Roger St Pierre
SPOTLIGHT ON BROOK BENTON
Though Brook Benton’s recording career has been somewhat chequered of late, with a succession of rather unsuccessful
Records on a wide variety of labels-including MGM, Brut and Stax-his constant concert tours and their standing-room only audiences show that he is one of those rare artists, a show business institution who can retain his aura without having to rely on hit records.
Not that he’s been short of hits in the past of course for during the magic years of his chart career from 1959 through till his last big hit with Rainy Night In Georgia on Atlantic in 1970. Brook earned no fewer than 21 gold discs. It was an achievement matched by very few artists indeed, especially in those days when a million-seller was still far from the norm even for the biggest chart hits.
There was a lasting quality to those classic recordings of his, as evidenced by the ease with which his many albums can still be found in stock as steady sellers at record shops many years after their first release.
Brook Benton is one of those rare artists, a singer whose appeal transcends age barriers and the confines of any one music style.
Certainly he sings with soul, but he’s not merely a soul singer. Brook owns one of THE great voices of popular music, a rich, dark, warm, emotive yet silky-smooth voice which wrings the utmost feeling from even the most mundane number yet never overplay things.
He is rated as a singer of standards on a par with Sinatra, Tony Bennet, and the other greats, yet Brook’s music isn’t just for the older generation for, over the years, his records have been played in discos as much as in plush cabaret night spots, and it would be no surprise if he suddenly came out with a new masterpiece in the current disco idiom.
In his day, Brook Benton was as big a figure in black music as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder are today. Indeed, he is probably only surpassed by Fats Domino among black singers in terms of total numbers of records sold.
Brook’s class was apparent very early on in his career yet, ironically, his first lucrative break in show business was not as a star in his own right but as a demo singer for various music publishers trying to sell their songs to the major artists of the day.
Brook cut some 500 demos in all and some of them were his own compositions, songs like Looking Back and Nothing In The World (recorded by Nat King Cole), Everything and In A Dream (which were successful for Roy Hamilton) and A Lover’s Question (Clyde McPhatter’s best known solo hit after he quit The Drifters).
Brook had been born in Camden, South Carolina, on 19 September 1931, his real name Benjamin Franklin Peay.
Coming from a Baptist background, he grew up with gospel music and traveled throughout the South on weekend dates with the local Camden Jubilee Singers, while holding down a job as a milk delivery boy during the week.
Aiming to break into show-business, Brook went North to New York at 17 and started making the rounds of the music publishers with his songs while earning a living as a delivery boy in the rag trade.
Spells with the Bill Landford Spiritual Singers and the Golden Gate Quartet saw him spending time back down South, but by then as a full-time entertainer. On returning to New York Brook joined the Sandmen, a promising R&B group but not one big enough to give him a full-time living, so he boosted his income with work as a truck driver by day and studio sessions cutting those demos of an evening.
Brook’s solo recording debut came with the Epic label and in 1958 he had a minor hit on the Vic label with A Million Miles From nowhere.
One of the people Brook had done a lot of demo work for was Clyde Otis, a successful songwriter and publisher associated with Mercury Records.
Sensing Brook’s potential, Clyde brought in Belford Hendricks, a respected songwriter and arranger, and together the trio formed a winning partnership. In 1959 they came up with a quick succession of three major hits, which they co-penned. It’s just A Matter Of Time, Endlessly, and Thank You Pretty Baby.
Each of these records sold a million copies, so, in its own right did the flipside of It’s Just A Matter Of Time (the catchy So Many Ways, a number written for Brook by Bobby Stevenson).
The public certainly warmed to Brook’s classy styling and within just 18 months he had enjoyed no fewer than a dozen chart records, including So Many Ways, Fools Rush In and Kiddio, each benefiting from Hendricks’s swirling string-laden arrangements and Otis perceptive production work as well as Brook’s sheer class as a singer.
With the superb Dinah Washington, Brook enjoyed two great duo hits in Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes) and Rockin’ Good Way and his solo triumphs included such varied product as the folk numbers Boll Weevil Song and Frankie And Johnny, the haunting ballad I Was Born To Sing The Blues and the novelty item Hit Record.
Unlike most black singers of the day, Brook Benton did just as well with albums as with singles, his styling ranging across the whole gamut of show tunes, country songs, gospel music, soul and pop.
Brook’s last major success for Mercury was with My True Confession in 1963 (a song co-written by Ray Stevens, produced by Shelby Singleton and arranged by Bill Justis and which is included here).
Two years with RCA (from 1965 to 1967) and a spell with Reprise (from 1967 to 1968) brought some fine recordings but by then Brook had become regarded as an album artist and chart success eluded him, though he personally rates much of the material from his Reprise set Laura What He’s Got (That I Ain’t Got) including the title track and a brilliant reading of Ode To Billie Joe as being among the best recordings he has ever cut.
A move to Atlantic in 1970 saw his chart status instantly renewed with his definitive version of Tony Joe White’s
highly evocative song A Rainy night In Georgia (issued in the States on Atlantic’s Cotillion subsidiary and a smash hit on both sides of the water.
Despite this great start, Atlantic failed to maintain the momentum, issuing several weak follow ups and failing to provide Brook with songs of the class which a singer of Brook Benton’s stature deserved.
So Brook sat out the rest of his contract until he was free to do a deal with the perfume company Brut who were then trying to break into the record business. Unfortunately their efforts were short-lived and the label folded before they even had a chance to release the album Brook had cut for them.
News that Brook had then signed to the highly respected Stax label was received with eager anticipation of what the combination of Brook and ‘The Memphis Sound’ might achieve but bad luck struck again. Stax was running into the difficulties which led to its ultimate demise and Brook’s releases were few and not given the promotion and distribution back-up they deserved.
This album closes out with the attractive Mr. Bartender and that brings the story up to date for this fine record was the result of Brook’s recent link with the highly successful New Jersey based All Platinum label run by Shirley and Joe Robinson.
The record wasn’t a major hit but it did prove Brook still has his touch and hopefully is a pointer towards many fine- and one hopes, hit-recordings in the years to come.
Backside LP Spotlight on Brook Benton, All Platinum, author Roger St Pierre