Musician. Benton was born Benjamin Franklin Peay on September 19, 1931, in Camden. His father was a bricklayer and choir director of a Methodist church. The young Benton delivered milk for a local dairy, sang with his father’s choir and the Camden Jubilee Singers, and began writing songs.
Benton moved to New York in 1948 and worked at a variety of odd jobs, performing with several gospel and rhythm-and-blues (R&B) groups and recording “demos” of his and other writers’ songs. He and partner Clyde Otis wrote hits for Nat King Cole (“Looking Back”) and Clyde McPhatter (“A Lover’s Question”), among others. In 1959 Benton recorded “It’s Just a Matter of Time,” the first of twenty-three Top Forty hits in the next five years and the first of his eighteen million-sellers. “Endlessly,” “So Many Ways,” “Thank You, Pretty Baby,” “Fools Rush In,” and “Kiddio” followed within the next eighteen months. A 1960 pairing with the temperamental Dinah Washington was personally difficult, but “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” and “Rocking Good Way” made the Top Ten. Some of Benton’s other hits looked back to his gospel roots (“Shadrack”) and cashed in on the folk-music craze (“Frankie and Johnny,” “The Boll Weevil Song”).
After the “British Invasion” by the Beatles and other groups, however, Mercury Records let Benton’s contract lapse. He recorded several unsuccessful albums with different companies—one included “San Francisco (Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair),” “Ode to Billy Joe,” and “Stick-to-it-ivity” (“a philosophical saga of Sam and Curly, two dissimilar frogs”)—and he covered hits by other artists ranging from Frank Sinatra (“My Way”) to Johnny Cash (“I Walk the Line”) in genres ranging from country to disco. His only major hit after 1965 was his memorably languid version of “Rainy Night in Georgia” (1970), recorded for Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. He remained a popular nightclub and concert performer on the oldies circuit, however, especially in Great Britain.
Benton will be remembered for some of the songs he wrote and for his stylish delivery. Opinions differ about the lush strings that often accompanied him—roughly the R&B equivalent of the “Nashville Sound”—but his rich, gospel-inflected baritone recalled predecessors such as Billy Eckstine and set the stage for the explosion of “soul music” in the 1960s. He died in New York City on April 9, 1988, and was survived by his wife, Mary, and their four children.
“Brook Benton: On the Comeback Trail.” Ebony 33 (May 1978): 164–66, 168.
French, Howard W. “Brook Benton, Singer of Hit Tunes, Known for His Ballads, Dies at 56.” New York Times, April 10, 1988, p. 36.