the mistakes not to make. I’m not saying that I won’t make mistakes again, but I won’t make the same ones twice.”
Though the extensive road tours of Benton’s early career stole family time from the Benton clan, the frequent travel also had a positive side-it helped maintain the singer’s marriage of 24 years to his wife, Mary. “We managed to stay together by staying apart,” says Benton with a laugh. “I spent so much time on the road that whenever I returned it was always like a joyous reunion.”
The Benton’s (including Brook jr., 22; Roy Hamilton, 19; Vanessa, 21, and Gerald, 14) live in a spacious home in Long Island, N.Y., where Benton spends most of his leisure time “doing the things that come naturally,” he says. “I read a lot, I like to write songs, and I go horseback riding whenever I can.” The singer put in considerable time listening to recordings by other vocalists. “I listen to everybody,” he says.
For Benton, a major element in this new stage of his career is his reunion with Clyde Otis. According to Otis, a Benton album currently in production will far out-class the already successful Making Love Is Good For You. “We’re just touching the surface right now,” Otis says.
Benton is now doing some serious songwriting for the first time in years. But when he is asked about his work for the upcoming album, he prefers to talk about the songs written by others. “We have some very strong lyrics,” he says, “and that keeps the song in focus at all times, which is important for my head.” Benton smiles, then hums a few bars from one of the new tunes, a mellifluous ballad, which seems a natural for the suave Benton style. “It’s called All I have To Do Is Think Of You,” he says. “I’m writing some things but, truthfully, I’ve recently been out written. It’s good to be working again, and I just want to live to be worthy of it.”
(published in EBONY, may 1978)