Singer-songwriter Brook Benton was one of the top performers of the early 1960s. In addition to writing hits for other famous vocalists, he gave music fans the gift of his own smooth baritone voice on popular ballads such as “It’s Just a Matter of Time,” “Endlessly,” and “A Rainy Night in Georgia.” Benton also garnered applause singing duets with famed jazz artist Dinah Washington and staged a brief comeback during the 1970s.
Benton was born Benjamin Franklin Peay in Camden, South Carolina, on September 19, 1931. His father was a Methodist minister, and Benton sang in his church as a child. His interest in gospel music continued into his teens, and he performed with local gospel groups for a time. But when he was seventeen, Benton left for New York City to try and make it in more secular music. At first he had to make his living driving trucks and washing dishes, but eventually he found work singing on demo tapes for songwriters who were trying to sell their compositions to established stars.
Benton began writing songs of his own and in 1955 formed a writing partnership with Clyde Otis. The pair made demo tapes of their compositions, with Benton providing the vocals. Benton and Otis’s big break came when the legendary Nat King Cole heard their “Looking Back” and decided to record it; when it became a huge success, more business was drawn to the duo. They sold other songs to Cole as well, and wrote the smash “A Lover’s Question” for rhythm-and-blues artist Clyde McPhatter. Benton and Otis also provided hits for the likes of Patti Page and Roy Hamilton.
By 1959 Benton realized that what Rolling Stone critic Anthony DeCurtis labeled his “elegant” baritone was being wasted on demo tapes. After he and Otis composed the sad but hopeful “It’s Just a Matter of Time,” Benton won the attention of Mercury Records, and the company signed the young vocalist. As a reporter for Ebony magazine noted, “‘It’s Just a Matter of Time’ skyrocketed up the charts.” A series of solo hits followed, including “Endlessly,” “Thank You, Pretty Baby,” and “So Close.” Benton added to his fame when he recorded the album The Two of Us with acclaimed jazz singer Dinah Washington. Together they climbed the charts with the upbeat “Baby, You’ve Got What It Takes” and “A Rockin’ Good Way”
Benton began to have career troubles in 1961, right after his humorous story tune “The Boll Weevil Song” gained popularity. The single was the last success he would share with Otis during that decade; the two
For the Record…
Name originally Benjamin Franklin Peay; born September 19, 1931, in Camden, SC; died of pneumonia, April 9, 1988, in New York, NY; son of a Methodist minister; married wife, Mary, c. 1954; children: Brook, Roy, Vanessa, Gerald.
Songwriter, vocalist. Performed with local gospel groups while a teenager; worked odd jobs as a dishwasher and truck driver in New York City during late 1940s and early 1950s; worked as a vocalist on demo tapes during early 1950s; member of songwriting partnership with Clyde Otis, 1955-61, wrote songs for Nat King Cole and Clyde McPhatter, among others; recording artist and concert performer during the 1960s and 1970s; formed singing and performing partnership with Dinah Washington, 1960-63. Appeared in beer commercials during the 1970s.
Awards: Eighteen gold records.
dissolved their partnership due to what Ebony cited as “personal differences and industry pressures.” Another of Benton’s partnerships, that with Washington, ended with her death in 1963. That same year he suffered a severe physical beating, which Ebony linked to his refusal to perform a second show at a St. Louis club because he claimed that the orchestra there did not play his music correctly. He continued to sing in nightclubs and also tried acting for a time, but little came of it. In 1970 he managed a brief return to the spotlight with his plaintive rendition of “A Rainy Night in Georgia.”
But Benton was unable to follow up on the song’s success. For a period of three years Benton was not allowed to record because of contract disputes and he dropped from public attention except for club appearances and some beer commercials he did to help support himself. During the late 1970s, he contemplated a comeback, and when record companies told Benton he was too old for them to take a chance on him, he reasoned, according to Ebony, that “Bing Crosby wasn’t too old, and Elvis Presley wasn’t too old.” He finally landed a recording contract with Olde World Records in 1978. For this company, Benton recorded Making Love Is Good for You; to his satisfaction, the single of the same title became a modest hit. He also, like many artists of his heyday, received a boost in popularity when music fans became nostalgic for the tunes of the 1950s and 1960s.
Though in 1978 Ebony predicted that Benton’s comeback would be a long one, they were apparently wrong. Little else was heard from Benton, and he died of pneumonia in New York City on April 9, 1988.
“It’s Just a Matter of Time,” Mercury, 1959.
“Endlessly,” Mercury, 1959.
“So Close,” Mercury, 1959.
“Thank You, Pretty Baby,” Mercury, 1959.
“Kiddio,” Mercury, 1960.
“Fools Rush In,” Mercury, 1960.
“The Boll Weevil Song,” Mercury, 1961.
“Frankie and Johnny,” Mercury, 1961.
“Lie to Me,” Mercury, 1962.
“A Rainy Night in Georgia,” Mercury, 1970.
“Making Love Is Good for You,” Olde World, 1978.
(With Dinah Washington) The Two of Us (includes “Baby, You’ve got What It Takes” and “A Rockin’ Good Way”), Mercury, 1960.
Making Love Is Good for You, Olde World, 1978.
Ebony, May 1978.
New York Times, April 10, 1988; April 11, 1988.
Rolling Stone, May 19, 1988.
Time, April 25, 1988.
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