Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Early '70s Radio Hits of Brook Benton

Brook Benton had fifty-eight charting singles stretching all the way back to the numerologically coincidental year of 1958. The final series of five happened in the early seventies. Four of these - each seeming like symbolic variations on retirement - came from the Cotillion label, a subsidiary of Atlantic, while the final one, a charting "jingle single," came out on MGM.

1. Brook Benton - "Rainy Night in Georgia" (Billboard #4, entered 1/10/70; soul #1). Written by Tony Joe White. Produced and arranged by Arif Mardin. 45: "Rainy Night in Georgia"/"Where Do I Go from Here" (Cotillion 1970). LP: Brook Benton Today (Cotillion 1970). 

With no top ten hits since 1962's "Hotel Happiness," Benton took a shot with a song by Tony Joe White, who'd reached #8 with "Polk Salad Annie" in 1969. The resulting #4 smash not only became a career-defining moment for Benton, but also for the prolific producer-arranger Arif Mardin. Dripping in aching strings and a lonely piano, the song transferred a detectable sense of resignation to the airwaves, as if to signal the end of a more youthful and carefree era. 

2. Brook Benton - "My Way" (Billboard #72, entered 4/8/70; soul #25). Written by Claude Francois, Jacques Revaux, and Paul Anka. Produced by Arif Mardin. 45: "My Way"/"A Little Bit of Soap" (Cotillion 1970). LP: Brook Benton Today (Cotillion 1970). 

Benton's follow-up to "Rainy Night in Georgia" was another retirement signifier, having served as a (premature) declaration of finality for Frank Sinatra the previous year. The French melody with new words by Paul Anka hadn't fully solidified as the standard we recognize today, though, when Benton reinterpreted it as a soul groover with a twinkle in his eye.

3. Brook Benton with the Dixie Flyers - "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home" (Billboard #45, entered 5/30/70, soul #31). Written by Joe South. Produced by Arif Mardin. 45: "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home"/"I've Gotta Be Me" (Cotillion (1970). LP: Home Style. 

Benton's version of "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home" fell shy of the top 40 in 1970, as did writer Joe South's own version in 1969. But it did establish Benton's voice still further as a sentimental one at the dawning of the seventies nostalgia boom. Side B contained a version of "I've Gotta Be Me," which was Sammy Davis Jr.'s "My Way" - a #11 hit for him in 1969.

4. Brook Benton with the Dixie Flyers - "Shoes" (Billboard #67, entered 12/26/70, soul #18). Written by Don Covay and George Soule. Produced by Arif Mardin. 45: "Shoes"/"Let Me Fix It" (Cotillion 1970). LP: Story Teller (Cotillion 1971).

Slinky, forgotten single recorded with Memphis studio aces the Dixie Flyers, a fourth encore that finds Benton having a hard time saying goodbye with his "shoes" that "keep walking back." This track has to be listened to all the way to the fadeout, where harps sprinkle haunted, lovesick stardust - another jewel in Arif Mardin's crown. The flipside is a steamy give-and-take with the Sweet Inspirations called "Let Me Fix It," for which Benton got full writing credit.

5. Brook Benton - "If You Got the Time" (Billboard #104, entered 10/7/72). Written by Bill Backer. Produced by Billy Davis. 45: "If You Got the Time"/"Take Me Home Honey" (MGM 1972). LP: Something for Everyone (MGM 1973).

The song Benton sings for his final charting single sounds so familiar to you because its writer and producer were ad men—the same guys who gave us "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing." This is a proper "jingle single" in which Benton delivers a version of what would become the familiar decades-long theme for Miller Beer: "If you've got the time, we've got the beer." Backer and Davis had already launched the theme and slogan in 1971, and Benton had joined the Troggs and Billy Mack as one of the campaign's celebrity voices.

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