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Colin Escot

Brook Benton's music was a study in contrast. The lushness of the backings was juxtaposed against the contained passion in his voice. On much of his best work there is a simmering tension where his restraint serves to heighten the drama. Benton's music pointed concurrently in several directions but it was the subtle shadings that remained from his gospel background that stood out so vividly against the massed strings. Perhaps it is that contrast that has enabled his music to survive in style.
The fact that Benton also wrote or co-wrote some of the very best songs on offer during the late 50's and early 60's has also served his reputation well.
That reputation, of course, is now posthumous. Brook Benton died in April 1988, a decade after witnessing his last hit and four decades after arriving on the bus from South Carolina, hopeful of making his way in the New York music scene.
Benton was born Benjamin Franklin Peay on September 19, 1931 in Camden, South Carolina. His father, Willie Peay, was a bricklayer and Methodist minister. "Where I was born". Recalled Benton to Stuart Colman, "there wasn't too many nightclubs-in fact, there wasn't one! Church gatherings were our nightclub." Benton grew up firmly entrenched in ensemble singing. He sang in the Efuces Methodist choir and when he headed for New York in 1948 it was the ambition of working in a professional gospel group.
Benton joined Bill Langford's Langfordaires (where he reportedly made his recording debut) and moved to the Jerusalem Stars in 1951. He paid the rent by hauling clothes racks in New York's garment district. After quitting the Jerusalem Stars, Benton joined the Sandmen who can be heard in support of Chuck Willis on some of the latter's Okeh recordings. And it was Okeh who offered Benton his first contract as a solo artist in 1953. The Okeh division of Columbia/CBS was looking for an artist to duplicate the success of Roy Hamilton on their Epic subsidiary. Benton, unaccustomed to working as a solo singer and with only lackluster material, failed to deliver. However, CBS kept the faith and moved him briefly to Epic in 1955 when Okeh was folded.
During the mid '50s, Benton started practicing the art of demo singing. Music publishers were always looking for versatile singers who could deliver a demo in a variety of styles depending upon the artist to whom they wished to pitch the song. By his own account, Benton sang over 500 demos for various publishers-and one of his demos landed him a short term with RCA. There he scored a minor hit with The Wall in 1957 but was scooped when Patti Page covered the song. In search of a follow-up, Benton went to Meridian Music publishers where he met one of the men who could change the course of his life.
The Brook Benton story is inextricable linked to two pivotal behind-the-scene players, Clyde Otis and Dave Dreyer. Born black and poor in Prentiss, Mississippi, Clyde Otis came to New York and clawed his way up to the inhospitable music-publishing ladder. After an unhappy tenure as a writer and song plugger at Meridian Music, Otis joined forces with an established publisher, Dave Dreyer. Cecilia had been Dreyer's first hit back in 1925 and he had spent several years managing Irving Berlin's publishing before striking out on his own in 1947. Together, Otis and Dreyer entered into a joined venture, Eden Music, in 1958. Brook Benton soon become closely involved as a contracted writer and demo singer.
The partnership between the two black displaced southerners immediately produced a Top 10 hit, Looking Back, for Nat 'King' Cole. Just as Looking Back was beginning its descent, Benton and Jimmy Williams wrote a bouncy rock & roll novelty song, A Lover's Question. Benton sang the demo while Clyde Otis snapped his fingers. Otis presented the demo to Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records who immediately recognized that the song was ideal for Clyde McPhatter. They invited Benton and Otis to recreate the minimalist charm of their demo on McPhatter's recording. The resulting cut became the biggest hit of McPhatter's-ill-starred solo career.
At roughly the same time, Clyde Otis was offered a position with Mercury Records for whom he had produced The Stroll, a song he had written while still with Meredian Music -and one of the best selling records of 1958. "Art Talmadge came to New York from Mercury's head office in Chicago," recalled Otis, "and asked me if I'd be interested in taking over the creative wing of the New York office. Up to that time no black had enjoyed both administrative and creative responsibilities -only creative. I said I wanted both. Art wasn't prepared to offer that and went back to Chicago. Finally, the president of Mercury, Irving Green, offered me both, probably saying, 'Let him hang himself.'"
One of Otis's first moves was to sign his demo singer, Brook Benton, who was being courted by Atlantic Records. During the first session Benton and Otis recorded a song that they had worked up. It's just a matter of time was such a compelling piece of material that it could have been a hit in anyone's hands. The lyric reflected Benton's frustration at his inability to score as a hit singer. When confronted with his co-writer's frustration Otis would say, "It's just a matter of time, Brook." And Brook's time was closer than he dared imagine.
Otis ensured that It's just a matter of time would appeal to the broadest cross-section of the market by employing a full string section. However, there was a political dimension to the strings that went beyond merely broadening the base of appeal. "Historically," asserted Otis, "black artists wanted to record with strings because it had been something that had been denied them. The strings symbolized legitimacy. There weren't even any black string players working in the studios. When we organized Brook's first date I asked my contractor if there were any black string players. He said, "'Yes. They're working in Broadway shows and other pick-up jobs.' I said 'Why don't they play record dates?' He said, 'Nobody calls them.' I said, 'If they're good, I want to see them on my sessions.'" Initially, the strings were arranged by Ray Ellis (whose work can be heard on the first seven hits) and subsequently by Belford Hendricks (who often wrote with Otis and Benton)
In February 1959, It's just a matter of time entered the charts, topping the R&B listings and peaking at number 3 on the industry standard Billboard pop chart. Both Benton and Otis had been vindicated in the strongest possible terms. Even Dave Dreyer cornered a piece of the action, becoming Benton's personnel manager. Benton could afford to be philosophical: "Clyde Otis and I got hot. Everything has a mission and comes into being in its own time. It may not come when you want it but it'll still be on time."
By chance or design. Benton and Otis had found the perfect groove for an era that was eschewing rock & roll in favor of fuller productions and softer voicing. Benton's intimate and crisply miked vocals looked back toward the relaxed ballad style of Arthur Prysock and Billy Eckstine and forward to the passion of soul music.
One of the selling points of It's just a matter of time was the low notes that Benton hit at well chosen junctures in the song. He was singing deeper and with more feeling than on any of his previous recordings for other labels. The low notes were a legacy from an early R&B giant, Percy Mayfield. Benton had first used them on his demo of The Stroll. After his vocal arrangement had been successfully co-opted by the Diamonds, Benton resolved to use the low notes on his own recordings and worked to perfect this technique. Otis also ensured that Brook rehearsed his vocal part for days before a session so that many of the nuances could be honed to perfection.
The insistence upon rehearsal was only one facet of Clyde Otis's production style. He used the strings as a lead instrument and supported them with a rhythm section comprised of moonlighting jazzmen such as drummer Panama Francis and guitarists Kenny Burrell, Everett Barksdale and Eric Gale. He then adopted this formula to recharge the career of Dinah Washington, an artist whom he had inherited from his predecessor. The troubled and troublesome Queen of the Blues had recorded for Mercury almost since the label's inception in 1945 and the onslaught of rock & roll had left her career firmly in the doldrums.
Otis presented Dinah with one of his favorite songs, What a difference a day makes (originally a hit for the Dorseys back in 1934) and set her astringent vocal against a lush orchestral backdrop. The result was her first Top 10 hit.
Casting around for follow-ups, Otis hit upon the idea of recording a duet between Dinah and Brook Benton. "Clyde came to me and asked me about doing something with Dinah," recalled Benton, "and it was fine with me, although I'd never met her. I'd heard her duets with Jimmy Ricks of the Ravens back before I got into the business and it seemed like a good idea to copy that format. I went out to her house and we got to know each other before we went into the studio -and it was a gas. We had so much fun doing Baby (You've got what it takes). Even the goof -and it really was a goof- was just spontaneous. I was in her spot and she knew it. But the goof helped sell the record."
Dinah's truculent behavior was nowhere in evidence and her obvious rapport with Benton communicated itself vividly on both Baby and its follow up, a Rockin' good way (To mess around and fall in love).
It seemed Brook Benton could do no wrong. Even after sessions costs has been deducted, Brook was able to purchase a house with his first royalty check from Mercury. It's just a matter of time was followed by Endlessly/So close, Thank you pretty baby, So many ways, Kiddio, Fools rush in and For my baby before Benton and Otis made a tongue-in-cheek return to their days in the cotton patch. With the craze for ersatz folk music in full bloom, they concocted The boll weevil song that said more about the distance they had traveled than their squabbles with any boll weevil.
Short after Boll weevil, Clyde Otis left Mercury in a dispute over music publishing. Initially Otis intended to continue working with Benton as an independent producer but a rift developed between the two and they did not work together for the remaining three years of Benton's Mercury contract. Otis's position as New York head of A&R was assumed by Shelby Singleton who had started his career on the Louisiana Hayride and had joined Mercury as a field promo rep in the South. Singleton's background was in country music although he had an undisputed ear for finding or recording masters that captured the middle ground between country and pop. Running bear, Hey baby, and Joe Dowell's Wooden heart were among Singleton's contributions to Mercury's impressive track record in the early '60s. By the end of 1961 Singleton was commuting between New York and Nashville producing both country and pop sessions.
As a matter of preference, Singleton would record in Nashville. He liked the informality with which arrangements were worked up in the studio and he tried to bring that modus operandi to the New York sessionís -with no success at all. So, he gradually started bringing the artists he had inherited from Clyde Otis down to Nashville and pairing them with that city's famous A-team. The confluence of styles brought about the rebirth of Clyde McPhatter's career with Lover please but did little to keep Benton's career on its high note. The only Top 10 hit on Mercury after the departure of Clyde Otis was Hotel happiness, although there were several minor hits.
Singleton liked choruses (particularly The Merry Melody Singers which included his wife Margie) although arguably they detracted from the intimacy and presence of Benton's voice that Otis had captured to perfection. Singleton also liked pulling material from country writers and there was even a complete album of country songs as he sought out the middle ground for Benton.
However, it was not Shelby Singleton's predilection for country repertoire that spelled the end of Benton's winning streak; it was the changing climate within the industry. British groups dominated the pop charts and the R&B charts bore evidence of fresh voices from Memphis to Detroit. Just as Brook Benton had represented a fresh direction in 1959 so he was becoming passť by 1965.
At the expiration of his term with Mercury, Benton returned to RCA for a three-year term that briefly reunited him with Clyde Otis. They worked together on the first session that produced Benton's only hit on RCA, Mother Nature father time, then the old disagreements resurfaced. After the RCA deal terminated Benton had a short fling with Reprise and then took up an offer from Jerry Wexler that had been standing since 1958. He joined the Cotillion wing of Atlantic Records. "I was assigned to a studio in Miami," he recalled, "and they called me and asked me if I would like to do a Tony Joe White song -and I didn't know whether I would or not. So they sent me the demo of Rainy night in Georgia and something grabbed me." It grabbed a lot of other people too. Rainy night became a late blooming hit for Benton in 1970, a little oasis of mellowness amid the psychedelic.
Other minor hits and several label affiliations followed but Benton could never recapture the winning groove. He lived his last years playing the oldies circuit, inviting the audience to Remember When.
He died on April 9, 1988 of complications from spiral meningitis. Despite his later success with Rainy night in Georgia, Benton will be primarily remembered for the Mercury recordings on this set. His music was true crossover music; it crossed between eras and between divergent styles. It looked both forward and backward; it shared the urbanity of pop music and the drama of gospel. Brook Benton took a decade to find his true voice but -once found- he defined a style that could only be called his own. He became a success on his own terms and the measure of his success is that there is still a demand for his work some thirty years after he first struck gold.
COLIN ESCOT
SOURCES:
Brook Benton interviewed by
Stuart Colman
(BBC Radio London, November 27 1983)
and Max Jones
(Melody Maker, 1975)
Clyde Otis interviewed by
Colin Escot, October 10 1986 & January 7 1989
The clippings file of the Showtime (Toronto) Archive