Two late legends of soul – Brook Benton and Esther Phillips – have recently been feted on a pair of reissues from SoulMusic Records and Cherry Red.
By the time Brook Benton signed with Atlantic Records’ Cotillion imprint in 1968, he had already enjoyed an illustrious career at labels including OKeh, Epic, RCA, Mercury and Reprise. The move to Atlantic paid off when his recording of Tony Joe White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” not only reached No. 1 but became a signature song for the vocalist. Benton followed Brook Benton Today (featuring “Rainy Night”) later in 1970 with Home Style. The LP has been paired with its follow-up, Story Teller, on one CD from SoulMusic. Home Style returned Benton to Miami’s Criteria Studios, where he had cut “Rainy Night,” with its producer-arranger-conductor, Arif Mardin. With the backing of The Dixie Flyers, additional players such as King Curtis, and The Sweet Inspirations adding vocal support, Home Style showcased Mardin’s sympathetic brand of southern soul – organic and often funky yet tastefully enhanced with strings and orchestration. Naturally, “Rainy Night” author Tony Joe White was tapped for three songs – including “Aspen, Colorado,” “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” (also recorded at Atlantic by Dusty Springfield under Mardin’s aegis) and “Lee Ann,” which recalled the prior hit in its lush string-laden arrangement. Mac Davis supplied the stirring opening track, “Whoever Finds This, I Love You,” while the remaining tracks were a diverse lot including standards (“It’s All in the Game”), pop hits (“Are You Sincere”), Benton’s own compositions (“Let Me Fix It”) and even a Bob Dylan tune (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” which Jackie DeShannon later covered at Atlantic).
Benton and Mardin followed up Home Style with Story Teller the next year. As the title indicated, it was built around story songs like John Murtaugh and Spencer Michlin’s “Movin’ Day,” Bobby Scott and Danny Meehan’s “Willoughby Grove,” and Dave Kirby’s “Sidewalks of Chicago.” Brook also brought his mellifluous, burnished baritone to Pomus and Shuman’s classic “Save the Last Dance for Me,” Percy Mayfield’s blues tour de force “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” Mickey Newbury’s tear-jerker “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye,” and Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Tumbleweed Connection tune “Country Comfort.” SoulMusic has added one bonus track to this set: the 1971 non-LP A-side “A Black Child Can’t Smile.” Brook Benton went on to record at a host of other labels such as MGM, Stax, All Platinum and Polydor before passing away in 1978, leaving behind a legacy of rich soul music. This new reissue features liner notes by Clive Richardson and remastering by Nick Robbins.
As the premier vocalist on CTI Records’ Kudu imprint, Esther Phillips (1935-1984) played a key role in producer Creed Taylor’s “Cool Revolution.” A gifted vocalist, Phillips nonetheless struggled with personal demons throughout her too-short life. The former “Little Esther” had her first taste of success in 1949, just fourteen years old, and a taste of heroin not long after; stories of her mercurial behavior have entered into legend. But her talent was never in doubt. CTI recorded Phillips in a variety of settings from smooth pop to jazz, disco and funk, realizing the adaptability of her distinctively gritty, raw and pinched vocal style.
1976’s Capricorn Princess was Phillips’ seventh and final CTI/Kudu release. Capricorn attempted to restore Esther’s fortunes after the success of her disco foray with “What a Difference a Day Makes.” That track made the top 20 of the U.S. Hot 100 and the top 10 of the R&B chart, and propelled the album of the same name to success. But its follow-up – a revival of the standard “For All We Know” – barely cracked the Hot 100 at No. 98. Produced by Taylor and arranged by David Matthews (with one track, “Candy,” held over from sessions with arranger Pee Wee Ellis), Capricorn planted one foot in the disco age and another in the realm of traditional jazz and R&B.
The disco vibe is set on the album by Esther’s sizzling rendition of Vince Montana and Ronnie Walker’s “Magic in the Air,” backed by studio aces including Don Grolnick, Andy Newmark, Ralph MacDonald and The Brecker Brothers. The other dance-centric tracks include Janis Ian’s delicious “Boy, I Really Tied One On,” a nonstop disco take on Johnny Mercer’s “Dream,” and Etta James’ down-and-dirty “All the Way Down.” The singer’s vocal chops burn brightly on the cocktail jazz of the torch song “I Haven’t Got Anything Better to Do,” imbuing it with deeply-felt emotion, and the gorgeously wistful ballad “A Beautiful Friendship.” Esther paid tribute to her old friend Jackie Wilson with a bass-driven, brassy version of “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.”
The disco/jazz fusion of Capricorn Princess marked Phillips’ departure from CTI; she went on to record four albums for Mercury as well as one posthumously-released LP (a reunion with arranger Matthews) for the Muse label. The mercurial yet richly gifted artist died in 1984 at the age of 48. SoulMusic’s reissue of Capricorn adds two bonus tracks, the single edit of “All the Way Down” and the 12-inch medley of “Magic’s in the Air” and “Boy, I Really Tied One On.” A. Scott Galloway has written new liner notes incorporating fresh interviews from those who knew Phillips, and James Bragg has remastered. (SoulMusic kindly notes that the two bonus tracks were sourced from vinyl as master tapes could not be located.)
Both Brook Benton’s Home Style/Story Teller and Esther Phillips’ Capricorn Princess are available now from Cherry Red/SoulMusic Records!
- Whoever Finds This, I Love You
- For Lee Ann
- Willie and Laura Mae Jones
- It’s All in the Game
- Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home
- Aspen, Colorado
- Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
- Born Under a Bad Sign
- Are You Sincere
- Let Me Fix It
- Movin’ Day
- Willoughby Grove
- Poor Make Believer
- Please Send Me Someone to Love
- Big Mable Murphy
- She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye
- Save the Last Dance for Me
- Sidewalks of Chicago
- Country Comfort
- A Black Child Can’t Smile
Tracks 1-10 from Home Style, Cotillion LP SD 9028, 1970
Tracks 11-20 from Story Teller, Cotillion LP SD 9050, 1971
Track 21 from Cotillion single 45-44138, 1971
- Magic’s in the Air
- I Haven’t Got Anything Better to Do
- Boy, I Really Tied One On
- A Beautiful Friendship
- (Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher
- All the Way Down
- All the Way Down (Single Version) (Kudu single KU-936, 1976)
- Magic’s in the Air/Boy, I Really Tied One On (12-Inch Single) (Kudu single KU-938, 1977)