Brook Benton was a successful young songwriter for artists like Nat “King” Cole before his own breakthrough hit as an artist with “It’s Just a Matter of Time.” He went on to have several more hit singles, as well as big duets with “The Queen of Music,” Dinah Washington. But as the ‘60s passed, and the Beatles and Motown dominated the charts, Benton’s success waned. That is, until he recorded “Rainy Night in Georgia,” a song written by a drawling Louisiana singer named Tony Joe White.
A song about a man without a home and missing his sweetheart, “Rainy Night in Georgia” was a big comeback for Benton, with his velvet baritone-to-tenor performance unexpectedly topping the charts. The single sold over a million copies, re-igniting his career. It featured a legendary bluesy but melodic guitar line by Cornell Dupree, and a luxurious string arrangement by the legendary producer Arif Mardin, who went on to work with everyone from the Bee Gees to Norah Jones. It also opened doors for the young Tony Joe White.
In what is believed to have been his final in-person interview before his November 2018 death, Tony Joe White spoke at his rural Middle Tennessee farm with this writer about his admiration for Benton, and for Benton’s definitive version of the song.
“I knew Brook, but I didn’t know he had recorded ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ until, well, I was working in Memphis at the time, and they sent me a little 45 rpm. I’ll bet I played it 15 times without stopping. And I just thought, ‘Man, how a voice like that can just take a song and sing it that way…’” White drifted off in thought and shook his head. He said Benton also had recorded the song in the original key of D that White had written it in.
White said that Benton’s recording helped launch his own career as a writer, around the same time that his own hit of “Polk Salad Annie” was establishing him as an artist. And White was excited about the possibility of more success with “Rainy Night in Georgia” after he learned his friend Elvis Presley was slated to cut the song. But Presley died before that could happen. “I saw Elvis in the back of a limousine on tour, and he was singin’ ‘Rainy Night in Georgia,’ and his producer [Felton Jarvis] called and said that was gonna be Elvis’ next cut. Then the next time I saw Elvis was in the newspaper. He was no longer with us.”
Benton’s recording of the song wasn’t just a hit with the public, but with his peers in the music community as well. Las Vegas-based vocalist and bandleader Ron Stevenson, who has worked with the Coasters, the Drifters and others, was a teen protégé of Dinah Washington’s, and he knew and toured with Benton. “Brook was such a great singer,” Stevenson said, “and he did such a great job with ‘Rainy Night,’ just killed it. His voice was instantly recognizable. And he had so much feeling in his ad-libs.”
Benton released a dozen more singles in the following decade, but none did as well as “Rainy Night in Georgia.” His recording career stalled by the late 1970s, and he died in 1988 at the young age of 56. Named by Rolling Stone as “One of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” more than two dozen other artists have cut the song, including country star Chris Young, and Hank Williams, Jr., who did well with it on the Canadian charts.