Name, originally Benjamin Franklin Peay; born September 19, 1931, in
Camden, SC; died of pneumonia, April 9, 1988, in New York, NY; son
of a Methodist minister; married wife, Mary, c. 1954; children:
Brook, Roy, Vanessa, Gerald.
Songwriter, vocalist. Performed with local gospel groups while a
teenager; worked odd jobs as a dishwasher and truck driver in New
York City during late 1940s and early 1950s; worked as a vocalist on
demo tapes during early 1950s; member of songwriting partnership
with Clyde Otis, 1955-61, wrote songs for Nat King Cole and Clyde
McPhatter, among others; recording artist and concert performer
during the 1960s and 1970s; formed singing and performing
partnership with Dinah Washington, 1960-63. Appeared in beer
commercials during the 1970s.
Awards: Eighteen gold records.
Singer-songwriter Brook Benton was one of the top performers of the
early 1960s. In addition to writing hits for other famous vocalists,
he gave music fans the gift of his own smooth baritone voice on
popular ballads such as "It's Just A Matter of Time," "Endlessly,"
and "A Rainy Night in Georgia." Benton also garnered applause
singing duets with famed jazz artist Dinah Washington and staged a
brief comeback during the 1970s.
Benton was born Benjamin Franklin Peay in Camden, South Carolina, on
September 19, 1931. His father was a Methodist minister, and Benton
sang in his church as a child. His interest in gospel music
continued into his teens, and he performed with local gospel groups
for a time. But when he was seventeen, Benton left for New York City
to try and make it in more secular music. At first he had to make
his living driving trucks and washing dishes, but eventually he
found work singing on demo tapes for songwriters who were trying to
sell their compositions to established stars.
Benton began writing songs of his own and in 1955 formed a writing
partnership with Clyde Otis. The pair made demo tapes of their
compositions, with Benton providing the vocals. Benton and Otis's
big break came when the legendary Nat King Cole heard their "Looking
Back" and decided to record it; when it became a huge success, more
business was drawn to the duo. They sold other songs to Cole as
well, and wrote the smash "A Lover's Question" for rhythm-and-blues
artist Clyde McPhatter. Benton and Otis also provided hits for the
likes of Patti Page and Roy Hamilton.
By 1959 Benton realized that what Rolling Stone critic Anthony
DeCurtis labeled his "elegant" baritone was being wasted on demo
tapes. After he and Otis composed the sad but hopeful "It's Just
A Matter of Time," Benton won the attention of Mercury Records, and
the company signed the young vocalist. As a reporter for Ebony
magazine noted, "'It's Just A Matter Of Time' skyrocketed up the
charts." A series of solo hits followed, including "Endlessly,"
"Thank You, Pretty Baby," and "So Close." Benton added to his fame
when he recorded the album The Two of Us with acclaimed jazz singer
Dinah Washington. Together they climbed the charts with the upbeat
"Baby, You've Got What It Takes" and "A Rockin' Good Way."
Benton began to have career troubles in 1961, right after his
humorous story tune "The Boll Weevil Song" gained popularity. The
single was the last success he would share with Otis during that
decade; the two dissolved their partnership due to what Ebony cited
as "personal differences and industry pressures." Another of
Benton's partnerships, that with Washington, ended with her death in
1963. That same year he suffered a severe physical beating, which
Ebony linked to his refusal to perform a second show at a St. Louis
club because he claimed that the orchestra there did not play his
music correctly. He continued to sing in nightclubs and also tried
acting for a time, but little came of it. In 1970 he managed a brief
return to the spotlight with his plaintive rendition of "A Rainy
Night in Georgia."
But Benton was unable to follow up on the song's success. For a
period of three years Benton was not allowed to record because of
contract disputes and he dropped from public attention except for
club appearances and some beer commercials he did to help support
himself. During the late 1970s, he contemplated a comeback, and when
record companies told Benton he was too old for them to take a
chance on him, he reasoned, according to Ebony, that "Bing Crosby
wasn't too old, and Elvis Presley wasn't too old." He finally landed
a recording contract with Olde World Records in 1978. For this
company, Benton recorded Making Love Is Good for You; to his
satisfaction, the single of the same title became a modest hit. He
also, like many artists of his heyday, received a boost in
popularity when music fans became nostalgic for the tunes of the
1950s and 1960s.
Though in 1978 Ebony predicted that Benton's comeback would be a
long one, they were apparently wrong. Little else was heard from
Benton, and he died of pneumonia in New York City on April 9, 1988.
Singles: "It's Just A Matter of Time," Mercury, 1959. "Endlessly,"
Mercury, 1959. "So Close," Mercury, 1959. "Thank You, Pretty Baby,"
Mercury, 1959. "Kiddio," Mercury, 1960. "Fools Rush In," Mercury,
1960. "The Boll Weevil Song," Mercury, 1961. "Frankie and Johnny,"
Mercury, 1961. "Lie to Me," Mercury, 1962. "A Rainy Night in
Georgia," Cotillion, 1970. "Making Love Is Good for You," Olde World,
1978. LPs: (With Dinah Washington) The Two of Us (includes "Baby,
You've got What It Takes" and "A Rockin' Good Way"), Mercury, 1960.
Making Love Is Good for You, Olde World, 1978.
Ebony, May 1978. New York Times, April 10, 1988; April 11, 1988.
Rolling Stone, May 19, 1988. Time, April 25, 1988.