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Robert Pruter

"You're in My Spot Again Honey"
The Two of Us was released in 1960 and featured four duets that teamed two of the best known and most successful Mercury recording artists. Dinah Washington and Brook Benton. Washington was the more legendary of the two, famed for the teardrop in her voice that magically transformed every song she touched - standards, blues, and jazz -into a distinctive personal vehicle She was a song stylist in the best sense of the word. Born Ruth Jones on August 29, 1924 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, she grew up in Chicago. She first sang blues in the Lionel Hampton band, from
1943 to 1946, and after signing with Mercury in 1958 her star raised so high that by 1950 she was known as the Queen of the Blues. She then established her jazz credentials well-received albums - but by the end of the decade, as a hit maker, she was in the doldrums.
In 1959 Mercury had Washington record with their new East Coast a&r director, Clyde Otis, the first African-American ever given that position at a major record company. He waxed her on "What a difference a Day Made" and it became the biggest pop hit of her career. Otis decided to team her with another of his top singers, Benton, then at the peak of his recording success. Otis says, "I thought, why not? I really didn't have a lot to base it on. Both artists were hot, why not combine them?"
The upshot? Two of the biggest hits of Washington's and Benton's careers - "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)" and" A Rockin' Good Way (to Mess Around and Fall in Love)", both of which went No.1 on the r&b and top ten on the pop charts.
Benton is not well known today, but he was a prodigious hit maker in African-American music, placing more than fifty singles on the r&b and pop charts. He had a warm, smooth baritone voice that tremendous appeal in the crossover market. Nonetheless there was a still a perceptible rhythm-and-blues quality in his approach - notably his characteristic swoops and dramatic dips - that kept him from being put in the same category as Nat "King" Cole. (Today, however, his catalog is sold in record stores alongside Cole and Easy Listening.)
Born Benjamin Franklin Peay on September 19, 1931 in Camden, South Carolina, Benton began his career singing in gospel quartets, starting with the Camden Jubilee Singers. In 1948 he went to New York and joined Bill Langford's Langfordaires, recording four sides with the group on Columbia in the following year. In 1954 Benton left the gospel circuit to join the r&b vocal group called the Sandmen (other members were Thurman Haynes, Adriel McDonald, and Walter Springer). The group's first record "Somebody to Love" (on Okeh), featured Benton's magnificent lead and was a gorgeous ballad, bur it did nothing upon its release The group soon broke up and Benton began a solo career; in late 1957 he had a minor hit on Vik with "A Million Miles from Nowhere". Benton was also songwriting at this time and contributed tunes to Cole ("Looking Back") and Clyde McPhatter ("A Lover's Question"). He obtained other income as one of the most in-demand demo singers in New York.
In 1959 Benton's big break came when his friend and co writer, Clyde Otis, joined Mercury and got the singer inked to the label. The singer's first big hit was "It's just a matter of time" (1959), and Otis followed it with hit after hit. Benton was thus a hot commodity when he joined Washington.
Otis was amply rewarding Mercury with a slew of hits, and he was doing it by creating some of the most elegant productions of the late Fifties and early Sixties, especially for Washington and Benton. The crisp rhythm tracks with their overlay of strings and vocal choruses created an aura of serene, classic beauty without the excessive lushness that marred many pop tracks of the era. Says Otis, "That was intentional; we tried to get more laid-back feel." And the bluesy vocals of Washington and Benton did much to provide a countervailing sound.
Otis's main partner in this enterprise was arranger Belford Hendricks, a classically trained musician the a&r director found in Harlem. They began collaborating on songs, and when Otis joined Mercury he had Hendricks arrange all the strings; together they arranged the rhythm sections. Otis made it a point to bring in African-American musicians, and the rhythm sections often included jazz players, whose work made the inits sounds tight and together, with tasty fills that brought 'me to the music than the arrangements called for.
Like the Otis productions for Washington's and Benton's individual efforts, the duets were artistic as well as commercial successes. The two voices on record exuded playfulness, sexiness, and elegance - they sounded like a magical combination. Washington and Benton surely could have attained the success later accorded to Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye ("America's sweethearts of soul" as the latter duo were called in the Seventies) had they continued to record together.
So it is surprising that only four duet sides were ever recorded -though the clue to why there weren't more can be found in a Dinah comment on Baby (You've Got What It Takes). Near the end of the song one hears her saucily interject "you're in my spot again honey" to Brook though she was saying it through clenched teeth. Washington here more than lived up to her reputation for perfectionism, a foul mouth, and a fiery temper - and fireworks followed. Clyde Otis relates
The plan was to do an entire album of duets with Dinah and Brook They were only able to complete four before they had a falling out. It was precipitated by the last half of "Baby (You 've Got what it Takes)". Brook kept coming in at the wrong place, and Dinah kept saying to him you're a dumb so-and-so and you're in my place. Brook gets pissed off and there was a big fight, and I sent Dinah home. I recorded the remaining planned duets as solos. Someone to Believe in, Because of Everything, and Not One Step Behind by Brook were originally intended to be duets; Also "This I promise you" by Dinah. Call Me, which was earlier real big for Johnny Mathis, had always been intended as a solo for Brook Then when we put the album together, I had to add some solo Dinah tracks that were in the can. These were Again, Loved Walked In, and There Goes My Heart.
Otis was so pleased with "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)" that he decided to release the song with Dinah's sassy "in my spot again" comment, knowing that the public would not perceive it as intended seriously. Otis comments, "Brook was really mad at me that it was released. I told him I thought the comment in there was kind of cute. He was ticked off that I liked it, and he didn't change his mind even after it became a big hit.
Needless to say the prospect of Washington and Benton touring together was not a real one. They really despised each other, as evidenced by a public spat between the two in 1960. "I went with Brook to a club on the South Side of Chicago," remembers Otis,
Robert's Show Lounge, were Dinah was playing. The duet numbers they had done were going real big then, yet while Dinah was singing she made some reference to that dumb so-and-so who couldn 't sing the duets right. Brook leaped up out of his chair and maybe called her a bitch or something, and Ray Charles, who was there, jumped in to herate Brook for his language and to get everybody settled.
After Benton left Mercury in the mid-Sixties hits for the singer were intermittent. He died on April 9, 1988 from
comp1ications of spinal meningitis; at the time he was a largely forgotten entertainer.
Washington, who had a long history of emotional difficulties, died a lethal combination of diet pills and alcohol on December 14, l963. She was not being played on r&b radio at that time. A deejay on WVON in Chicago almost apologetically told his audience that the station was interrupting its regular programming to play some Dinah Washington songs in her remembrance.
These Otis productions were derided at the time as commercial by jazz aficionados, who found the use of vocal choruses, violins, and other ingredients alien to their concept of art in music. The down beat reviewer gave The Two of Us a decent three stars (out of five), but he lamented Washington being given "pop pap" to sing and thought the saving grace was the "earthiness of her singing style". The reviewer had complimentary words for Benton: "[A] very good voice.. and a considerable writing talent." The tone of the review, typical of the day, was condescending, ad the viewpoint expressed was biased, not a considered criticism.
Today one realizes that Washington's recordings with Otis, and notably The Two of Us, were some of the best of her long and distinguished career. The Otis-composed This I Promised You shows the brilliance of his and Hendricks's work: Washington gives one of her most stirring readings, enhanced magnificently with a highly
nuanced use of vocal choruses and string accompaniments. In the same vein is her lovely duet with Benton, I Do another masterful production that brought out the most sublime singing from the two of them.
Besides the lack of critical acclaim, there was not great commercial recognition for The Two of Us either. Not because it sold that badly; it probably sold what Mercury expected. But compared with sales of LP's in the Sixties, the album was barely noticed. Mercury in the Fifties, like most labels, was primary a seller of singles, not albums. Thus the fame that Washington and Benton achieved was not based on the release of the album but on the success of their singles.
Otis still approves of The Two of Us: "I rate it near the top of all the albums I have ever done. I thought the four songs they did were terrific, and they were really well received. I was very pleased. At this point [in 1994] I still wonder how good the album could have been if it were all duets."
Robert Pruter is the r&b editor of Goldmine.
Robert Pruter
November 1994