Brook Benton: Let Me Sing And I’m Happy!

By Bill Bronk

A 1959 publicity photo of Brook Benton

A 1959 publicity photo of Brook Benton

Beginning in 1959, and over the next 10 plus years, Benjamin Franklin Peay (pronounced P.A.) had 49 charted singles on Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 chart…which was established on August 4, 1958 to track and rank singles from all genres of pop music (including rock and roll). In the U.S., 24 of Peay’s single records entered the Top 40, the most commonly known chart according to Wikipedia. Another good yardstick for indicating a song’s popularity and strength is the Top 10, where Peay had 8 entries. But at this point you’re probably wondering … who-the-heck is Benjamin Franklin Peay? Before we get to that, let’s talk a bit about other charts. They’re important for the artist as well as other music industry players.

The Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, first known as the Easy Listening chart, was established on July 17, 1961 for the purpose of listing songs that were not considered to be rock and roll. (Billboard removed those songs from the Hot 100 — comprised of rock and roll and pop — and re-ranked the songs that remained). Over the period of his chart activity, Peay scored 21 singles on the Adult Contemporary chart, but 19 of them still appeared simultaneously on the Hot 100 chart. Of course, during that time there was considerable cross-over on the Billboard charts….and pray-tell… most likely a modicum of confusion ensued as to where a song should be listed. Someone in the Billboard hierarchy must have had one hell-of-a time determining which of Peay’s songs should be regarded as rock and roll… or pop… and which should be regarded as Adult Contemporary.  Back then, was there even a good definition of what rock and roll was ? Alas, even today, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doesn’t seem to have a very good handle on it (and… for some reason they arbitrarily exclude early rock and roll pioneers who more than deserve to be honored!).

To make the chart-listing process even more interesting, and yes, even more befuddling, for Billboard decision makers and everyone else, and continuing on with the cross-over trend at that time, we have to factor in Peay’s huge popularity on Billboard’s US R&B singles chart, where 36 of his 49 Hot 100 entries also appeared simultaneously, and…where 7 of them reached No. 1, including his first and last hits: “It’s Just A Matter of Time” (Mercury 45 71394), which peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100 in 1959 and “Rainy Night in Georgia (Cotillion 45 44057)”, which peaked at No. 4 on the Hot 100 10 years later. The other No. 1’s are: “Thank You Pretty Baby”, “So Many Ways”, “Baby, You’ve Got What It Takes”, “A Rockin’ Good Way”, and “Kiddio”. From those clues, now you know we’re talking about one of the most exceptional, but greatly underrated, recording artists of the 50s, 60s and 70s — Brook Benton.

Also on the R&B chart was Benton’s “The Boll Weevil Song” (Mercury 45 71820) which peaked at No. 2. It was also No. 2 on the Hot 100, his highest charting single on that chart. But more importantly, it won the honor of being the first ever song to capture the No. 1 spot on the new Adult Contemporary chart.

A puzzling charting-process notwithstanding, Benton’s numerous and simultaneous cross-over appearances on 3 of Billboard Magazine’s major charts was a surefire indication of his broad appeal to all segments of the listening public. He’s been called a “soul singer”, and an “R&B singer”. But while he poured his soul into his singing, whether it be rock and roll, pop, country or gospel, he couldn’t be pinned down. And he didn’t want to be. In a May 1971 interview with John Abbey for his column “About John” (published on SoulMusic.com on 2 October 2014), Benton stressed that “I don’t want to be ‘branded’ as any type of singer; I’m just an artist”.

According to Norm N. Nite’s Rock OnThe Solid Gold Years (The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock N’ Roll) Benton had 18 gold records. Highly successful, yes, but on some sites across the Internet geared toward popular music, there are abbreviated bios of Benton which, while attempting to highlight his career, seem to be somewhat dismissive and give short shrift to all that he accomplished.

It is Benton’s long-term presence on the Billboard charts, however, not poorly researched bios, that gives the more accurate and informed picture of the man’s contributions.   Benton had one of the finest baritones to ever grace the airwaves or becalm a jumping jukebox during a period when rock ‘n roll was explosive. That his record charting days waned later in his career does not diminish his musical legacy. It’s there for all to see. And… as if his decades-long popularity as a recording artist and performer (well into the 80s) were not significant enough, Benton’s songwriting (his passion even before becoming a singer) further serves to strengthen a rock solid musical resume.

Benton’s songwriting credentials are impressive. In collaboration with multiple other song writers such as Otis, Colacrai, Randazzo, de Jesus, Dixon, Corso, Hendricks and Williams, Brook Benton wrote prolifically (over 300 songs) for himself and others. In addition to his many co-written album cuts (most of which were not released as singles and would not appear on the Billboard charts), 18 of the co-written singles that he recorded himself reached the Hot 100, including 5 which earned a place in the Top 10. Only four of the 18 landed outside the Top 40. A pretty good record at a time when most singers relied on other writers to kick start their careers or pen their next chart sensation. Clearly, Brook Benton was one of the first successful singer/songwriters of the 50s and 60s.

Here are the 18 songs he co-wrote and recorded: “It’s Just a Matter of Time” and “Hurtin’ Inside”(Mercury 45 71394 – a double sided hit), “Endessly” and “So Close”(Mercury 45 71443 – a double sided hit), “Kiddio” and “The Same One” (Mercury 45 71652 – a double sided hit), “Thank You Pretty Baby” and “With All of My Heart” (Mercury 45 71478 – a double sided hit), “Baby, You’ve Got What it Takes” (Mercury 45 71565) and ,”A Rockin’ Good Way” (Mercury 45 71629 – both w/Dinah Washington), “The Boll Weevil Song” (Mercury 45 71820), “Frankie & Johnny” and “It’s Just A House Without You” (Mercury 45 71859 – a double sided hit), “Revenge” (Mercury 45 71903), “I Got What I Wanted” (Mercury 45 72099),”Lie to Me” (Mercury 45 72024), “Two Tickets to Paradise” (Mercury 45 72177)”, and “Mother Nature, Father Time” (RCA 45 47-8693).

Additionally, here is a sampling of well-known songs Brook Benton co-wrote and either recorded himself (as above) or were recorded by other notable singers. Obviously, these singers knew what a good Benton song could do for their catalog… and their careers:

*     “It’s Just A Matter of Time: Ruth Brown, Solomon Burke, Glen Campbell, Mickey Gilley,        Sonny James, Randy Travis, Aretha Franklin, Charley Pride, Tammy Wynette, Timi Yuro, Patti Page, and B.B. King

*     “Endlessly”: Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny James, Bill Medley, Mavis Staples and Tom Jones

*     “Hurtin’ Inside”: Trini Lopez, Don Gibson, Cliff Bennett & The Rebel Rousers, Huelyn Duvall, Lavern Baker, Junior Parker, The Nashville Teens and Jose Feliciano

*   “Kiddio”: John Lee Hooker, Neil Sedaka, Teddy Randazzo, The Paladins & Lou Rawls

*     “A Rockin’ Good Way”: Arthur Prysock, Pricilla Bowman & the Spaniels, Shakin’ Stevens & Bonnie Tyler

*     “Baby, You’ve Got What It Takes”: Jerry Lee Lewis & Linda Gail Lewis, Ivan Neville & Martha Davis, Van Morrison & Linda Gail Lewis

*     “You’re For Me”, “I Just Want to Love You” and “Before I Fall in Love Again”: Clyde McPhatter

*     “Looking Back”: Nat King Cole, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Ray Price, Carla Thomas, Irma Thomas, Mary Wells, Don Williams & Gene Vincent

*     “In A Dream”: Roy Hamilton

*     “I Ain’t Givin’ Up Nothin”: Clyde McPhatter, Sonny Wilson, Ben Hewitt, Jewel Brown, Johnny Storm with the Sunsets, The Heartbeats, Pricilla Bowman & the Spaniels and Jimmy “Frenchie” Dee

*     “Doggone Baby Doggone”: The Five Keys, Tommy Boyd

*     “You Went Back on Your Word”: Clyde McPhatter, Jerry Lee Lewis and Crazy Cavan & the Rhythm Rockers

*     “I Don’t Know”: Ruth Brown

*     “I’ll Take Care of You”: Bobby “Blue” Bland

*   “Send For Me” and “Nothing In The World”: Nat King Cole

*     “A Lover’s Question”:   Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, Jay and the Americans, Loggins and Messina, Ronnie McDowell, Lou Rawls & Phoebe Snow, Otis Redding, Del Reeves, Jacky Ward, Bob Luman, Johnny Burnette, Sha Na Na, Ernestine Anderson, Priscilla Bowman, Big Al Downing and Travis Wammack

 

Brook Benton was an unusually fine singer and an accomplished songwriter. That much we know. But what about the man himself? Where did he come from? What made him who he is? What gave him the spark to excel, the grit and gristle necessary to achieve fame in a field that eludes many who seek it and where you are constantly subject to the ways and whims of a fickle buying public?

Brook Benton, born Benjamin Franklin Peay, came into this world on the 17th of September 1932 at Lugoff/Camden, Kershaw County, South Carolina…one of 7 children (two boys and five girls) of Mattie Lee Hollis and Willie L. Peay. As a boy, learning the value of hard work, Benjamin helped his family financially by working in a Camden dairy delivering milk.

The whole family was involved in singing…and under the direction of his father, a hard-working brick-layer who directed the Union Choir of the Ephesus A.M.E. church in Lugoff, Benjamin (like other popular singers such as Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Sam Cooke, Dolly Parton) began his musical career singing in church. While still at Jackson High and a member of his church choir, he sang with the gospel group, The Camden Jubilee Singers.

After graduating from high school, with the primary intention of being a songwriter, at the age of 17 Benjamin headed off to New York City to live with his older sister… and to follow his dream. Over the next decade he paid his dues and honed his craft by working in the garment district pushing clothing carts between buildings, and working as a truck driver, pants presser and chauffer… and when he could, cutting his teeth singing with gospel groups such as The Langfordaires, the Harlemaires, the Jerusalem Stars and the Golden Gate Quartet. All good experience but not what he was looking for.

At one point, Benton went back home to South Carolina, again drove a truck, joined the Sandmen, an R&B group, and returned to New York City. In 1955 and ’56 they recorded “When I Grow To Old To Dream”(45 4-7052) and a few other sides for Columbia’s Okeh (R&B) label. Sounding somewhat like the Mills Brothers, the group had little success…but Benjamin’s vocalizing ability was noticed and around this time he received his new moniker, Brook Benton. Later, while recording as a solo artist for Epic (also a Columbia label) in ’56, Benton had a minor hit with “The Wall” (45-9099). To earn a living, Benton spent several years cutting hundreds of demonstration records for music publishers to promote their new song material.

Moving on to RCA’s Vik label in 1957, Benton recorded several sides, including “I Wanna Do Everything For You” (45 0285), a pretty good rocker ala Elvis Presley and “A Million Miles From Nowhere” (45 0311), where Benton gives a powerful and majestic, full-throated performance, a gem of a recording that should have charted higher than 82 on the Hot 100.

Benton’s big breakout moment came when he teamed up with Clyde Otis, A&R director, songwriter and producer, and moved with him to Mercury Records in 1958…where he came into his own and gifted his fans and the record buying public with beautiful and memorable music for the next 7 years. Along with Belford Hendricks, they co-wrote “It’s Just A Matter of Time”. That song’s arrangement used eight violins, three trombones, a rhythm section, a bass guitar and a whisper-soft six-voice chorus, and according to the Rolling Stone Record Guide, “it was Benton’s own idea to combine gospel intensity with lush pop arrangements”. And as they say, the rest is history.

Brook Benton poured himself into his music. One of the hallmarks of Benton’s singing is that it’s from the heart. It’s personal, sincere. You feel what he’s singing. If he’s happy, you’re happy; if he’s sad, you’re sad, as though it’s happening to you. His deep baritone/bass voice, like a fine musical instrument, magically rumbles up from the depths of his being, teasing us, flirting with the apex of his range and smoothly swoops down, only to rise up again, swirling, then plunging lower, taking us on a thrilling emotional ride…to as low as he could possibly go on the musical scale. Yes, that’s his style, and all of that occurs in many of his songs. But for Benton, too, the songwriter and singer, of most importance is that a song has a message, a story to tell…and is more than a vehicle to deliver a great melody line. He told Warren Franklin, reporting for UPI (and appearing in The Bedford Gazette, Bedford, PA on 26 January 1960) that “I try to sell the song’s lyrics for its own meaning. I want to feel it. I deliver it like I feel it. I want the audience to feel it”. There’s been no one like Brook Benton…before or since.

Here’s what music writer Dick Kleiner said about Benton. In his New York “Record Shop” column appearing in the Springfield Union (Springfield, MA on 22 Nov 1959), he wrote that Benton “has a rich, soft voice and a way of using it that makes a sound like a breeze playing through a field of cello strings”. And as a Sun Special Correspondent for the Lowell Sun (Lowell, MA on 13 August 1962) , he said Benton “has a voice that sounds like honey dripping on a bass drum”. Other writers used such expressions as: “Velvety smooth”,” deep textured”, “silky voiced” and “elegant”.

Writing songs and making records was but one part of Brook Benton. He was an incomparable, all-round entertainer. Writing for the Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA on 13 August 1966) columnist Fritz Harsdorff had this to say about Brook Benton filling in for Al Martino (who had broken three of his toes) at the Blue Room. “Brook Benton swung. He held the crowd in the palms of his big hands. He ranged from the classic popular stuff to country and western with the ease that makes a great performer. For variety, he threw in a gaggle of impersonations—Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Walter Brennan and Nat King Cole”.

Also writing for the Times-Picayune, here’s what music writer Don Hughes reported on 4 September 1970: “Benton has a truly unique method of delivering his melodious messages, be they soothing and soulful, humorous or upbeat. Benton can be smooth and steady, but can change with delightful rapidity to fast and furious, depending on the mood and styling techniques of this extraordinary singer”.

A great example of Benton’s performing style can be found on youtube.com where, in a live show in 1971, he and Barbara McNair, actress and singer, perform “Let Me Fix It”, a song written by Benton. A word of warning. It Sizzles! (The song was recorded by Benton on Cotillion (45 44093), accompanied by The Dixie Flyers, with Cissy Houston singing counter to Benton). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uuKXL6-asxs.

Much of this article has been about Brook Benton’s success at writing and singing songs that appeared on Billboard Magazine’s various singles charts. But let’s not forget that Benton’s many albums (for Mercury, Cotillion, Reprise, MGM, RCA and others) offer a veritable goldmine of musical treasures. There was no musical mountain he could not climb…whether it be pop or rock and roll, Broadway classics, the blues, standards, country and western, R&B or gospel. He could do it all…and he did it in his own unique style, making any song a Brook Benton song. You won’t have to dig too deep to discover a rich vein of 14 KT musical nuggets (on vinyl, CDs or streaming)…just waiting to be found at your local record store, in music catalogs, on ebay (and other auction sites) and, of course, even at the ubiquitous flea markets and garage sales. There’s no filler in Benton’s albums, but the songs on the 15 albums noted below (some of which were hits for others) are particular stand-outs, where Benton goes the extra mile. Many of these album cuts can be found on youtube.com. Enjoy.

*     “Valley of Tears” (Mercury SR 60740 – “Lie To Me: Brook Benton – Singing The Blues”).

*     “Baby” (Cotillion SD 9018 -” Brook Benton Today”).

*     “I’m In The Mood For Love” (Mercury SR 60077 – “It’s Just A Matter Of Time”).

*     “Because Of You” (Mercury SR 60146 – “Endlessly”).

*     “Ode To Billy Joe” (Reprise 6268 – “Laura, What’s He Got That I Ain’t Got”).

*     “Moonlight In Vermont” (Mercury SR 60602 – “Songs I Love To Sing”).

*     “Gone” (RCA LSP 3590 – “My Country”).

*     “Save The Last Dance For Me” (Cotillion SD 9050 -” Brook Benton – Story Teller”.

*   “For The Good Times” (MGM SE-4874 – “Brook Benton – Something For Everyone)”.

*   “Don’t It Make You Wanta Go Home” (Cotillion SD 9028) – “Home Style”).

*     “Hello Young Lovers” (Mercury SR 60830 – “Best Ballads of Broadway”).

*     “Send For Me” (Mercury SR 60886 – “Born To Sing The Blues”).

*     “Unforgettable” (RCA APL1-1044 “Brook Benton – Sings A Love Story”).

*     “My Way” (Cotillion SD 9018 – “Brook Benton Today”).

*     “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” (Mercury SR 60619 – “If You Believe/Shadrack”).

 

Benton was honored with “The Order of the Palmetto”, the highest civilian honor awarded by the Governor of South Carolina, for persons who make contributions of statewide significance. The award was bestowed upon him by Lt. Governor Mike Daniel in the South Carolina Senate chamber on 29 September 1985. Daniel said, “As a songwriter and recording artist, Brook Benton has touched the hearts of all Americans, young and old, black and white. With every success, he has honored his state”.

Weakened from spinal meningitis, Brook Benton died from pneumonia at the Mary Immaculate Hospital in Queens, New York on Saturday, the 8th of April, 1988. He was 56 years old. It’s a shame that, during his lifetime, Brook Benton received little recognition for the ground-breaking, brilliant and extensive body of work that he left us as his musical legacy. Benton never received a Grammy Award; but how about a Grammy “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his artistry and continued popularity nearly 30 years after his death or a “Grammy Hall of Fame Award” for “It’s Just A Matter of Time” or “Rainy Night in Georgia”? Somehow, it seems, Benton fell through the cracks.

Michael Ball, host of the UKs BBC 2 show , “Sunday Night with Michael Ball”, inducted Brook Benton into the BBC 2 “Singer’s Hall of Fame” on 21 June 2015. Here in the U.S., Benton was inducted into John Rook’s “Hit Parade Hall of Fame” in 2009 and Goldmine Magazine’s “Goldmine Hall Fame” on 23 May 2013.” But where are the accolades, the honors, the hall of fame nominations/inductions from the movers and shakers and powers that be who are associated with America’s popular music industry…those whose primary reason for being is to know and recognize the exceptional artists who truly deserve recognition? Where is “The Official Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame”? Where is “The Songwriter’s Hall of Fame”? Where is America’s “Pop Music Hall of Fame” and “The Gospel Hall of Fame”? And…where is “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame”? Shouldn’t Brook Benton’s contributions be properly acknowledged and rewarded…by at least one, or more, of these organizations?

Brook Benton was buried at the United Family Life Center, Camden, South Carolina. His headstone reads…”Brook Benton – Born – Benjamin Franklin Peay, Sept. 17, 1932…Apr. 9, 1988.

“He Touched The World”.

Brook Benton “touched the hearts of all Americans”…and “he touched the world”. Perhaps in the end, nothing else really matters. But then again, wouldn’t it be nice if…..?

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