The music industry often uses terms like “retro–soul” or “alternative R&B” to describe the music of Eric Benét, one of a new generation of African American artists, such as D’Angelo, Maxwell, and Grammy award winner Tony Rich, who create music without the use of samples. However, Benét declines to categorize his music as alternative/The term ’alternative R&B’ does kind of bug me a little bit because I feel that what we’re doing is pure R&B or a closer representation,” stated Benét in an interview for the Philadelphia Tribune. “I just think that for the past fifteen years or so, the masses have just been so hungry and starving for some music with some integrity, some lyrical depth and with some substance to it…. So much of what was happening then [during the 1960s and 1970s] sounds so similar to what they’re calling alternative R&B. It’s just a strange term.”
Since his debut effort in 1996, True To Myself, followed by 1999’s A Day In The Life, the young purveyor of contemporary soul ranks among the most innovative singers and songwriters of the 1990s. A musician who always remains true to the roots of R&B while adding his own modern flair, Benét said on the Warner Brothers website, “I like the idea of making music that transcends time and history. Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole: people will be playing their records 100 years from now. I hope to make music like that.” And with two critically successful albums to his name thus far, Benét could likely achieve such a lofty goal.
Eric Benét Jordan, named after poet and author Stephen Vincent Benét, was born in 1970 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and continues to make his home there as an adult. Growing up in a household always filled with music, Benét, a self–taught musician, seemed destined to gravitate toward singing and songwriting. For example, instead of telling her children what to do, Benét’s mother would sing her words, such as “Go and clean your roooom!,” he recalled in an interview with the iMusic website. His other musical inspirations came from singing in church, as well as listening to the popular R&B artists of the 1960s and 1970s throughout his childhood. Together with his brother and two sisters, Benét displayed an interest in and obvious talent for music and harmonizing that would one day lead him to the top of the R&B charts.
In the meantime, the aspiring singer, along with his sister Lisa and cousin George Nash, Jr., an accomplished guitarist, formed a band called Benét and released their first collection of songs in 1992 on EMI Records. However, because the label was in the midst of a corporate reorganization during the time, the album went largely unnoticed. Consequently, the group felt devastated by the blow, but Benét would soon realize that a
Born Eric Benét Jordan, 1970, in Milwaukee, WI: one brother, two sisters; children: one daugher, India, born 1992.
Released debut album, True To Myself, Warner Bros. Records, (single “Spiritual Thang” became a top ten hit on the R&B charts), 1996; released album A Day In The Life, Warner Bros. Records, 1999.
Addresses: Home —Milwaukee, WI. Record company —Warner Brothers Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91506; 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York City, NY 10019. Website— Wuarner Brothers Records, http:www.wbr.com; Eric Benét—The Official Site, http://www.ericbenet.com.
series of tragic events would prove much more difficult for him to recover from than the failure of his group.
Within an 18–month period in 1995, Benét witnessed his father’s demise from cancer and endured the death of former girlfriend Tami. The young woman, also the mother of Benét’s daughter India, born in 1992, suffered extensive injuries from a car accident and laid unconscious in a coma for five days until she finally passed away. Benét, torn apart emotionally by Tami’s death, fell into a two–year depression. Only his daughter, at the time still a toddler, prevented him from giving up completely. “It really was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through,” Benét admitted to an interview with Chris Wells in Independent. “Even losing my father, as traumatic as that was, didn’t hurt as much because… well, at least when we knew he was dying we all—my mom, two sisters, my brother—got the chance to say goodbye. Tami and I weren’t actually together at the time she died—I was just seeing India every weekend—but the feelings of guilt, remorse, bereavement, depression just took over. Hearing India call my name when I came home from work at the end of the day felt like all I had to hang on.”
Thus Benét, now a single parent, took on the responsibility of raising his daughter alone. With his music career on hold because of his mental state, he worked shifts at UPS (United Parcel Service) and helped local Milwaukee musicians record demos in the studio. Eventually, Benét started to write songs again, most of them reflecting on his recent experiences. Then, with the help of Nash and friend Demonte Posey, a keyboard player and programmer, he recorded a demo tape of three songs and sent them to Warner Brothers Records. Soon thereafter, Warner Brothers responded with an offer for a record contract.
With his enthusiasm about music restored, Benét released his debut album, True to Myself, in 1996. The album, co–produced with Nash and Posey, drew on his childhood influences, early 1970s soul musicians like Al Green, Sly Stone, and Stevie Wonder. Nonetheless, Benét managed to blend his own contemporary artistry in with the forms he borrowed from his contemporaries, earning him critical recognition for his edgier take on R&B. Moreover, whereas most R&B artists usually adhere to one particular style of music, Benét also attempts to incorporate aspects of other genres into his songs as well. “They [other artists] kind of have the same vibe throughout the whole record. With my record, on one song, I might do something a little rocky, in another song I might do something kind of Beatleish and in another song, I might do something gospel/bluesy—it’s kind of hard for people to take sometimes,” Benét told the Philadelphia Tribune. The record’s first single, “Spiritual Thang,” became a top ten hit on the R&B charts, and the single “Let’s Stay Together” was featured in the Martin Lawrence film A Thin Line Between Love and Hate. The album also included a song about his late girlfriend called “While You Were Here,” which tallied up the aspects of their relationship taken for granted.
Despite the success of Benét’s first single, his debut effort lacked support in record sales. The young singer blamed some of the lower than expected numbers on the fact that his music did not fit in with the typical urban radio format. “Urban radio has become this thing, with so many songs sounding alike,” Benét commented in the Philadelphia Tribune. “If you deviate from that then it’s really hard to be accepted. If you put any other influences of any other genres of music in your particular vibe, you’re not Black enough or you’re selling out. I think it’s a very narrow minded view of music, urban audiences have gotten so used to a certain kind of thing… everyone’s doing the same runs vocally, the same kick sound, the same snare, something that’s flexing creativity, throwing a couple of chord progressions in there and it’s kind of hard to get embraced.” Nevertheless, even without the support of radio play, the determined singer forged ahead with a world tour to promote True to Myself, drawing fans into his music wherever he traveled.
After completing his worldwide tour, Benét returned to Milwaukee to write new songs for a follow–up release. For this collection of work, he teamed with other talented writers and producers, in addition to Nash and Posey; the album featured the vocals of singer Tamia and collaborations with producers Wyclef Jean and Ali Shaheed from the rap/hip–hop group A Tribe Called Quest, as well as a duet with hip–hop artist Faith Evans for a remake of “Georgy Porgy” by the 1980s pop groupToto. After a year of arranging and recording music with producers, Benét released A Day In TheLife’m 1999, considered by critics as his best work to date. In addition, Warner Brothers witnessed a marked improvement in record sales over Benét’s debut release. Benét himself felt A Day In The Life illustrated that he had matured as a writer and performer, and saighe took time to come up with the right body of work. The album, more grounded in classic R&B, was largely inspired by Benét’s real life experiences. “I keep a journal,” he said, as quoted by the Warner Brothers website. “The album title came from re–reading passages in my diary. As a songwriter, I just opened myself up to whatever came out of my heart.”
Although Benét strives to achieve recognition for his music, his most important undertaking remains caring for his daughter. Therefore, he continues to live in Milwaukee so his mother can help take care of India, enabling him to record and tour. “I record in Philadelphia. . . Los Angeles. . . play all over the world, but when I get back home I like to keep all the things that surround her as calm and uneventful as possible.” he said to Wells. “OK, sometimes—not often—I have just taken her out of school for a week and done lessons with her just so we could be together. But, y’see, the older she gets, the more evident it is that she’s the single most important thing that’s happened to me.”
True To Myself, Warner Brothers Records, 1996.
A Day In The Life, Warner Brothers Records, 1999.
“Let’s Stay Together,” Warner Brothers Records, 1996.
“Spiritual Thang,” Warner Brothers Records, 1996.
“True To Myself” (Maxi Single), Warner Brothers Records, 1996.
“Georgy Porgy” (Maxi Single), Warner Alliance, 1999.
“Spend My Life With You,” Warner Alliance, 1999.
A Thin Line Between Love And Hate, Warner Brothers Records, 1996.
Batman & Robin, Warner Brothers Records, 1997.
Ride, Tommy Boy, 1998.
Dallas Morning News, March 20, 1997, p. 39A.
Independent, April 23, 1999, p. 13.
People, May 24, 1999, p. 41.
Philadelphia Tribune, May 30, 1997, p. PG.
Toronto Sun, May 9, 1999, p. S13; May 21, 1999, p. 77.
Eric Benét —The Official Site, http://www.ericbenet.com (August 24, 1999).
iMusic Urban Showcase, http://www.imusic.com (August24, 1999).
Launch: Discover New Music, http://www.launch.com (August 24, 1999).
Warner Brothers Records, http://www.wbr.com (August 24, 1999).
Benét, Eric 1970–
Eric Benét 1970–
Contemporary soul vocalist
Quite a number of African American vocal performers in the last years of the twentieth century avoided the dominant urban genre of hip-hop, turning instead to the “old school” sounds of classic R&B and soul music of the 1970s and early 1980s. Eric Benét is one of this group, but perhaps to a greater extent than the others he has captured the spirit of originality and innovation that defined the old school in its heyday. With a broad creative streak intact after personal trials, and with successful sophomore release propelling him into a high-profile celebrity romance in the year 2000, Benét seemed poised to become one of the new century’s most durable stars.
Eric Benét Jordan was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1970; his middle name comes from that of the American poet Stephen Vincent Benét. He grew up on the city’s north side and attended Boys Technical High School. “Eric was always trying out for the school play, singing in the choir, or leading the way during our family sing-alongs in the den…” Benét’s sister, Lisa, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I could see the beginnings of what brought him to where he is today, the way he moved and put on a show.”
Benét’s environment was musical: his father, a police officer, was a classical music fan, and his mother often sang around the house. “Everybody had perfect pitch and everybody played an instrument,” he told Ebony. Growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, Benét absorbed the classics of “old-school R&B—especially the music of Stevie Wonder, a prime influence in his openness to various influences and his constant spirit of experimentation. He sang with a Top 40-style group called Gerard in the late 1980s, and then Benét, his sister, Lisa, and his cousin, George Nash Jr., formed a band called Benét.
That band was signed to the EMI label in 1990, with Eric Benét as lead vocalist and creative sparkplug. Their debut album, Benét, was released in 1992, in the midst of corporate upheaval at the label. Promotion was scant. Still, with sales of 70, 000 copies, it attracted some notice within the industry, and Benét made a valuable ally in EMI executive Allison Ball-Gabriel, who moved to the Warner Brothers label in 1993 and kept in contact with her youthful discovery.
Benét’s career-building, however, was interrupted by a series of personal tragedies. His father died of cancer, and his girlfriend, Tami, the mother of Benét’s daughter, India, born in 1992, died of injuries suffered in an
Born Eric Benét Jordan in 1970, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; son of a police officer; married actress Halle Berry, 2001; children: India (from previous relationship).
Career: Urban contemporary vocalist. Sang with Milwaukee top 40 band Gerard, late 1960s; formed group Benét with sister, Lisa, and George Nash Jr., 1990; group signed to EMI label, released album Benét, 1992; signed to Warner Bros, label as solo artist, 1996; released Warner Brothers debut, True to Myself, 1996; released album Day in the Life, 1999.
Awards: Gold record for Day in the Life, 1999.
Addresses: Home —Milwaukee, Wl. Record label —Warner Brothers Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Bur-bank, CA91506.
automobile crash after languishing in a coma for five days. Benét endured a long period of personal and creative depression, often feeling that only his responsibilities as a father kept him going. He took a job with United Parcel Service in Milwaukee and eased back into music by producing demo recordings for local artists.
Finally Benét began writing songs again, many of them rooted in the tragedies he had experienced. These coalesced into Benét’s debut solo release, True to Myself, released in 1996. Individual songs from the album were successful, including the top-ten R&B hit “Spiritual Thang” and “Let’s Stay Together,” which appeared on the soundtrack of the film A Thin Line Between Love and Hate. The album as a whole, however, failed to live up to sales expectations. With a mixture of Benét’s beloved old-school soul and a variety of rock influences, True to Myself confounded audiences at the height of hip-hop’s domination of urban radio. Nor did the singer, who favored laid-back vintage clothing rather than the intensely fashion-conscious attire of most other urban entertainers, fit audience image expectations for a new artist.
Ball-Gabriel once again demonstrated her belief in the viability of Benét’s career. “Professionally and artistically speaking, Eric was ready [with True to Myself], but radio wasn’t; it was a bit deep for pop radio,” she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The album garnered critical praise, and Benét toured in 1998 as the opening act for the wildly original Erykah Badu. When it came time to record Benét’s second solo release, however, he was well aware that critical praise was of little interest to the corporate masters of the popular music scene. “This could be considered a make-or-break album for me,” he told the Journal Sentinel. “I know that. And I know that I have to focus on commercial concerns this time out.”
That sophomore release, 1999’s A Day in the Life, was supported by a strong marketing effort. Warner Brothers packaged Benét as a romantic balladeer and energetically attempted to place the singer’s music and image before female African American listeners, even purchasing a mailing list from a black hair care industry publication and sending copies of the CD to beauty salons around the country. Benét lived up to the part, taking the stage in pajamas on tour to support the album. By the third number of the show, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel critic reported, Benét had “ripped off the pajama top to reveal a flexing torso barely contained by a flexing tank top.” Dreadlocks added an exotic note to his appeal. His penchant for performing barefoot, however, predated this period; he told Jet that it dated back to his habit of taking his shoes off to calm himself down during the tornado warnings of his Milwaukee childhood.
Musically, the album fit in with the trend toward a return to romance visible in the hip-hop-saturated urban music scene. Yet for all its commercial considerations, A Day in the Life reflected much of Benét’s musical personality and in no way represented a sellout. His long interest in rock music was demonstrated by the inclusion of two remakes of classic rock songs, Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind” and Toto’s “Georgy Porgy.” The latter, performed in a duet with high-flying hip-hop star Faith Evans, was the album’s leadoff single. Benét also enlisted the help of various innovative hip-hop-oriented producers, including Wyclef Jean and AH Shaheed Muhammad of the group Lucy Pearl. The mixture worked: A Day in the Life earned Benét a gold record (for sales of over 500, 000 copies), and remained on the charts for over a year.
His profile sharply raised, Benét enjoyed another round of favorable publicity in the year 2000 as a result of his romance with actress Halle Berry. The two became engaged, and Benét enhanced his romantic image by dedicating a performance of his hit “Spend My Life with You” to her at the NAACP Image Awards program that year. They were married at a secret location in January of 2001.
With vocal talent, a deep reservoir of creativity, and the wisdom that comes from having overcome adversity, Benét seems a likely candidate for durable stardom. “Everybody’s life is an experience, but not everybody stops to learn some valuable lessons that may be hidden in some cracks,” he told Jet. “Once it passes, and it too will pass, you will have learned and grown so much in life that you’ll have a deeper capacity to love.”
Benét (with Lisa Benét and George Nash Jr.), EMI, 1992.
True To Myself, Warner Bros., 1996.
A Day in the Life, Warner Bros., 1999.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 27, Gale, 2000.
Ann Arbor News, February 8, 2001, p. A2.
Dallas Morning News, March 20, 1997.
Billboard, April 1, 1999.
Ebony, February 2000, p. 168; July 2000, p. 90.
Jet, July 5, 1999, p. 37; January 17, 2000, p. 30; May 22, 2000, p. 40.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 18, 1999.
People, May 24, 1999, p. 41.
—James M. Manheim