ERIC BENÉT & GEORGE NASH JR.
We’ve all done it. Slipped on a velvet tuxedo, tucked in an frilly cravat, straightened up an elasticized bow tie and puffed up our “do” as much as hair length would allow, stepping onto that fantasy Harlem Apollo stage in our bedrooms, to an adoring crowd, made up of school friends and peers, miming along with gusto to You Are Everything, nose to nose with the reflection in the mirror. That’s as close as most of us mere mortals get to making classic seventies sweet soul magic.
Whereas on the other hand, a professional singer as talented as Eric Benét has the chops to stand there and singalong out loud to the great Philly-based vocalists of the seventies - Russell Thompkins Jr (The Stylistics), William Hart (The Delfonics) & Ted ‘Wizard’ Mills (Blue Magic) - with the ability to hit note after glorious note. No tux required. Thank god he has the inclination too. On his previous record, 2008’s Love & Life, he attempted his own, brand new, authentic 70’s soul killer with You’re The Only One and was promptly rewarded with a Billboard Top 20 R&B chart placing along with a Grammy nom.
“When you turn on your radio, there’s a void of soul and R&B magic compared to the seventies,” explains Benét, “whereas during my youth it was difficult to find a song that didn’t have that great groove, great vocals and those tight arrangements. It’s frustrating for me now, listening to pop music or what they call R&B today. So I wanted to make a record that pays homage to the brilliance of that time, not that I’m saying that our album is worthy.”
You don’t have to Eric. We’ll say it for you. Benet's new album, Lost In Time, is more than worthy. It’s a contemporary soul masterpiece. And it’s not just the deliciously authentic, orchestra led sugar soul arrangements alá Thom Bell & Bobby Eli that make it so, but also, the lyrical and emotional maturity of a solo artist, writing his songs with personal attachment, sung with the expertise of a performer who knows exactly what makes his audience tick, his warm and expressive tenor voice able to switch to a melodic scream as and when the sweet soul music dictates. It only takes 3 minutes 22 seconds into the new album for Benét to trigger that blue magic, with a sustained falsetto cry “ohhhh, awwwwwwwww”, delivered at the finale of Never Want To Live Without You.
Though it isn't Benét's success alone - the album's real triumph, like all great works of art, is about the collective endeavour. His 5th set for Warner Bros, who have finally achieved redemption - for canning the brilliant, still unreleased 3rd album, Better & Better, the rightful follow up to the platinum A Day The Life (the exec who made that decision “long gone” according to Benét) - and laid out the bread for a long-player drenched in luxurious (expensive) strings and horn arrangements. Including a rhythm section of telepathic 25 to 30 year old hot shots - interestingly drummer John McVicker Jr and bassist Alton Johnson lock in a (Thom) “Bell Beat” on the outstanding version of Gamble & Huff's Wake Up Everybody - letting Benét’s cuz, producer and Milwaukee based secret weapon George Nash Jr loose in the studio. A long-standing collaborator who shared Benét's vision from the start.
“You know George & I are both cut from the same DNA," says Eric. "Because we’re cousins but in so many ways we're brothers because our families lived so close. I’m 8 years younger than George and when I was 10 years old I let him hear some songs I’d be writing and he was really impressed. From that moment on we just started making music together.” Nash has worked with Benét on every album, co-writing some of his very best songs including Spiritual Thang, True To Myself, Love The Hurt Away, Pretty Baby but crucially he was involved in the creation of You’re The Only One. “Eric approached me and said he was thinking about doing a whole album centred on the You’re The Only One era.” Nash recalls. “And I couldn’t wait to get started because I grew up listening to Thomas Bell, Gamble & Huff and artists like The Stylistics, Spinners and Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes.”
Benét: “That was the soundtrack of my peers and my generation. Milwaukee is my city, but do you know it was voted the 2nd most segregated city in the United States? That pretty much rings true to my memory of growing up in the black part of town. We never went to the white side. It was one of the reasons why, as soon as I could and as quick I could I left and here we are in 2011 it’s still the case.” Now Benét mentions it, there weren’t that many black people eating with Fonz at Al’s drive-in in Happy Days. So why go back to record the album there?
“It’s like in my house I have a favourite room where I like to write lyrics. I just go where the vibrations are. All of my first memories are in Milwaukee, the first time I kissed someone, first time I fell in love, first time a life sized cheque turned up from a record company! And I love going back out there to write with George and just hang out with the family. There’s something about being back home which creatively makes me crazy prolific. Before we went in and started writing we listened to 15 records. Philly International, Earth Wind & Fire, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and some old Isaac Hayes and just let it swim around the brain.”
Nash: “I started to formulate some musical ideas and Eric keeps his on a voice recorder, then in just a couple of days we pretty much had skeletons of all the songs on the album. We were on a hot streak!” Nash laughs; Benét picks it up: “We just went into the studio - Bam!! And spit out all of these songs POW, POW, POW, POW! It was great.”
“We could have kept going!” Says Nash
One more hour and they could have written another song as sophisticated as Stir It Up or as delightful as (Nash’s favourite) the Wonder-esque Summer Love featuring Eric’s daughter India. With so many close family members connected with the project does it make it easier (comfortable) or harder (embarrassing) for Benét to bare his soul, lyrically, as he does on songs like the vulnerable Sometimes I Cry? “The lyrical emotional sentiment of a song is usually all me and I think I’ve gotten to the point where I know that when I’ve reached that feeling of embarrassment it’s a barometer for me having some really good stuff,” explains Benét. “So is it embarrassing to expose yourself that much to a family member? Yeah it is, but when you do you know that that you’re on the right track.”
None come more personal that the album opener, the sitar led Never Want To Live Without You, which Eric admitted to having an ulterior motive for writing.
“It was a song written for my fiancé, with pretty exposed feelings about how I felt about her and us being together – yeah pretty real. It was an emotional moment because I actually used the song to propose to her.” Eric you old smoothie. Benét laughs “I try to be every once in awhile.”
To get that Thom Bell feel to the playing on the track George Nash Jr had to school the band a lesson in sugar-nomics. “We played them some of those old soul tracks and tutored them on what we we’re trying to achieve. Then they said “Ok we got it – we can see where you’re going.” Someone who knew exactly what was required was legendary soul music arranger Benjamin Wright, contracted to conduct the orchestra on Lost In Time. Wright couldn’t help notice how well Benét and Nash worked together.
“He called us the unison brothers!” Laughs Benét “he found it comical how we would finish off each other’s musical ideas.” Wright wasn’t the only name involved in the project - Eddie Levert, had one listen to Paid, a song that swipes the groove from (and arguably improves upon) 992 Arguments and signed up, without hesitation. “He said ‘I’m in!’ And his willingness to be a part of the project was really great for us because we definitely had him and The O’Jays in mind when we wrote Paid” Says Nash. Soul heroine Ledisi didn’t even have to listen to her track before she said yes. Had she done, she would have heard the albums uptempo highlight, complete with Vandross style atmos. “We had booked a choir to appear on Wake Up Everybody and asked them to mirror my 3 part harmonies on Good Life too.” Recalls Benét, “Then when it was done we had this huge choir standing around so we just told them to holler like they were having a party and we recorded it. I had to jump in the booth and start whistling and screaming to get them all riled up!”
Benét’s version of Wake Up Everybody (only available in the UK on the iTunes release) was supposed to be the centrepiece of Lost In Time. Nestled snugly between the title track (which with its Stylistics Vs Earth Wind & Fire duel, just edges out the Blue Magic styled Always A Reason as the albums best spoonful of sugar) and Good Life, Wake Up Everybody would have anchored the old-becomes-new concept perfectly. Unfortunately John Legend and The Roots, who used a version as the title cut on their covers album, set their alarm clock earlier and got it out 2 months before. Was there not a temptation to think “fuck it, let’s go head to head?”
“Yeah you know, that was the thought, because I was ready to do exactly that. I said “let’s put it our version out there and if people love it then they love it. Neither one of us wrote the song you know.” But they (the label) were apprehensive, and thought it would be better to forget the whole affair and just move on – only putting it on special releases. That was not my call.” Ok, a step back for Warner’s on the redemption-o-meter.
So what’s next for George Nash Jr? After his success with Benét he must surely have production work offers?
“My goal is to collaborate with other artists in the future but actually, off the cuff – I’ve never had anyone ask me.” Nash laughs with a touch of bemusement, “I can be picky though, because more than anything we’d like to keep our integrity. So the next plan … according to mine and Eric’s last conversation is he wants to do another album like Lost In Time so I’ve just said ‘fine.’” He pauses for moment, “You know I’ve already begun!”
Meanwhile, Benét is looking forward to taking Lost In Time to the stage. “I’m very much looking forward to coming over to the UK and performing. It seems to me that here in the States there is a lot more emphasis on the persona of the recording artist as opposed to the music itself. I really don’t put a whole of effort into the shizzle if you will of what it is to be a recording artist - I’m just all about trying to write great songs and then when I hit the stage I try to put in a strong emotional performance," he pauses, before concluding. "I don’t know, maybe I’m English at heart because the people in the UK have a deeper appreciation of authentic R&B and soul.”
Oh Eric, you do say the sweetest things.