Brook Benton Essay
There Goes That Song Again
The American critics and reviewers of the music of Brook Benton have been a little bit vague on one decisive matter: praises have been sung about ability and dexterity of his voice, his sensitive versions of songs, but in reality these praises are just meant for Brook's hits, and nearly about every discourse ends with the incomparable "Rainy Night in Georgia", recorded in 1970. From the very beginning, the astonishing recordings and albums that Brook had made for Mercury above and beyond his hits, have been ignored. Several of the songs on his LP "Best Ballads Of Broadway" are among the most beautiful vocal versions of this type of song ever recorded. "Make someone happy", If I ever would leave you", "The sweetest sound", "Hello young lovers" etc., are masterpieces of a vocalist, who is at heart not limited by the confines of his material.
The album "There Goes That Song Again" fulfills all of the criteria for being of the highest quality. The masterful arrangements of Quincy Jones and his orchestra with Brook Benton result in an incredible synthesis of musicality and the most elegant blend of swing. None of the songs on this record should be placed above another, but can a more swinging introduction to any piece of music be found anywhere in the world of music than the title song of this LP? Benton sings expressively, belcanto; he makes his presence felt in the highs and lows; he is spontaneous, improving and always exhilarating. I have placed this album at the forefront of my collection of vocalists, which is a compilation of all the American music in this genre. Obviously I know that one can never determine the Best in the arts. The greatest have resonance, like ripples in a pond, suffusing, staying on the same wave length.
It's a shame the managers and producers didn't pursue this potential that Brook Benton had and let him work with swinging material nearing jazz. How delightful might those Benton recordings of his classic material combined with unpretentious, jazzy instrumentals have been. The pressure of producing hits has undoubtedly got in the way of much unfulfilled greatness in American music.
At that time, Brook Benton was not only a hit maker, but the creator of many a highlydemanding artistic album and each one of the following LP's "If You Believe", "On The Countryside", "Born To Sing The Blues", "Singing The Blues" and "This Bitter Earth" is to be considered a work of art. Individual songs from these productions even found their way as singles into the charts. His early albums "It's Just A Matter Of Time", "I Love You In So Many Ways", "Endlessly" and "Songs I Love To Sing" should also not be forgotten. Each one of these records holds vocal masterpieces; many have become standards. In order to grasp the quality of this music, it's necessary to take the time to listen closely and carefully, which is something that doesn't come easy, given the disposition of most people today. Nowadays, we are confronted with a situation in which nothing can be done in popular music unless it has been accompanied by a video.
Nevertheless, returning to Mercury: the Mercury Discography from Ruppli lists still another LP, "The Special Years 1959-1965". This LP, which, apparently wasn't released as such, contains five titles that weren't released anywhere else either, not even as singles: "If you have no real objections", "Our hearts knew", "I'll always love you", "On my word", "A lifetime lease in your heart".
In any case, the relationship between Brook Benton and Mercury came to an end, and Brook signed on at RCA. Billy Vera, who wrote a touching accompanying text for the two-part Benton Edition from Rhino, remarks in a rather casual and lax tone: "... they took the money and ran." Apparently, it's true in the USA that something is only good if it sells well; in Europe there seems to be a more sensitive receptiveness to the production of works of art. Benton had one single in the charts with RCA, "Mother nature, father time". An album of the same name exists, giving proof of Benton's vocal dimensions. First and foremost, he released a series of standards with Ray Ellis and Glen Osser, on which he is at the summit of his singing technique, and which were released on the album "That Old Feeling". The title song of the same name, old favorites like "A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square", "Call me irresponsible", "Love is a many splendoured thing", "The second time around", to name just a few, are the absolute highlights of what are now considered to be Brook Benton's standard interpretations.
Brook's voice enfolds the texts in such a touching manner that he creates entire songs of just one word, one single syllable or he floats with these texts through the depths of the commonplace, creating songs that remain unforgettable for music-lovers and enthusiasts. Groups of these songs have appeared on the LP's "A Million Miles From Nowhere" and "Sings A Love Story". In addition to the recordings made with the Billy May Big Band, some other, even more remarkable material has appeared on singles, such as promo singles, of which "Soulsville", or the famous Austrian Christmas carol "Stille Nacht" stand out. What must definitely be mentioned at this phase of Brook Benton's recording career is the album "My Country" with the Anita Kerr Singers. Of course, country hits were being produced at that time by RCA in Nashville and stars of the time, such as Bobby Bare, The Anita Kerr Singers, Chet Atkins, Hank Snow, Skeeter Davis, Floyd Cramer, just to name a few, were known to the fans. Brook Benton's adaptation of traditional country material turned out only one charming LP with excellent interpretations.
Immediately after having broken with RCA, Benton took up with Reprise, which, at that time, was the label Frank Sinatra was working with. Producer Jimmy Bowen was responsible for the album "Laura" (1967). The title song of the same name landed in the charts, but the album itself was not successful at all. The elaborate arrangements that the fans had become used to hearing from Dean Martin, Sinatra and also from Sammy Davis, Jr., made some of the songs on this album seem flat in comparison ("This is worth fighting for", "Lingering on"). On the other hand of this LP there are some real winners, swinging, hot, not overly arranged and as always with a superbly singing Brook Benton: "Laura", "Ode to Billy Joe", "Stick to it ", "Tall oak tree", "The glory of love", a song that probably was taken to the height of emotions in the interpretation Brook gave. Maybe only vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald or mainly Sarah Vaughan would have been able to render an interpretation similar in its quality to Brook's version. There is an awful lot of European music-lovers who were captivated by these songs, after having had the chance to get to know them; a more mature audience who is very much capable of making a critically, objective judgment of the tastefulness of this kind of music. Three numbers that did not appear on the LP but were released as singles ("Weakness in a man", "Instead...", "Lonely street"), also offered good material, and it is incomprehensible why the relationship between Benton and Reprise did not last longer. Perhaps it was due, in the broadest sense, to social problems. The crooner (and partial owner) of the label was Frank Sinatra. Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. were part of his gang. What was a top-class guy like Benton doing with this label anyway? It's also quite interesting to note than Dean Martin, a white guy who wasn't exactly blessed with a broad vocal range, had become an even more successful (hit) singer than Sammy Davis, Jr., who was a much more talented vocalist than smooth Dean Martin. Sammy Davis Jr. only had one really big hit, "Candy man". But his complete works include many high quality studio and live recordings.
One can just imagine the magnificent musical output that a collaboration between Sinatra's own Nelson Riddle band and Brook Benton might have brought forth, since Brook's voice at that time had reached its zenith.
An extraordinarily period of creativity for Benton came a little bit later from 1969 to 1972 while working with the producer Arif Mardin and Atlantic/Cotillion. Five albums, "The Gospel Truth", "Do Your Own Thing", "Brook Benton Today", ""Home Style" and "Story Teller" show us a singer who was not only capable of rising to new challenges, but who was advancing step-by-step to vocal and interpretative perfection. Not all of the songs on this LP are first-class, but many are supreme masterpieces, and "Rainy night in Georgia" has been praised justifiably. The song is a gem, and Brook was lucky to have had become a hit the world over. If one assumes, that the art of writing lyrics is a subjective expression of emotions that enchants everyone who is swinging along, then the composer, Tony Joe White, and his interpreter, Brook Benton, achieved the unachievable: the content, the sound and the rhythm of the song have fused to form a single unit, spreading its vibrations, rippling to the listener, shaping its spirit, its emotion, the total being of its personality. In this song in particular one can find the fundamental vocal artistry of Brook Benton. Sinatra sings (short) syllables as short as possible: fly me to the moon,.... come fly with me,...fve got a crush on you....; his vibrato mostly occurs on the last syllable, creating the swinging sound associated with his voice. Benton makes syllables as long as possible: neon signs are flashing, taxi cabs are passing through the night,... find me a place in a box car...; he lets them float along, making them into musical motifs, yet is able to build up a tension that is unspeakably impassable, which, combined with his ever-present Blues and Soul feeling, gives birth to a vocal artistry that cannot be easily labeled. Brook Benton is always Soul, always Blues; he swings, when the material needs him to. The high demands that many of the recording on these five albums place on the listener, were the reason that they couldn't become hits. Paul Anka's "My way" was given its validity in the reflective, yet a little bit smug interpretation by Frank Sinatra; Benton's version defies Sinatra's as a desperately determined, existentialist statement, that was not able to be given the attention that it undoubtedly deserved. Exactly the opposite was true with Benton' version of "I've gotta be me". Out of the laud, self-assured All-American-Boy song of all the other versions emerged a quiet, questioning, contemplative theme in which the vocalist is trying to find himself, made completely clear in Brook Benton's version and adaptation of this song.
There isn't room to discuss each and every one of Benton's albums during this period, but one can summarize that these productions are among the most brilliant recordings coming out of those studios at that time. It must, however, be mentioned that, in addition to the LPs, a series of singles had been produced, of which about 20 had not been released. (The title and matrix numbers are known.) It would be a rewarding task to release these recordings. In Europe (and probably in the USA, too) there are still enough music-lovers who would be fascinated by the idea of a CD containing this material. (The same is true of the Mercury LP "The Special Years", mentioned above).
Consequently it became increasingly more difficult for Brook Benton to find producers and labels that would be able to offer the opportunities befitting a vocalist of his stature. In 1972/73 he recorded the album "Something For Everyone" for MGM, on which Brook partially worked as a producer himself. The record mostly contains well-known material, nothing that would knock you off your feet, but every single song is masterfully done in that Benton manner. Basically there are hardly any recordings of this singer, that cannot be enjoyed by music lovers and lovers of the vocal arts.
Shortly after this intermezzo Brook signed up with Brut, a perfume company that wanted to get into the record business. Benton recorded (probably) 10 titles for Brut, 4 of which appeared on 2 singles. The projected album never appeared, since the company gave up and pulled out of the business shortly after finishing the recordings. Ten songs were recorded and were released in 1977 by All Platinum, containing several highlights, which proved the profound abilities of the singer. Several of the songs have such catchy melodies ("Lay, lady, lay", "Jealous guy", "On your side of the bed", "When summer turns to fall", "A touch of glass", "Sister and brother") that, had they been given the right professional promotion, they would have easily become hits, and thus would have been made available to a more broad audience.
It is interesting to perceive with which amount of enthusiasm more mature music-lovers take in these songs, practically unknown in their Brook Benton version when they are confronted with them. It must have been depressing for the artist to have had delivered such immaculate work only to see it wither away for lack of promotion. Everyone knows that a recording is only as good as its promotion and sales.
Immediately following this streak of bad luck, the singer had to endure a further fiasco. Brook signed a contract for the renowned label Stax. This collaboration promised to fufill the greatest of expectations. But Stax, too, collapsed shortly after the contract had been signed and the few, exquisite recordings that Brook indeed was able to make, again were not promoted and distributed as they should have been. Songs like "Ä tribute tu you, mama", are outstanding examples of American popular music. They hinted at imitations of vocal ranges.... on "Old fashioned strut", the imitation of instruments (tb, b) in the fade out of this songs, showed the vocal surprises that were hidden, beating in the broad chest of Brook Benton."A tribute to you Mama" is a song that can move you to tears. Of course, it is emotionally charged (which was certainly the lyrical intention), yet it never slips into pathetic kitsch. A story is told, succinct yet caring, a story that many in the older generations experienced themselves: a carefree, sheltered childhood, in which the family was held together by mother, this longing for the great wide world, the gloominess over disappointments they had ("... in the pictures the city looked so warm..."), yet moving on anyway with a mother's assurance: ... life is pretty much what you make it, so get up kids, we got to make it for another year..."
The text and music of this lyric portrait were masterfully presented in Brook Benton's touching interpretation, exposing an immanent cascade of memories, sheltered feelings, melancholy, disappointment and promise in one.
In 1976 Brook Benton recorded the album Mr. Bartender" for All Platinum, The material, arrangements and the style of the LP are high-class, but it had to have been known from the outset that there wouldn't be a real hit among the songs that had been chosen.. But Brook Benton had begun developing years before from a hit singer into a mature, classical vocalist, whose records were appreciated by an ever-dwindling yet increasingly interested audience.
In 1977/78(?) Benton was again working with Clyde Otis, the successful producer of earlier days. A series of recordings for the New Jersey Label Old World Records lead to two albums: "Making Love Is Good For You" (1977) and "Soft", that Otis released in 1984 on Sounds of Florida Records. It is remarkable that only the title song of the Old World LP made it into the charts. It is a composition by Tony Joe White that is not comparable in its artistic significance to the monumental numbers that Benton had previously made out of White compositions. One just has to think of the compelling, "For Lee Ann" the swinging ballad "Willie and Laura Mae Jones" and, of course, the unforgettable "Rainy night...": but Brook drew attention to himself once again with "Making love...". The most moving song on this album "Let the sun come out", has, to the best of my knowledge, remained almost unknown. It is a lyrically exceptional product in which the harmony between the composition and the interpretation astoundingly expresses a feeling of being together, the feeling of hope. The density and intensity of its lyric expression and impression makes this song comparable to the famous "Rainy night...", and this single recording would have justified the entire album on which even more appealing material could be found.(" I keep thinking to myself", "Better times" etc.). The album "Soft" released in 1984 by Clyde Otis reveals in part the same material as was on the Old World LP, but in slightly different vocal versions. The record is a mixture of rhythmically accentuated ("Bayou Babe" ,"Sunshine", ,"We need what we need") and slow songs, of which "You're pulling me down" and "Love is best of all" particularly stand out. This song works particularly well with the lyrical element of weighing down, that is working out the fundamental feelings in the refrain or in a refrain-like repetition. An entire article could be written on the formal arrangement of the refrain by Brook Benton, but let this much be said: Benton varies the refrains of his songs constantly, on the one hand, certainly because of his manic-musician pleasure in the variation, and on the other hand, with the aim of expressing any shades of fundamental feelings that are in the song.
In 1983 Brook Benton recorded most likely his last album. The LP "Beautiful Memories Of Christmas" came to being in Charlotte, North Carolina for the label HMC. It is the final artistic culmination of the record career of the singer. This record differs most agreeably from the majority of the usual American X-Mas productions that are loud, noisy and in-your-face. Benton's Christmas album is moving, touching and shows once again the abilities of this extraordinary singer of making feelings be heard.
Joy, hope, but also melancholy, feelings that dominate this time of the year, flow into these songs. It is incredible that a singer with this amount of vocal and interpretative talent was made to fall silent.
All that was left for the artist were appearances in clubs and concert halls. It is amazing that he almost exclusively performed his old hits, whereby much of his best work was just poured on. It is futile to complain or to look find fault with the management of the singer or even with Brook Benton himself. Brook Benton died in 1988 long before his time, and he left behind a musical legacy which will be called for and longed for as long as there are people who are willing to listen to good music performed by a unique singer. My personal experience with the many people to whom I have introduced the music of Brook Benton has been enthusiastic. It has to be noted that a part of Benton's legacy is only little-known, if at all, although it is among the best that was ever produced in American popular music. This legacy probably also contains (audio and video?) material from performances. Something or other must certainly still be able to be discovered! This together with the non-released recordings for Mercury and especially for Cottilion would produce such a treasure that not only serious Benton fans would find appealing. The American music culture is not so profound that it would be necessary to deny one of the greats, such as Brook Benton in his later phase was, by not giving him the recognition that undoubtedly his due: a ripple on the highest seas. His resonant ripples spread out, touching, sufusing, forming the summit of the arts.
We can only trust that the biography of Brook Benton, a work-in-progress by Anthony Hines of Arlington, Virginia, will provide us with more detail about the work and, particularly about the structure of this artist's personality, an artist who died much before his time.
Dr. Herwig Gradischnig January 2002
PS.: The early works of Brook Benton were left out of this article on purpose. They have been very well documented on the records and, in recent years, on CD (Epic, Vik, RCA Camden, Taragon and on a double LP, released by Clyde Otis on Trip, containing 24 demo-recordings). Recordings made with the group The Sandmen on Okeh ("Somebody to love/"When I grow too old to dream" and a song titled "Ooh") are recordings which are hardly available. The movie "Mr Rock'n Roll", Paramount, 1957, in which Brook can be heard singing two songs and which denoted an important advancement in the singer's career, is hardly ever mentioned. As for myself I'm missing "When I grow too old..." with the Sandmen and "I'm almost persuaded" with Damita Jones. There also exists a clip to promote the RCA record "Mother nature, Father time", 1966, which I've been looking for in vain.