In late 1973, my mother was tending bar in a little Chicago neighborhood tap. One evening she came home raving about a new up-tempo version of T-Bone Walker’s immortal “Stormy Monday” that was burning up the joint’s jukebox. Eventually she made off with that precious 45 for me. I could see why she dug it so much. Not only did it swing with a vengeance, it was by a soulful singer sporting a set of richly burnished baritone pipes who was so hip that he only needed one name. That was my introduction to Latimore.
I wasn’t alone. “Stormy Monday” was Latimore’s first national hit, though he’d been recording down in Miami since 1966. But he was just getting started. Soul stardom enveloped Latimore, thanks to his 1974 R&B chart-topper “Let’s Straighten It Out” and a parade of followup hits. All that success has rendered the keyboard-playing singer a chitlin’ circuit favorite ever since. He shares an all-star bill on August 26 at the Country Club Hills Theater that also includes Bobby Rush, Denise LaSalle, and Enchantment. Like Rush and LaSalle, Latimore defies pigeonholing. Is he a soul singer steeped in blues, or a blues singer blessed with an uncommon amount of soul?
“It’s difficult to categorize me a lot of times, because some people think, ‘Well, he’s not bluesy enough.’ And then somebody from the other side will say, ‘Well, he’s too bluesy!’ But see, I was born and raised up in the blues,” says Latimore. “Everything I do, it’s going to have some blues overtones and blues undertones. It’s going to be there, because it’s me. So I can’t say that I’m a blues singer, but I’m a singer who can sing the blues.”
Latimore is also one of the newest members of the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, having been inducted in May. “Hey, man, it feels great after all this time that I’ve been out here,” he says. “To be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, that’s quite an honor. It got me before I got below the grass!”
He’s not resting on his considerable laurels. A Taste of Me: Great American Songs, on the Essential Media label, finds Latimore wrapping his vocal cords around chestnuts culled from several generations of the Great American Songbook rather than sticking with blues. He tackles “You Are So Beautiful,” “Smile,” “The Very Thought Of You,” and “Cry Me A River” with the same smooth confidence he’s long displayed on his own compositions.
“It was the idea of my friends, Ish Ledesma and Steve Alaimo. They talked to me about it and asked me if I would be interested in doing it, because I’ve done those things before, but never recorded any of those things. He said, ‘Well, why don’t you try it? Let’s just experiment with it here and see if it comes out,” says Latimore. “They had a whole list that they came up with, and they asked if there was anything in there that I would like to do. So I picked them all that I was going to do. Ish is the one that gave me that ‘A Taste Of Me (Sabor A Mi).’ It’s a Spanish song. He wanted me to do that, so I said, ‘Hey, I’ll do it!’ I picked all the other things: ‘At Last,’ ‘What A Difference A Day Makes,’ ‘Since I Fell For You,’ and those things. I always did like those songs.
“When I was working locally around Miami with my band, we always did a couple of standards on the show, and then we’d get into the dance mode,” says Latimore. “On the slow dances, we would sometimes do the standards, the slow standards. It was something that we enjoyed doing. And I used to do things like ‘Fly Me To the Moon’ and all that. I used to do all that stuff. So it was a pleasure to kind of reach back. And it wasn’t an uncomfortable thing for me. It’s kind of a pleasure for me to do that.”
Latimore’s professional association with producers Ledesma and Alaimo harks back to the days when they all recorded for Miami entrepreneur Henry Stone’s family of labels. The Cuban-born Ledesma fronted a band called Foxy that scored a 1978 R&B chart-topper for Stone’s Dash label with their “Get Off.” Latimore and Alaimo first joined forces in the mid-‘60s, when Alaimo was a livewire Miami performer with several hits under his belt, notably 1963’s “Every Day I Have To Cry” for Chicago’s Checker label, as well as a co-starring on Dick Clark’s daily rock and roll television show Where the Action Is.
“They ended up getting my band to back him on appearances. I went a whole bunch of places with him,” says Latimore. “I used to emcee and open the show and introduce him.” Little did the teenaged viewers of Where the Action Is realize that when Alaimo performed on the show, they were hearing Latimore’s band backing the young singer instead of the Birdwatchers, the white group miming their instruments in the background. “Me, (drummer) Freddie Scott, and two more guys,” he reveals, “we recorded the tracks, and they got to be seen. They didn’t put us on there.”
Born in Charleston, Tennessee, Benny Latimore first sang there in church. “We went to Sunday school,” he says. “We went to church every Sunday, and that was just a part of our life. I got to singing in the choir. My mother sang in the senior choir, and I started singing in the junior choir. That was my first experience of singing in front of people.” For blues listening, the lad turned to clear-channel WLAC out of Nashville. “I used to sneak and listen to it in the bed with the little old transistor radio. It was crackling and doing all kinds of stuff, trying to pick up WLAC,” he says. “I used to get that and listen to them: John Richbourg, that’s John R., and Hoss Allen, the guy with the crewcut, big old guy. Everybody used to think that these guys were black guys. When I got to meet those guys, I said, ‘These guys are all white guys!’”
Latimore’s collegiate curriculum flew out the window when he snagged a gig in Nashville with saxist Louis Brooks’ locally popular combo. “I was just a kid. I dropped out of college to be the vocalist with his band. It was great. I learned a lot from them. All the guys in the band were old enough to be my father. They taught me a lot. They taught me a lot about the respect of the business,” he says. “Some of that’s carried over to me now. Always be on time, always do the best that you can do when you get on that stage, because it has nothing to do with you and the promoter, with you and anybody else, your personal problems or anything. Leave all of that. You get on the stage, and you do the best you can every time you get up there.”
Brooks had been recording for Ernie Young’s Excello label—home to Lightnin’ Slim, Slim Harpo, Arthur Gunter, and Lazy Lester—since 1954. With Earl Gaines fronting the band, they’d scored a 1955 R&B smash with “It’s Love Baby (24 Hours A Day).” But Brooks’ plans to launch Latimore’s recording career the same way didn’t pan out. “We went to record,” he says. “I went to the restroom and I came out, and I passed by the office, and the old man that we recorded for (Young), he used to chew on his cigar all the time. And I heard him and Louis in the office talking. Ernie said, ‘That boy can’t sing! I’m not gonna finish this.’ (Louis) said, ‘But Mister Ernie, I think he does pretty good. He’s a little green, but he’s coming right along!’ (Ernie said), ‘He can’t sing. He can’t sing.’ I mean, he just didn’t like my singing. And Louis was trying to plead my case.” Brooks was forced to explain the unfortunate situation to Latimore.
“Louis said, ‘Well, Mister Ernie don’t like the song, so we’re gonna regroup and we’re gonna come back at a later time. But he didn’t like the song too well.’ I don’t know what song it was we were trying to record. I can’t remember. Anyway, Louis never told me that that’s what he said, and I never told him that I heard the old man say that. I’m telling you, it knocked me down. It knocked me for a loop. All it did, though, was really inspire me that I was going to prove him wrong.”
Latimore started doubling on piano with Brooks’ band. “I never had the training, but I played by ear. We always had a piano at our house, and I fooled around with it. My sisters took music lessons, and I didn’t. I was so interested in sports, this was just something that was a hobby for me. But I had a talent for being able to hear things and sit down and kind of pick it out,” he says. “Louis said, ‘I want you to play. You be the keyboard player for the band.’ I said, ‘What? I don’t know if I can handle that or not.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll help you.’ He would take me to his house, and he would let me sit down there and go through the chord changes and everything, all of the songs that we did on our little gigs, all the songs that were in our repertoire, he’d go over with me. One at a time, over and over and over and over again.”
Those newly developed piano skills came in handy when Latimore hit the road as accompanist to deep-voiced Nashville singer Joe Henderson, who nailed a 1962 blockbuster with the relaxed “Snap Your Fingers.” “He said, ‘If I make it, I’m gonna give you a job.’ We all had these dreams about trying to make it in the music business. He said, ‘If you make it, you give me a job!’ Well, he came out with that ‘Snap Your Fingers,’ and it was a smash hit. It was a pop hit and an R&B hit, everything across the board. And he said, ‘Well, you ready?’” says Latimore. “I said, ‘Well, okay!’ That’s when I gave Louis the notice that I was leaving.”
“That’s when I first left Nashville. Went all over the country. I stayed with (Joe) a couple of years, and then his thing started to die down. In the meantime, we had been in Miami for a show. After the show, we went to this club, and I got on a talent show. Probably would have won it, but they disqualified me because they said, ‘You’re not amateur. You’re professional. You’re on the road.’ And the man that owned the club said, ‘If you ever need a job, give me a call.’ I always wanted to be around Miami. I always had this desire to live there. When things got a little bit bad with Joe, I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna call this man up and see if he’s serious.’ A man named Clyde Killens that ran a club called the Knight Beat, which was the main club in Miami. Called him up, he said, ‘Okay, I’ll fly you down.’ He flew me in, and I said, ‘Well, you know, I’m just gonna be here for the summer. I’ll stay here until the winter is over in the other areas, and when summer comes, I’m leaving.’” His plans soon changed. Latimore has lived in sunny Florida ever since.
Henry Stone owned Miami’s leading record distributorship and a vast array of small record labels (Sam & Dave made their debut on wax on one of them). Stone knew talent when he heard it, bringing the young singer aboard his Blade label near the end of 1966 to cut the self-penned “Rain From the Sky.” “Henry had a little studio,” he says. “He came to this place where we played a lot of times, and he liked the way we played. He got us to be musicians and back up some of the people that were on his little labels. He had a distributorship, but he had a little studio there where he started doing things.” Billed as Benny Latimore, he cut seven more singles between 1967 and 1970 for Stone’s Dade imprint, including a remake of Sam & Dave’s “It Was So Nice While It Lasted,” the Doc Pomus-penned “The Power And The Glory,” and a cover of Johnny Nash’s easy-flowing “Let’s Move And Groove Together” that recently surfaced on an episode of the popular TV program Orange is the New Black. None of them made it too far outside Florida. He also did a lot of session work for Stone, playing keyboards on Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman” and Gwen McCrae’s “Rockin’ Chair” among many other hits.
Following a powerful “If You Were My Woman” that was a gender-switched 1971 rendition of Gladys Knight & the Pips’ smash “If I Were Your Woman,” Latimore dispensed with his first name altogether. “All my buddies and most everybody at school called me Latimore, or Lat.,” he says. “People started calling me that, so I said, ‘Well, you know, I’ll just use my last name.” Along with his truncated stage name came the eponymous 1973 album on Stone’s Glades label that contained his breakthrough. Everyone thought the album’s lead track, the Al Kooper-penned-and-co-produced (with Alaimo) “Jolie,” would set the charts ablaze, but it failed to ignite. Tucked away at the close of the album’s side two was Latimore’s jazz-inflected reading of “Stormy Monday.” E. Rodney Jones, program director of Chicago’s mighty WVON radio, played a major role in making it a national hit.
“I guess he just put it on to listen to himself, and he liked it. And he said, ‘I’m gonna put this on the air!’ He put it on the air, and his board lit up, people calling in and saying, oh, they like that! So he played it again. And they liked it, and he played it again. And he called Henry Stone and said, ‘Henry, that “Stormy Monday,” that’s the record right there! You need to put that out as a single!’ So he put that out as a single, and it just went crazy in Chicago,” says Latimore. “It was mostly the larger cities in the Midwest, and then out on the Coast, out in San Francisco and Los Angeles and all that. It did really good in Detroit and Cleveland and around up there.” Part of the record’s charm was Latimore’s use of the melodica, a wind-blown keyboard instrument that was practically unknown at the time. “I used to play it in the clubs all the time,” he says. “I don’t do it anymore because those melodicas, they have reeds in them, and they go out of tune.”
After that, Latimore wrote his own hits—none bigger than the smoldering soul ballad “Let’s Straighten It Out,” which topped the R&B hit parade in November of 1974 and made impressive pop inroads as well. “It’s from personal and vicarious experience. People tell me things. People talk to me all the time, and over the years I’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk to a lot of people. And they tell me about their personal relationships and all this stuff,” he says. “The song, it just sort of flowed out. Everybody’s got to straighten out something sometime, no matter how old they are, how young they are, whether they’re married, single, divorced, engaged, or shackin’—you’ve got to straighten out something. You’re gonna have some problems, and it ain’t gonna ever be solved until you sit down and talk about it.”
Latimore’s 1975 followup “Keep The Home Fire Burnin’” (which he wrote with producer Alaimo) was also huge, as was his self-penned “Something ‘Bout ‘Cha” the next year. Even though much of Stone’s ‘70s empire was based on the disco rhythms of George McCrae and KC & the Sunshine Band. Latimore registered his displeasure with his ’79 hit “Discoed To Death.” “In clubs where we used to gig every night, you’ve got a guy in there playing records every night,” he recalls. “They’re playing disco, disco, disco, disco.”
Soon disco beats were fading fast, as did Stone’s self-contained Miami empire. Latimore moved over to Malaco Records in 1982. “One of the promotion guys at Malaco, Dave Clark, he had been after me a long time,” he says. “(Dave told me), ‘Man, you ought to come to Malaco!’” Latimore stayed with the Jackson, Miss.-based label for over a decade, picking up a new nickname, the Silver Fox, due to his flowing gray coiffure. Z.Z. Hill, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Johnnie Taylor, and Little Milton struck paydirt time and again at Malaco, but it was somewhat tougher sledding for Latimore.
“Those guys treated me great, friendly and stuff, but I was going through a thing,” he says, “I was in a slump, really, as far as writing was concerned. And they did something that kind of exacerbated that whole situation. They said, ‘We want you write us a “Straighten It Out!”’ Alas, classics like that often come along only once in a lifetime. “Let’s Straighten It Out” remains Latimore’s signature song (he revisits it on A Taste of Me along with another of his Glades hits, “Dig A Little Deeper”), and he’s still happy to sing it for his legion of fans.
“I enjoy being onstage. The work part is the logistics and all that stuff, getting from here to there and upstairs, that’s the work right there. Dealing with different people, and sometimes unscrupulous promoters, and people after you about this and that and the other. So that’s the work part. But on the stage to me, that’s part of the pay. And I still enjoy it. Every time I get on the stage, it was something that I was meant to do. I guess that’s why I still do it. As long as I can do it and be credible, and feel like I’m doing a good job, I’ll do it.”
Interviewer Bill Dahl is a lifelong Chicago resident who began writing about music professionally in 1977. He’s written for Vintage Rock, Goldmine, Living Blues, Blues Revue, Blues Music Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the Reader, and is the author of The Art of the Blues, a 2016 book published by University of Chicago Press, and 2001’s Motown: The Golden Years (Krause Publications). Bill was awarded the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in journalism in 2000.