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Reconsidering Benton and Williams

September 04, 1998|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Brook Benton and the Platters had more than two dozen Top 20 pop hits collectively between 1955 and 1970, most of which are found in two retrospective albums from Rhino Records. The packages are revealing because they suggest that both Benton and the Platters' lead singer Tony Williams may have been shortchanged artistically by career decisions designed to keep the hits coming.

*** 1/2 Brook Benton, "Endlessly--The Best of Brook Benton," Rhino.

The opening section of Benton's "It's Just a Matter of Time" is one of the great moments in the early days of soul music, one that makes you wonder just where Benton would have ranked among the great soul singers if he had chosen to stick closer to the style throughout his career.

Against the backdrop of swirling strings and the steady punctuation of a single piano key, Benton lingers over the words in the first line, conveying the ache of someone caught up in a relationship gone seriously wrong.

"Some day . . . some way," he sings to a former lover in his fluid, baritone voice, "you'll realize that you've been blind. Yes, darling, you're going to need me again. . . . It's just a matter of time."

The song was a sensation in 1959, spending nine weeks at No. 1 on the R&B charts and climbing into the Top 5 on the pop charts.

By the time of the hit, Benton--a South Carolina native whose real name was Benjamin Peay--had already made a reputation in the industry by co-writing "A Lover's Question" for Clyde McPhatter and "Looking Back" for Nat King Cole.

After his own hit, Benton moved between various styles in search of more pop successes at Mercury Records. Moving from near blues-rock to folk-country to lush pop, he seemed at times as eclectic as Bobby Darin. Despite good work in the various styles, the approach left him somewhat undefined as a stylist. By isolating the best of his work, "Endlessly" should help refocus attention on Benton's immense talent.

The collection wisely includes two post-Mercury recordings: his version of Tony Joe White's "Rainy Night in Georgia" and a treatment of Joe South's "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home" in which he draws on all his influences, from soul and gospel to country, rock and pop.

*** The Platters, "Enchanted--The Best of the Platters," Rhino. Though there were more rewarding R&B vocal groups in the '50s, including the Drifters and the Clovers, none enjoyed more consistent commercial success than the Platters, thanks to the lush pop romanticism that songwriter-producer Buck Ram wove into their recordings.

Unfortunately, Ram stuck so closely to that sound that it soon became a formula that gave the Platters a one-dimensional image. The group has been voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but it was a controversial choice.

This 20-song package won't change detractors' minds, but the highlights do demonstrate lead singer Tony Williams' ability to inject genuine feeling into the narrow confines of the Platters' style.

Along with "Only You (And You Alone)," the most memorable of the many Platters hits were "The Great Pretender," a Ram song that may have inspired Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown," and "My Prayer," a song that had been a hit in 1939 for the Ink Spots. On all three records, Williams' contributes a stirring vocal, displaying some of the dramatic instincts later associated with Roy Orbison.

At times, Williams combined the restraint of Nat King Cole and the gospel-tinged desire of Jackie Wilson. But he could only do so much within the Platters' narrow guidelines, and much of the music on this album suffers from those limits.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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