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Billy Vera

Endlessly: The Best Of Brook Benton
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
Rhino A&R

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