As Rock & Roll took off, Brook Benton dominated the airways
(No. 44 in a continuing series on artists who should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but are not)
By Phill Marder
This week’s thrilling episode violates one of my primary requirements for Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, that of instant worldwide recognition.
For while this week’s two suggestions may not be instantly identified by today’s public, one will be by those still remaining from the ’50s, while the second will be known to any music fan by the songs he left us.
This week, I urge the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to consider the credentials of Benjamin Franklin Peay and Bobby Byrd. You may know them better as Brook Benton and Bobby Day.
Benton had the smoothest voice this side of Jim Reeves and Pat Boone and from his first hit, “It’s Just A Matter Of Time,” rattled one’s car stereo speaker (in those days we had just one) as his velvety baritone slid effortlessly into the deepest bass heard on record.
As 1959 began that gem was well on its way to becoming one of the era’s most enduring ballads, soaring to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the Rhythm & Blues chart. The flip side, the uptempo “Hurtin’ Inside,” also reached the charts, climbing as high as No. 23 on the R&B list.
Benton had a hand in writing both sides, but while this two-sided smash established him as a recording star, earlier successes as a writer and demo singer already had made him a force to be reckoned with in the industry. Both skills paid dividends in 1958 as Billy Vera wrote on the doowopcafe.net website.
Vera related, “Atlantic Records’ legendary producer Jerry Wexler recalls being in the middle of a Clyde McPhatter date when ‘my friend, [publisher] Happy Goday, came in and begged me to listen to a tune. I stopped the session and put the demo on the turntable.’
“The song, A Lover’s Question turned out to be McPhatter’s last Top 10 hit for Atlantic before switching to Mercury. Written by Brook with Jimmy Williams, A Lover’s Question takes Clyde into a lower register than his normal range, more like the style Brook would become known for, with some of the dips and scoops that would become the latter’s trademarks. One can only surmise that these were used by Brook on the demo of his tune.”
“A Lover’s Question” became McPhatter’s highest-charting solo single, reaching No. 6 while also topping the R&B charts. McPhatter, of course, already is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
But even earlier in 1958, Benton, with Clyde Otis and Belford Hendricks, had given Nat King Cole a No. 5 hit with “Looking Back.” Cole, of course, already is in the Rock Hall of Fame.
Benton is often credited with composing The Diamonds’ 1957 blockbuster, “The Stroll,” but this is erroneous. However, he did sing the demo and listening to Dave Somerville’s spectacular vocal, Benton’s input is easily recognizable.
Benton’s first hit was typical of his career. His recordings were so first-rate both sides of his singles often became hits. This made it almost impossible to turn on the popular radio stations of the day without hearing Benton’s voice.
Top 20 efforts included “Endlessly,” “Thank You Pretty Baby,” “So Many Ways,” “Kiddio,” “The Same One,” “Think Twice,” “The Boll Weevil Song,” which sat at No. 2 for three weeks, “Frankie & Johnny,” “Revenge,” “Shadrack,,” “Lie To Me,” “Hotel Happiness” and “You’re All I Want For Christmas.”
While all this was going on, Mercury Records, Benton’s label, paired him with Dinah Washington and the duo came up with two top 10 hits in 1960, “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” and “A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around & Fall In Love).” Do I have to mention that Washington already is in the Rock Hall of Fame?
Benton had a hand in penning most of his own hits, but his comeback hit in 1970 was a composition by Tony Joe White. “Rainy Night In Georgia” proved to be perhaps Benton’s most memorable effort, his unmistakable vocal carrying it to No. 4 and No. 1 on the R&B charts.
Brook Benton, who passed away in 1988, was not a hard rocker, but rather his groove was as smooth as a Bernie Madoff con. Even today, he ranks among the all-time leaders in singles’ sales. He was one of the Rock era’s most distinguished vocalists and songwriters and should receive serious consideration for Hall of Fame induction.
Bobby Day may have provided the cornerstones of Rock’s foundation
Day, who left us in 1990, was responsible for four songs that may be considered the cornerstones in the foundation of Rock & Roll. Each is easily recognizable, having been covered in countless versions through the years.
They are: “Little Bitty Pretty One,” “Rock-In Robin,” “Over & Over” and “Buzz, Buzz, Buzz.”
The first, “Little Bitty Pretty One,” was written by Day and recorded as Bobby Day & the Satellites. Amazingly, a nearly identical cover version by Thurston Harris & the Sharps beat Day’s own version to the airwaves and up the charts, climbing to No. 6 while Day’s version reached only No. 57. Perhaps without Day’s competition, Harris may have reached No. 1, but he never had another hit, though without him the Sharps became the Rivingtons and clicked with the memorable “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow.”
Meanwhile, “Little Bitty Pretty One” became one of Rock’s most recorded anthems, a hit again for Frankie Lymon in 1960, McPhatter in 1962 and the Jackson Five in 1972. The Dave Clark Five did an amazing version that, in typical DC5 fashion, ripped in at around 90 seconds, the Doobie Brothers made it a staple of their live show and just about everyone else from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Huey Lewis & the News has taken a shot at it.
Day had his own smash with “Rock-In Robin,” which climbed to No. 2 in 1958. Ironically, he was not the composer, that honor going to Leon Rene, also credited with the doowop standard “Gloria” and the early hit by Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles, “I Sold My Heart To The Junkman.” But Day did write the fabulous flip, “Over & Over,” which also became a hit, and the follow, “The Bluebird, The Buzzard & the Oriole,” an obvious Robin rip off, but a minor success, nonetheless.
Day’s version of “Rock-In Robin” was such a hot recording, it was tough to follow. But Michael Jackson gave it a good shot in 1972, getting his second solo hit, matching the original’s climb to No. 2.
The flip, of course, had done better much earlier. Harris tried to outdo Day again, but failed, though his version also charted in 1958. However, the DC5 dipped into Day’s catalog once again, releasing “Over & Over” as a single in 1965. Propelled by Clark’s ever creative drumming, it became the English group’s only American No. 1 single despite the absence of the last verse and Mike Smith’s flubbing of some other lyrics.
Smith sings, “Well I went to a dance just the other night. Everybody there was there.” Of course, that makes no sense and doesn‘t rhyme with the following line, “I said over & over & over again, this dance is gonna be a drag.” Smith also goofed the lyrics to “On Broadway” and many other British Invasion vocalists butchered the original lyrics likely due to a hard time picking them up off the radio or records or to a difference in meaning of many words between the U.S. and U.K. The lyrics should read, “Everybody there was stag,” which, in U.S. terms means alone and rhymes with drag.
In the missing last verse, Day remains optimistic, singing, “Well my poor heart was broken. All my life where had she been? But I’ll try over & over. And over & over again.”
By the way, not meant to be a knock on the late great Smith, always one of my favorite vocalists.
The fourth milestone “Buzz, Buzz, Buzz” reached No. 11 in 1957 as The Hollywood Flames, a one-hit wonder with a long life span and a zillion members.
Day told marvelous Marv Goldberg, “Right before I recorded Little Bitty Pretty One, I left the Flames to record on my own. However, I continued to use them as my backup group, the Satellites. There was only one other record that I recorded as a part of the Flames and that was Buzz-Buzz-Buzz. That was my song and Earl Nelson sang lead (also on that session were David Ford and Curlee Dinkins). I wrote and arranged the tune and the financing came from John Dolphin. Dolphin sold the song to Lee Rupe, who was the ex-wife of Specialty Records’ Art Rupe and the owner of Ebb Records.
“When the song became a hit, I found out I didn’t have any publishing rights and only half the writer credit. Dolphin admitted he owed me $6000, but he was killed before I could get any of it. This is just one of the things youngsters go through when they don’t have any knowledge of law or contracts.”
The entire story of The Hollywood Flames can be found at Goldberg’s amazing website uncamarvy.com.
“Buzz, Buzz, Buzz” became another standard of oldies radio stations and a much-loved and covered effort.
So there you have it, two Bs for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to consider…seriously. Brook and Bobby…Benjamin Franklin Peay and Bobby Byrd.