Born Benjamin Franklin Peay, 19 September 1931, Camden, South Carolina
With his silky smooth baritone and easygoing delivery, Brook Benton became one of the few black crooners of the 1950s to successfully cross over into the pop-rock realm. He was equally adept at ballads and rhythm songs. Between 1958 and 1970 he had 50 entries in the Billboard pop charts and 37 in the R&B charts (including seven number ones). But Benton's was not an overnight success story.
Like so many black singers, Benton came from a gospel background. His father, Willie Peay, was the local choir director of the Camden Jubilee Singers. After moving to New York in 1948, young Benjamin Peay sang with several gospel groups : the Langfordaires, the Jerusalem Stars and the Harlemaires. Leaving gospel for R&B, he joined a short-lived group called the Sandmen, which was signed by the Columbia subsidiary OKeh in 1955. After two single releases by the Sandmen, which were arranged and conducted by a 22-year old Quincy Jones, Columbia began to record Benjamin as a solo singer (changing his name to Brook Benton in the process), first on OKeh, then on Epic, another Columbia subsidiary. These 1955-56 recordings show the influences of Nat King Cole and Roy Hamilton. Brook's second Epic single, "The Wall" (a Patti Page cover of which went to # 43 on the pop charts), was co-written by Clyde Otis and this meeting of Benton and Otis led to a songwriting partnership that would become very successful. Their first big hits were "Looking Back" by Nat King Cole and "A Lover's Question" by Clyde McPhatter, both Top 10 pop hits in 1958.
In 1957 Brook switched to RCA, where his records were issued on the daughter label Vik. RCA didn't quite know what to do with him. The first Vik single, "I Wanna Do Everything For You" was modelled after Presley's "Don't Be Cruel". This was followed by "A Million Miles From Nowhere", which suited Benton better and became his first chart entry (# 82 pop) in March 1958. Better still was "If Only I Had Known", which Brook sang in the Alan Freed movie "Mr Rock And Roll" (1957), but this was not released as a single. Between 1955 and 1958 Brook sang on literally hundreds of demos for instant cash. In this way he was able to pay the rent and make valuable contacts as well. One such demo, "The Stroll" (co-written by Clyde Otis), which became a big hit for Mercury act the Diamonds, led to a contract with Mercury Records for both Benton (as a singer) and Otis (as an A&R man). By the end of 1958, the two men were in the studio with arranger Belford Hendricks (and a large string section), recording their joint composition "It's Just A Matter Of Time", Brook's first Mercury single. This beautiful ballad became his breakthrough record, peaking at # 3 (pop) in April 1959, and with a 9-week run at # 1, it was also the biggest R&B hit of 1959. The flip, "Hurtin' Inside", offered a complete contrast and was Benton's most convincing attempt at rock n roll. It charted in its own right (# 78 pop) and was later recorded by Don Gibson, LaVern Baker, Cliff Bennett, the Nashville Teens, Mike Sanchez and Huelyn Duvall. More Top 20 hits followed in 1959 : "Endlessly", "Thank You Pretty Baby" and "So Many Ways". In 1960, Brook hit the Top 10 three times : twice with duets with Dinah Washington : "Baby (You've Got What It Takes)" and "A Rockin' Good Way" (a Benton-Otis number that had been a flop in 1958 for Priscilla Bowman on Abner), and then with "Kiddio". All three topped the R&B charts. Many singles charted with both sides : this was also the case with "Fools Rush In"/"Someday" and "Think Twice"/"For My Baby" in late 1960/ early 1961. Thanks in part to the then-popular trend toward folk music, "The Boll Weevil Song" (a semi-spoken novelty) soared to # 2 on both the pop and R&B charts in mid-1961. "Frankie And Johnny" and Revenge" (both 1961), "Shadrack", "Lie To Me" and "Hotel Happiness" (1962) kept Benton's name in the Top 20, but in 1964 the taste of the American mass public shifted to all things British and Mercury dropped him in 1965. The later Mercury recordings were no longer produced by Clyde Otis,but by Shelby Singleton in Nashville.
Benton and Otis were reunited when they found a home at RCA Victor in 1965, resulting in one charting record, "Mother Nature, Father Time" (# 53). By 1967, Brook was at Reprise, working with producer Jimmy Bowen. Again, only one minor hit ("Laura", # 78, 1967) came out of this association. Just when things were looking dark for our hero, along came Atlantic (one of the hottest labels of that period) with an offer to bring Brook into their fold. Atlantic placed Benton on their new Cotillion subsidiary. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller made a brief return to Atlantic to produce Brook's first Cotillion single, "Do Your Own Thing" (wich spent two weeks at # 99), but Benton's best work for the label was produced by Arif Mardin. Lightning struck in the studio (Criteria in Miami) during the recording of "Rainy Night In Georgia", written and originally recorded by Tony Joe White. A perfect record was the result, justly rewarded with a # 4 position on the pop charts and # 1 R&B, in early 1970. There were a few other, smaller hits on Cotillion, the best of which was "Don't It Want To Make You Go Home", from the pen of Joe South. Brook's last chart success was with Atlantic. From there, he found himself involved in increasingly humble recording affiliations, such as All Platinum and Olde World. He continued to perform where he could, but the audience for his style of singing diminished more and more. Brook Benton died on April 9, 1988, aged 56, of complications from spinal meningitis. Apart from the atmospheric "Rainy Night In Georgia", Benton's best work stems from the 1959-62 period. But the pre-Mercury cuts, which show Brook struggling to find a style of his own, should not wholly be ignored either.
More info : http://www.soulwalking.co.uk/brook%20benton.html
Discography : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/bbenton.htm
CD's : There are a lot of "Greatest Hits"/"Best Of" compilations by Brook on the market, but most of them feature inferior re-recordings, so beware. The best overview is still "Endlessly : The Best Of Brook Benton" (1998) on Rhino, which features 18 of his biggest Mercury hits (and "Hurtin' Inside"!) plus the two best Cotillion tracks. Excellent liner notes by Billy Vera. Alas, this CD seems to be out of print. Separate CD's have been devoted to the Epic/ OKeh and Vik/RCA recordings (from two different periods), on Collectors' Choice and Taragon respectively, both released in 2005.
Acknowledgements : Billy Vera, Todd Everett (liner notes for the Collectors' Choice CD "Brook Benton At His Best"), Joel Whitburn.
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