Country-Soul Vocalist

Possessing a warm and gospel-rich baritone voice; a penchant for songwriting that married the dark earthiness of rhythm and blues with the sweet romanticism of Brill Building pop arrangement; and a style of delivery that conveyed the singer's emotional investment with every note, Brook Benton became the most critically and commerically important Rhythm and Blues artist of his era.

Rich and Funky Arrangments

The prevaling Black popular musical aesthetic of the early 1960's was to seat a singer atop a cloak of fluid strings and churning bass-guitar riffs. At Mercury Studios in New York City, Benton together with distinguished producer Clive Otis, pioneered a new direction for urban black music.

True, the Otis-Benton team immersed their music in impressionistic chord progressions by way of string-based and choral arrangements; but rather than use the overtly white singers and players from opera and orchestra companies--which bestow their anglocentricity on some of the greatest Black music of the day, including that of Jackie Wilson, Nat King Cole, and Sam Cooke--Otis chose to employ Black singers, cellists, violinists, pianists, and other instrumentalists. The difference in aura and texture is dramatic: these musicians achieved a rhythmic drive and a sense of swing never before heard in pop music.

Early Years In Gospel

Born Benjamin Franklin Peay on September 19, 1931 in Camden, South Carolina, Benton began his singing career at an early age. Throughout his teens, he worked as a milk delivery boy in the mornings, and as a gospel singer with the Camden Jubilee Singers at night. Like so many of the greatest R&B singers, the Black church functioned as a sort of musical incubator for Benton. It was there that he acquired his penchant for songwriting and his emotive, individual style. That many of his secular songs derive from sacred texts--"Shadrack" (1961), for example, which had been adapted from the 1931 tune Shadrack, Meshack, Abednigo and was based on a story in the Old Testament--and gospel-influenced performative practices speaks to the overarching power of the gospel-blues continuum.

Nomad City Boy

A 17 year old boy, Benton moved to New York City in 1948 hoping to produce recordings from his formative--though artistic mature--songwriting talent. He joined forces with some of Harlem's finest gospel ensembles of the day, including Bill Langford's Spiritual Singers, the Langfordaires, the Golden Gate Quartet, and the Jerusalem Stars. Discouraged by his inability to find a sustainable career as a songwriter, he returned briefly to South Carolina and worked as a truck driver. He joined an R&B group, The Sandmen, in 1951 which relocated to New York with Benton in tow.

Songwriter / Singer

This time he found gainful employment recording demos of new songs for numerous luminaries of 1950's R&B: Nat King Cole (1917-1965), Clyde McPhatter (1932-1972), and Roy Hamilton (1929-1969). He wrote the music and lyrics for a number of famous R&B hits including: The Diamonds "The Stroll" (Mercury 1958, R&B #5), Clyde McPhatter "A Lover's Question" (Atlantic 1958, R&B #1), and Nat King Cole "Looking Back" (Capitol 1958, R&B #2). Record executives at Mercury noted his unity of songwriting talent and vocal prowess and signed him in 1958.

Just A Matter Of Time

His breakthrough single was "It's Just A Matter Of Time" / "Hurtin Inside" (1959, R&B #1-9, Pop #3), a ballad which questions the inevitably of romantic reunion between himself and a lost lover. It was the first of many artistically and commerically successful collaborations between Benton and Clive Otis including "Thank You Pretty Baby" (1959, R&B #1-4), "So Many Ways" (1959, R&B #1-3), and "Kiddio" (1960, #1-9) -- a song first introduced by Teddy Randazzo in the movie "Mr Rock and Roll" (1957) starring Alan Freed. In terms of sales and weeks holding the number one position, each of these are among the greatest #1 singles in R&B history. The tunes' soaring choruses and thundering strings generated aesthetic resonance with other similarly arranged singles of the era, including Ray Charles "I Can't Stop Loving You" (1962, R&B #1-10), Jackie Wilson "Night" (1960, R&B #1-3), and Sam Cooke "You Send Me" (1957, R&B #1-7).

It's A Rockin' Good Way

Dinah Washington (1924-1963) and Brook Benton collaborated on a magnificent LP entitled Two Of Us (1960) that perfectly captured the duo's aesthetic and sexual chemistry. The session birthed two of R&B's greatest hits -- "Baby" (R&B #1-10) and "A Rockin' Good Way" (R&B #1-4) -- featuring a string section that slices and cuts, rocks and rolls. The duo seem to be pushing each other's buttons, reaching for an unattainable climax embodying the most flirtatious of sexual frustrations. The brilliance of this type of music is its ability to convey eroticism through implicit musical communication.

The Soul Invasion

Artists of the so-called British Invasion -- The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Hollies -- radicalized popular music in the early 1960's by introducing a stronger rhythm and blues aesthetic to whimsical Brill Building-style songwriting. But in the world of Rhythm & Blues itself, a lesser known change was permeating the collective soundscape. While gospel and blues had been furiously mixing, merging, and Signifyin(g) on each other since the dawn of the jazz age, the newer phenomenon involved the introduction of country-western music into rhythm & blues.

Country-soul artists -- such as Solomon Burke ("Got To Get You Off Of My Mind", Atlantic 1965), Percy Sledge ("Warm and Tender Love", Atlantic 1966), James Carr ("The Dark End Of The Street", Goldwax 1967), and most explicitly, Ray Charles ("Born To Lose", 1962), Arthur Alexander ("You Better Move On", Dot 1962), and of course, Brook Benton -- fused the storytelling and rural evocations of country-western music (Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, and Roy Acuff) to the spirit of gospel-drenched soul. It was the retention of this emotional and revelatory style that sustained Benton through the musically turbulent 1960's, a time in which no one's musical career was certain.

A Rainy Night in Georgia

After leaving the standstill Mercury Records in 1968, Benton created some interesting singles on indie labels such as Olde World and Cotillion; these included: "Nothing Can Take The Place Of You" (1969, R&B #11), "Don't It Make You Want To Go Home" (1970, #31), and "My Way" (1970, #25). Donnie Fritts, lead architect of what is called the Muscle Shoals sound (gritty, horn-soaked blues) and an important collaborator with Kris Kristofferson, brought a Tony Joe White--author and songwriter of "Polk Salad Annie" (1969, Pop #8)--song called Rainy Night In Georgia to the attention of Atlantic Records chief Jerry Wexler.

Wexler had been hunting for interesting new material for Benton, whose voice had taken on an aura of contemplative resignation. It was the sense of introspection that gave Benton's reading of "Rainy Night In Georgia" (Cotillion 1970, R&B #1) it's very special atmosphere. The song exudes a dark, almost humid atmosphere with the lightest, most colorful touches of guitar, harmonica, and piano imaginable. Tony Joe White (1943-) came up with the lyric while working as a trashman as a teenager in Mariatta, Georgia. After a heavy rain, he would not be able to work the following day which left him plenty of time to play his guitar. Recorded at Criteria Studios (Miami, Florida), the session included such notables as guitarist Cornell Dupree, harmonica player Toots Thielmans, organist Billy Carter, bassist Harold Cowart, drummer Tubby Ziegler, and pianist Dave Crawford, all of which were some of the finest session musicians in America. The session was produced by Arif Mardin who had arranged many of the most sublime of Aretha Franklin's singles, including "Call Me" (1970, R&B #1-2).

While Brook Benton continued to mature and develop as a songwriter in the 1970's and 1980's, audiences failed to assimilate his balladic and melancholy style. He further branched out into country-western music in singles such as "Shoes" (1970, #18) and "Makin' Love Is Good For You" (Olde World 1978, #49), though these seemed out of touch with the funk and disco idioms that permeated the R&B radio paradigm of the era. He died of spinal meningitis on April 9, 1988 at the age of 56.

For curious listeners, Brook Benton's discography is best enjoyed on the 2-disc set Endlessly: The Best of Brook Benton (Rhino 1998) which features digitally remastered recordings of his major singles. Within his particular variety of Black pop, there is sufficient diversity of sound and lyric to warrant continuous and repeat listening.

Selected Recordings

Mercury Records:

It's Just A Matter Of Time / Hurtin' Inside -- 1959 (R&B #1 for 9)
Endlessly / So Close -- 1959 (3, 5)
Thank You Pretty Baby / With All Of My Heart -- 1959 (1-4)
So Many Ways / I Want You Forever -- 1959 (1-3)
Kiddio / The Same One -- 1960 (1-9)
Fools Rush In / Someday You'll Want Me To Want You -- 1960 (5)
For My Baby / Think Twice -- 1961 (2, 6)
The Boll Weevil Song / Your Eyes -- 1961 (2-4)
Frankie and Johnny / It's Just A House Without You -- 1961 (14)
Lie To Me / With The Touch Of Your Hand -- 1962 (3)
Hotel Happiness / Still Waters Run Deep -- 1962 (2)
I Got What I Wanted / Dearer Than Life -- 1963 (4)
My True Confession / Tender Years -- 1963 (7)
Rainy Night In Georgia / Where Do I Go From Here -- Cotillion 1970 (1)

Dinah Washington & Brook Benton:

Baby / I Do -- 1960 (1-10)
A Rockin' Good Way / I Believe -- 1960 (1-4)

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