When you’re listening to a song about somewhere, your reaction to it is inevitably coloured by whether you know the place in real life. And by how well you know it. To appreciate some songs maybe it’s better not to know somewhere too well, but just to have an idea of it. Songs glorifying London don’t work on me – I’ve lived there, worked there, studied there. I know it too well. I can get sentimental about places where important things have happened to me. I can smile at the memories of little backwaters I can pretend to myself only I know about. I can appreciate the little details noticed and included by a writer who knows whereof they sing. But for the most part, any song that finds romance in London isn’t aimed at me.
New York, though – that’s another matter. I eat up songs about New York. Never been there. One day I might, although I do worry that no version could ever be as good as the one put in my head by Odyssey’s Native New Yorker. Nothing could be that good, that sophisticated, streetwise, worldly. Certainly I couldn’t.
Laurel Canyon, Woodstock, Maxwell Street, Beale Street – I have ideas and images about all these places that songs put there. Georgia, too, a place that has done pretty well by songwriters, as perhaps any state that has given the world James Brown, Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, Otis Redding, OutKast, the Allman Brothers and R.E.M. should do.
Of course, Rainy Night in Georgia has become a standard since Tony Joe White wrote it in 1962. It had to. A cynical soul might conclude that it was designed to. It’s a song you hear often, tackled by singers great and indifferent. And Rod Stewart, too. In Britain, it seems, you’re likely to hear Randy Crawford’s 1981 version, with its plastic backing. You might hear Brother Ray’s over-egged, rather hammy version. You certainly won’t hear Tennessee Ernie Ford’s sepulchral country-baritone rendition (it’s great, though!). But the one you want to hear – and too seldom do – is the 1970 Jerry Wexler-produced recording by Brook Benton that popularised the song in the first place.
Benton had had number-one R&B hits in 1959 and 1960, and Rainy Night saw him return to the top of the R&B charts a decade later, still only 39, but with a more authoritative gravelly voice, perfect for the late-hour weariness of this kind of material.
There’s always a danger when a singer gets hold of a standard (or one in waiting) that in trying to rise to the material, they become stilted, mannered and singerly. Perhaps because the song was still just Rainy Night in Georgia and not yet Rainy Night in Georgia that Benton’s performance retains a predominantly soft-voiced intimacy, quite the best vocal anyone who’s tried to tackle the song has delivered.