One of the things about music, be it a good thing or bad, is it has the power to trigger memory. I often find that I struggle with memory at times, especially when trying to conjure up the era of my late teens and my twenties. Due to a certain mental block I’ve seemed to have created for myself, the 1990’s seems like a massive blur that has been lost in time. Not my best years, I find that I have long ago packed the memories of this era of my life away and for the most part I have a difficult time putting myself back in a time or place with a clear eye when its time to remember. But often what I do remember is something I call “non memories.” It’s these little snippets of quiet moments where nothing really monumental happened that seem to be forever anchored in my memory for some reason. Just small moments that are difficult to describe but sit sweetly in my brain. Out of all of these “non memories,” the song that triggers the sweetest memory is Brook Benton’s emotional soul ballad “Rainy Night in Georgia.”
When I was in university there was a funky little bagel shop on the corner of Parkhill and Water Street, not far from one of the downtown campuses. Called the Bagel Schmagel, it was a popular student hangout which had a quiet atmosphere and was warm and inviting with a slightly bohemian flavour. They made their bagels and cream cheeses in house, and they had a spinach feta dip that was to die for. It was a nice place that was just far away enough from downtown to avoid the bar crowd, but close enough to go to read or study, and it was the perfect place to bring a date. I often went there with friends when I just wanted a quiet place to chat.
A large pane window in the front of the restaurant looked out at Water St, and across to the left you could get a good clear view of the busy intersection which was one of the key crossing points of the city. A lunch type counter was at the window, with high stools so you could watch out for the traffic going by.
I have this very strong memory of sitting in the window seats with Kate. Kate was one of the most impressive girls on campus. She looked like Courtney Cox and came on like Gwen Stacey from the Spider-Man comic books. She was pretty, smart and had class. I had a big crush on her, but then a lot of guys had a crush on Kate. It was hard not to, and if you were able to spend any amount of time with her you were pretty lucky. Kate seemed to be careful to whom she chose to spend her time with. Now let me be very clear. Kate and I never dated, despite the fact that I carried a torch for her. But I wasn’t really her type, and in retrospect she wasn’t really mine either. But I was lucky enough that Kate liked my company, when I wasn’t being a complete pill. My goodness I could be a thorn in her side at times. But I was often lucky enough to get Kate to grab a coffee or a meal with me, and we became great friends.
Well, we often went to the Bagel Schmagel, and I can remember sitting in that window with her on a dark rainy night. In my mind the bagel shop was mostly empty except for us, and we weren’t really talking, which was unusual because I was a notorious chatter box. I remember that Water St was wet with rain and I can still recall the way that the cars whizzed by the windows, spraying the rainwater collected on the asphalt as they drove by. But most of all what I can see in my mind is the way that the streetlights at the intersection reflected on the puddles of rain that collected on the street. The red streaks would change to green, and then change to red again. As the rain poured down and the car hissed by, the neon colors gave a light show on the wet pavement like something out of a Dario Argento movie.
And to make that moment in time perfect was that “Rainy Night in Georgia” was playing on the stereo. Soft, soulful and almost sad, it fit the moment and created a melancholy pin point in my memory. The restaurant, the cars, the rain, the traffic lights, the girl and the song. It was the perfect moment in time during an era when things didn’t always seem to be that perfect.
When Brook Benton recorded “Rainy Night in Georgia” in 1969, the song was destined to revive his career and gave him a signature song that he’d best be remembered for. My opinion might be unpopular with some music fans, but when Brook Benton first gained fame around 1958, he wasn’t a very interesting performer. He had a great voice, and his songs were likeable, but in regards to music being made by black artists, Benton came on like a Nat King Cole throwback. In fact, a lot of his records were jived up versions of easy listening standards which sometimes worked (Benton’s 1960 recording of “Fools Rush In” is a favorite of mine), but more exciting things were happening in the field of pop and soul music, and especially in Detroit at Motown. Although he continued to record music throughout the 1960’s, Brook Benton stopped showing up in the top 40 by 1963, and by the end of the decade had been shuffled through various labels who didn’t know what to do with him.
Things started to change for Benton in 1968 when he signed with Cotillion, which was a division of Atlantic Records. By this time Benton was no longer considered a major artist, and the industry had all but given up on him despite having a great voice and a likeable personality. But there was still a song left in Brook Benton, and producer Arif Mardin knew what to do with him. The arranger behind Aretha Franklin’s early success, Mardin had worked with a cross section of jazz and soul greats such as Max Roach, Ben E. King and King Curtis, as well as respected artists including Dusty Springfield, The Rascals, Laura Nyro and Cher. Mardin recognized that maybe Benton wasn’t a pop singer, and behind his warm baritone voice lay a more traditional soul performer. Mardin went into the studio with Benton in 1969 to record what was being called his “comeback album,” titled “Brook Benton Today.”
When Mardin brought “Rainy Night in Georgia” to Benton it would have seemed an unlikely choice at first. Written by “swamp rock” singer/songwriter Tony Joe White who hit big with “Polk Salad Annie” in 1968, White wrote “Rainy Night in Georgia” as a country ballad. But Mardin saw the potential of transforming the song into pure soul. Combining a slow guitar and organ with a soaring string section and dramatic moments punctuated with a lonely harmonica, “Rainy Night in George” becomes hauntingly lonely but sweet, and by slowing down Benton’s delivery he delivered one of the greatest soul ballads ever recorded.
“Brook Benton Today” was released in June 1970 with a noticeably older looking Benton on the cover, and “Rainy Night in Georgia” proved to be the comeback that Atlantic Records had hoped it would be. For the first time in years Brook Benton was at the top of the charts alongside The Beatles, The Jackson 5, Simon and Garfunkel and Three Dog Night. It hit the number 4 spot on the Billboard Top 100 and went all the way to number one of Billboard’s R&B charts. Most of all, it established Benton as a marketable artist again, and although he wouldn’t repeat the success of “Rainy Night in Georgia,” he’d continue to record an album a year well into the early 1980’s.
“Rainy Night in Georgia” is the perfect backdrop to any dark urban rainy night. All these years later I still see Kate about once a year or so. We’re both a bit older, happily married and probably a lot more put together, but Kate is still one of the most impressive women I know. She’s still pretty, still smart, still has class and still seems to like my company and I’m still lucky enough to get her to have a coffee or a meal with me once in a while to catch up and have some conversation. We don’t often talk about the past, choosing to catch each other up on our families and spouses and what we are doing now. We rarely talk about music, but Kate doesn’t seem like a Brook Benton fan, and I doubt she even knows “Rainy Night in Georgia” so I doubt she’d even remember that non memory from long ago. But I think of it every time I hear Brook Benton. I should ask Kate if she remembers any of this next time I see her.