In the 1970s, KC & the Sunshine Band and George McCrae recorded in Miami, but the bustling hit factory that launched them produced more than disco stars—it also gave the world Latimore, the sensuous soul-blues singer who broke out with a swinging cover of the blues classic “Stormy Monday” and followed it with a sultry, slow-simmering ballad of his own, the 1974 R&B chart topper “Let’s Straighten It Out.”
Ever since then, he’s had one leg in the blues and the other in southern soul—not that it’s hurt him commercially. “After all this time that I’ve been out here, it’s difficult to categorize me a lot of times, because some people think, ‘Well, he’s not bluesy enough,'” says Latimore. “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.”
Sat 6/8, 5:15 PM, Jay Pritzker Pavilion
That was in Charleston, Tennessee, where a young Benny Latimore sang in his church choir. He later dropped out of college after he snagged a gig singing with Louis Brooks’s R&B combo in Nashville. On that job he began doubling on piano. “I never had the training, but I played by ear,” Latimore says. “We always had a piano at our house, and I fooled around with it.” That put him in excellent position to join the band of deep-voiced Nashville R&B crooner Joe Henderson, who’d just scored a hit in 1962 with “Snap Your Fingers.”
When that work dried up, Latimore took a Miami club owner up on his offer of a nightclub residency and settled down—he’s lived in Florida ever since. He began recording for producer Henry Stone in 1966, including plenty of session work—he played keyboards on blockbusters such as Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman” and Gwen McCrae’s “Rockin’ Chair.”
National hits initially proved elusive, but in late 1973 Latimore had his first big success as a vocalist (dispensing with his last name) with his out-of-left-field remake of “Stormy Monday” for Stone’s Glades label. Chicago disc jockey E. Rodney Jones, program director at WVON radio, played a major role in making a national hit out of what was originally intended to be an album track.
“I guess he just put it on to listen himself, and he liked it. And he said, ‘I’m going to put this on the air!’ He put it on the air, and his board lit up,” says Latimore. “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.”
A few months later, “Let’s Straighten It Out” rendered Latimore a full-fledged R&B luminary. “A lot of things inspired it. Some of my own personal experiences, and some vicarious experiences,” he says. “I’ve learned to listen to a lot of people, listen to what they think about this or that or the other. I don’t know, I guess I’m one of these people that people talk to. And they tell me about problems that they’re having. Sometimes their personal problems.”
After that, hits came in abundance for Latimore for the rest of the 70s, notably “Keep the Home Fire Burnin'” in 1975 and “Somethin’ ‘Bout ‘Cha” the following year. He even dared to poke a little wry fun at Stone’s principal stock-in-trade with his ’79 hit “Discoed to Death.” “In clubs where we used to gig every night, you had a guy in there playing records every night,” he remembers. “They were playing disco, disco, disco, disco.”
Disco died, but Latimore persevered—even after Stone’s empire bit the dust in the early 80s. He remains open to stylistic experimentation. On his 2017 album, A Taste of Me: Great American Songs (Essential Media), the keyboardist caresses venerable chestnuts from several generations of the Great American Songbook, among them “Smile,” “The Very Thought of You,” “Cry Me a River,” and “You Are So Beautiful”—and no matter the material, his pipes display the same velvet-lined contours he’s long brought to his blues and soul excursions.
“I still enjoy it,” says Latimore. “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.” v