CHRIS REA-WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BENNY SANTINI?

CHRIS REA-WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BENNY SANTINI?

Musically, Chris Rea was something of a late developer. Chris only bought his first guitar when he was twenty-two. This seemed to give Chris a sense of purpose. Before this he was drifting. 

Chris, who was born Middlesborough, England in March 1951, had drifted between jobs. He’d worked as a labourer, then tried working in his father’s ice-cream shop. However, Chris was restless. He couldn’t settle to the drudgery of everyday life. However, there was thing that Chris lived, music.

Especially the music of  Ry Cooder and Joe Walsh. Their music inspired twenty-two year old Chris Rea to buy his first guitar.

When Chris set out to by his first guitar, there was a problem. Chris was naturally left handed. However, back in the seventies, left handed guitars weren’t as easy to come by. Especially, if you had a limited budget. So, Chris, like many guitarists before him, bought and learnt to play a right handed guitar. 

Soon, Chris was making up for lost time. Before long, Chris had mastered the guitar. He may have been a late developer musically, but Chris wasn’t going to let this stop him. After all, maybe, music, which was one of the loves of Chris Rea’s life offered an escape route from the dead end jobs?

In 1973, Chris Rea joined the Middlesborough group Magdalene. He replaced David Coverdale, who was about to join Deep Purple. David Coverdale’s were big shoes to fill. However, Chris Rea wasn’t fazed and picked up where David Coverdale left off. However, nothing lasts for ever. That was the case with Magdalene. It proved to be a stepping stone for Chris Rea.

Despite things going well for Magdalene, Chris decided to form a new group, Beautiful Losers. This was where Magnet Records discovered Chris Rea in 1974.

Having signed to Magnet Records, Chris Rea released his debut single later in 1974. This was So Much Love. It failed to chart, and proved an inauspicious start to Chris Rea’s solo career. It would be four more years before Chris released his debut album, Whatever Happened To Benny Santini?, which was reissued by Warner Music Japan on 25th February 2015.

During that four year period, Chris continued to hone his sound and songwriting skills. However, the nearest Chris got to a recording studio was working as a session musician. Chris played on Hank Marvin’s 1977 album The Hank Marvin Guitar Syndicate. The same year, Chris was asked to play guitar on Catherine Howe’s The Truth of the Matter E.P. These two sessions would stand Chris Rea in good stead, when he recorded his debut album a year later.

Four years after the release of his debut single So Much Love, Magnet Records thought that it was time for Chris Rea to record his debut album. There was a but. 

Magnet Records wanted Chris to adopt the stage name Benny Santini. They felt Benny Santini had more commercial appeal than Chris Rea. However, Chris wasn’t happy with this idea. He stood his ground, and when the time came to give his debut album a title, Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? seemed apt. Benny Santini was no more. Instead, it was Chris Rea who entered the studio early in 1978.

Chris Rea had penned the ten tracks that became Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? The rhythm section featured drummers Dave Mattacks and Norman Nosebait, bassists Pat Donaldson, Dave Markee and guitarists Paul Keogh and Eddie Guy and Phil Curtis who also played banjo. Rod Argent played synths and piano, while Pete Wingfield played piano and organ. Steve Gregory played saxophone and soprano saxophone. Percussionists included George Woodhead on clams and Frank Ricotti on block, cabasa, congas, shakers and tambourine. Backing vocals came courtesy of Stuart Epps and Chris Rea who added acoustic electric and slide guitar, keyboards and synths. Producer Gus Dudgeon added tambourine and percussion. Once Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? was completed, it was released in June 1978.

Once Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? was completed, Chris Rea had the opportunity to hear the finished album. When Chris heard the final mix of Whatever Happened to Benny Santini?, he’s thought not to have been happy with it. Chris, however, was in between a rock and a hard place. Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? was his debut album, and Gus Dudgeon was a successful producer, who previously, had enjoyed commercial success and critical acclaim with Elton John. For Chris,  it was a disappointing start to his recording career.

Prior to the release of Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? in June 1978, critics had their say on Chris Rea’s debut album. In what was the post punk age, artists like Chris Rea, were the polar opposite to what the critics and cultural commentators deemed fashionable. Artists like Chris Rea, the new breed of critics thought, represented music’s past. Other critics however, were willing to give Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? a fair hearing.

Some critics compared Chris Rea was compared to Joe Cocker. They also acknowledged that Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? was a well crafted album of A.O.R., pop and rock. However, some critics had two  criticisms. The first was that the album’s production was too polished. Chris must have groaned inwardly. He too had had his concerns about Whatever Happened to Benny Santini?’s production. The second criticism was the quality of songs. Some critics described them as a mixed bag. However, one song stood head and shoulders above the rest, Fool (If You Think It’s Over).

Unsurprisingly, Fool (If You Think It’s Over) was chosen as the lead single from Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? Despite its undoubted quality, it failed to chart. However, in America, Fool (If You Think It’s Over) reached number twelve in the US Billboard 100 charts. It also spent three weeks at number one on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Charts. Given the success Fool (If You Think It’s Over), it was rereleased in Britain, reaching number thirty. With Fool (If You Think It’s Over) giving Chris a hit single in America, Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? was released on both sides of the Atlantic and in Europe.

Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? was a bigger success in America, than Britain. It reached number forty-nine in the US Billboard 200 charts. In Britain, Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? wasn’t a commercial success. Neither was the sophomore single Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? However, in America the single reached number seventy one Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? Chris Rea, it seemed, was more popular in America than in Britain.

That’s not surprising. America was made for artists like Chris Rea. A.O.R. was huge, and had stations dedicated to playing nothing but Adult Orientated Rock. Chris with his gravelly, worldweary sound fitted in perfectly. Especially, when he was capable of writing songs like Fool (If You Think It’s Over). However, his critics said that Fool (If You Think It’s Over) was the highpoint of Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? That’s somewhat unfair.

Fool (If You Think It’s Over)  was, and is, a classic track. It’s a stalwart of radio stations on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s the standout track on Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? So, when other tracks are compared to Fool (If You Think It’s Over) it’s no wonder they come up short. However, there’s more to Whatever Happened to Benny Santini? than one song. 

Opening Whatever Happened To Benny Santini?, is the title-track. A firmly strummed guitar sets the scene for blistering, searing guitars. Then the arrangement bursts into life. With the rhythm section driving the arrangement along, washes of Chris’ slide guitar and later, the sultriest of saxophone accompanies his vocal. It’s powerful, as he wonders: “Whatever Happened To Benny Santini?” Benny was meant to be contender? Not in Chris’ eyes. Chris paints a picture of the manufactured pop star he was determined not to be, “designed and ready to be sold.” That wasn’t for Chris, whose parting shot was: “they don’t know it all.

Urgent, rocky guitars open The Closer You Get. They’re joined by the rhythm section and Chris’ swaggering, strutting vocal. It’s full of innuendo and bravado, and augmented by some boogie woogie piano. Later, when  Chris’ vocal drops out, he unleashes a blistering solo. With the rhythm section and piano for company Chris and his tight band power there way through this fusion of blues rock.

Because Of You is the polar opposite of the two previous tracks. It’s a piano lead ballad, where a lovestruck Chris delivers a  beautiful, heartfelt ballad. His life has been changed, and it’s down to the woman he’s met. He’s thankful and promises to: “pay you back some day.” With a piano plays and a spacious bass for company the understated arrangement unfolds. Then when it gets to the bridge, it’s all change shimmering synths, searing, rocky guitars and stabs of piano accompany Chris heartfelt, hopeful vocal on this beautiful ballad.

As the guitars open Dancing With Charlie you realise they’re reminiscent of The Closer You Get. The only difference is there quieter. Not for long. Soon, an urgency shines through. The rhythm section, blistering guitars and percussion combine, as Chris and his band veer between seventies A.O.R., blues and rock. Chris tells the story of Charlie, whose life was transformed with one roll of a dice. “Treated like a sinner, no one give a damn, till Charlie through two sixes, now he’s got them in his hands.” Anger seems to fill Chris’ voice, as he sings of the hypocrites and hangers-on. When Chris’ vocal drops out, pounding drums, percussion  and a braying saxophone take centre-stage. As Chris returns so does the frustration and anger, as delivers the lines: “and they were waiting in line, to go dancing with Charlie.”

Just like the previous track, Chris dawns the role of storyteller on Bows and Bangles. This time, there’s no happy ending. A slow, understated arrangement accompanies Chris as he tells the story of a young woman, who dreams of a better life. Chiming guitars, washes of Hammond organ, piano and ominous drums accompany Chris as he sings: “she hated the smell of typing paper, office so smokey and dry.” So, she “married a guy with prospects, and so became his wife.” Still, she’s not happy, forever dreaming of being a movie star during this wistful sounding song.

Fool (If You Think It’s Over) was the centrepiece of Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? Lo-fi drums set the scene, before percussion and keyboards ensure the arrangement shuffles along. This is perfect for Chris’ vocal. He empathises at his newly heartbroken friend’s plight. However, as lush strings sweep in, a piano, vibes and percussion play Chris offers hope for the future, and love. The finishing touch is the soprano saxophone. It plays as Chris sings: “I’ll buy your first good wine, we’ll have a real good time…fool if you think it’s over, it’s just began.” A combination of some beautiful lyrics, the best arrangement on Fool (If You Think It’s Over) and Chris’ heartfelt, hopeful vocal make this is a stonewall A.O.R. classic.

Three Angels begins with the familiar flurry of guitars, before Chris, accompanied by the rhythm section, delivers a vocal powerhouse. His vocal is powerful, emotive and needy, as he delivers another cinematic sounding track. It’s as if Chris has been inspired by Joe Walsh and J.J. Cale, as he paints pictures. Behind him, his band help Chris combine elements of Americana,  rock and country.

The tempo drops on Just One of These Days, a country-tinged ballad. Just the rhythm section and country guitars accompany a lovestruck Chris, who at last has found happiness. They’re the perfect accompaniment for Chris on this joyous, hopeful ballad. That’s apparent from lyrics like: “I’ve been thinking, how much happier I’ve been, since you came around.” 

Standing In Your Doorway is another cinematic sounding track where Chris sings of love lost. It’s a true hidden gem from Chris Rea’s back catalogue. With guitars, the arrangement and later, an accordion for company, Chris delivers a rueful, wistful vocal. Enviously, he delivers the line: “oh that lucky, oh that lucky man, who is standing in your doorway now.”

Fires Of Spring, a bluesy rocker closes Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? From the get-go, the rhythm section join forces with searing, blistering guitars to drive the arrangement along. Chris and his band become on. He unleashes some slide guitar and delivers a lived-in, worldweary vocal. Here, Chris tells the story of a free spirit, “your phoenix flies you high on crazy wings, as your caught in the Fires Of Spring.” 

When Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? was released in June 1978, it was the polar opposite of what was deemed fashionable. This was the age of post punk. A new breed of critics, musicians and music lovers perceived everything from singer-songwriters to prog-rock and rock as music’s past. They were seen as dinosaurs, no longer relevant to music’s future. For many artists, including Chris Rea, this impacted upon their careers.

The new breed of music critic didn’t give many artists a fair hearing, purely because of the music they released. Recently, one high profile critic admitted he didn’t even listen to some singles and albums before writing a review. With this happening, some artists didn’t stand a chance. Then when their albums were reviewed, they often received disparaging reviews. To some extent, Chris Rea’s debut album suffered from “the slings and arrows of outrageous” critics. It’s no wonder that in Britain, Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? wasn’t a commercial success.

Over the Atlantic, Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? was a commercial success. Partly, that was down to the commercial success of Fool (If You Think It’s Over), Chris’ debut single. It reached number twelve in the US Billboard 100 charts and number one in the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts. For Chris this was the perfect start to his career in America. His music seemed made for A.O.R. radio. 

That’s where Gus Dudgeon’s polished production came into its own. It was suited for A.O.R. radio, which coast to coast in America, had a huge audience. Ironically, Chris didn’t like the polished production on Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? However, it had proved hugely popular in America, reaching number forty-nine in the US Billboard 200 charts. Despite its success in America, Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? wasn’t a success in Britain.

Part of the problem, critics said, was that Fool (If You Think It’s Over) stood head and shoulders above the rest. Other songs, the critics said lacked the quality of Fool (If You Think It’s Over). They were, the critics said, a mixed bag. Then there was the polished production, which the critics, just like Chris, didn’t like. With all this going against it, the critics in  Britain in 1978 weren’t fans of Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? However, thirty-seven years later, Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? is a better album than critics would have you believe.

While Fool (If You Think It’s Over) stood head and shoulders above other songs, there was much more to Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? than one song. Chris was at his best on the ballads, including Because Of You, Bows and Bangles and Standing In Your Doorway. Then when Chris and his band kick loose on Whatever Happened To Benny Santini?, The Closer You Get and Dancing With Charlie you hear another side to Chris Rea. However, regardless of whether it’s ballads or rocky tracks, Chris dawns the role of storyteller.

Over the ten tracks on Whatever Happened To Benny Santini?, which was reissued by Warner Music Japan on 25th February 2015, Chris Rea introduces you to a cast of characters. This includes gamblers, losers, lovers and those that have loved and lost. They play their part in Whatever Happened To Benny Santini?, a well crafted, polished album, where elements of A.O.R., blues, country, pop and rock sit side-by-side. Whatever Happened To Benny Santini? Chris Rea’s debut album, was the album that launched Chris Rea’s five decade career. 

Seven years later, in 1985, and Chris Rea made a commercial breakthrough with his seventh album, Shamrock Diaries. At last, Chris Rea was enjoying success in his home country. Previously, Chris Rea had enjoyed commercial success in America, and then Europe. However, at home, Chris Rea was still an unknown quantity. Not any more. 1985s Shamrock Diaries transformed Chris Rea’s career. Right through the rest of the eighties and the nineties, Chris Rea was one of the biggest names in music. Sadly, tragedy struck for Chris Rea in 2001.

In 2001, Chris Rea was diagnosed as having pancreatic cancer. Thankfully, one of music’s survivors pulled through. Since then, Chris was collaborated with other artists, briefly retired and made a welcome return to music. Thirty-seven years after the release of his  debut album Whatever Happened To Benny Santini?, Chris Rea’s career is still going strong, and many still wonder Whatever Happened To Benny Santini?

CHRIS REA-WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BENNY SANTINI?

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