I don’t know if it has been the same where you live, but here in the northeast, and in New England in particular, we are having a most unusual autumn. We have enjoyed temperatures in the 50s and 60s for weeks on end. There has been a noticeable lack of frigid temperatures, ice, snow, and the other factors that often define the season here. Yesterday I took a ride down to a nearby beach. Surfers, paddle boarders, and kayakers were all enjoying the water, and guys in shorts were tossing around a football on the beach.
I have to admit that it’s been enjoyable. The older I get, the less I like the cold and snow. The thing is, it’s not normal. Or is this the new normal? Climate change is no longer a theory, or a prediction, it’s a reality. Maybe it’s the cause of this unseasonable weather. I don’t want to spoil the party, but maybe this temperate weather is not a good thing. Then again, we could get buried in snow in January, and this will all be forgotten.
So what’s the fixation on weather this week? Well, we’re going to talk about rain. We haven’t had much here recently, but the rain I’m talking about fell in Georgia on one particular night, many years ago. Tony Joe White chronicled it in a song, and Brook Benton brought that song to the world a few years later.
Benton was born in South Carolina in 1931. Early on he was interested in gospel music. He came by it naturally as his father was the choir master in the nearby Methodist church. Benton wrote songs, sang in the church, and was in and out of several gospel groups. In 1948 he headed to New York to get his music career started. It didn’t work out though, and Benton headed back to South Carolina, where he joined a group called the Sandmen.
He headed back to New York, this time as part of the Sandmen. Okeh Records was interested, but the only Sandman they wanted was Benton. He wrote songs and produced albums for the label, working with artists like Nat King Cole, Clyde McPhatter (Benton was the co-writer or McPhatter’s smash “A Lover’s Question”), and Roy Hamilton. Eventually Benton had a small hit of his own with “A Million Miles From Nowhere” which cracked the Top 100 on the pop chart in 1958.
Benton moved on to Mercury Records which was where he found great success. In 1959 his single “It’s Just a Matter of Time” reached #3 on the Billboard Top 100, selling over one million copies. A subsequent single, “Endlessly,” made it to #12 on the chart. Both songs were written by Benton along with Clyde Otis, and were originally offered to Nat King Cole. When Otis became A&R Manager at Mercury, and convinced Benton to record the songs himself.
The hits kept on coming for Benton. He hit the Top Ten with songs like “So Many Ways,” “Hotel Happiness,” “Kiddio,” and “The Boll Weevil Song.” Another single, “Think Twice” only managed to make it to #11. In addition to those hits, two Benton duets with Dinah Washington hit the Top Ten in 1960. “Baby (You’ve Got What it Takes)” reached #5, and “A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall in Love)” peaked at #7.
Things had slowed down for Benton by the mid-1960s. He recorded for RCA Records and Reprise Records but didn’t have much success. In 1968 he signed with Cotillion Records, an Atlantic imprint, and there, a little more than a year later, he scored with his biggest hit.
“Rainy Night in Georgia was written by Tony Joe White in 1967. White said that the idea for the song came to him when he was working on a road crew in Marietta, Georgia. When it rained, he didn’t have to go to work, and could stay home and play his guitar and hang out. After hearing Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” on the radio, White thought he could try to write his own songs, and base them on his own experiences, just like Gentry did. He had known a lot of rainy nights in Marietta, and he turned them into a song.
Arif Mardin produced Benton’s cover of the song in November, 1969. The session players included organist Billy Carter, pianist Dave Crawford, guitarists Cornell Dupree and Jimmy O’Rourke, Howart Cowart on bass, drummer Tubby Ziegler, and Toots Thielmans on harmonica. The resulting record was an immediate hit. By the spring of 1970 it had skyrocketed to the top of the Billboard Best Selling Soul Singles chart, and reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart.
Benton ended up recording five albums with Mardin while he was at Cotillion. In all, Benton ended up putting an incredible 49 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. But he was a victim of spinal meningitis and succumbed to pneumonia in New York in 1988. Benton was only 56 years-old at the time of his death. He left behind his wife Mary, five children, and a most impressive musical legacy.