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INTERVIEW WITH CARLA BENSON

From our Soul Express Archives, originally published in our issue 1/2004

A caravan of highly-respected musicians and recent Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winners arrived in Helsinki February the 7th this year.  The six remaining Funk BrothersJack Ashford, Bob Babbitt, Joe Hunter, Uriel Jones, Joe Messina and Eddie Willis (see our feature in the # 4/2002 issue) – gave – us a night to remember by playing twenty-three of the hundreds of songs they contributed to in Motown’s heyday in the 60s and early 70s.  For vocals in Helsinki they had Steve Winwood, Billy Preston, the soulful Johnny Ingram (who delivered Uptight, Reach Out, I’ll Be There, It’s A Shame, My Girl, For Once In My Life, I Was Made To Love Her), but the leading lady of the night was Carla Benson.  Her repertoire consisted of My Baby Loves Me, Heatwave, Baby I Need Your Loving, What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted, I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Stop! In The Name Of Love, When I’m Gone and Needle In A Haystack.  She, of course, was also an integral part of the finale, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, and the encore, (I Know) I’m Losing You. 

  Ever since shooting of the movie, Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, Carla has been a part of the Funk Brothers entourage, but her professional singing history goes back to more than thirty years.  Carla was born in Camden, New Jersey.  “My mother and father were musicians, but at the time in the States music was not an option for them, so they became teachers – which I’m also, a music teacher, in my other life.”  Carla names Leontyne Price, a classical singer, Sarah Vaughan, early Aretha Franklin (before Respect) and Patti Labelle as her early influences.

  In our recent Spinners story Thom Bell told us: ” (In 1972) I needed background singers, and my first wife told me that there were decent singers at Glassboro State Teachers College in New Jersey, which is not too far from Philadelphia.  All of them were studying music to become music teachers and performers.  They sounded fantastic.  From that moment on I used them all the time on every act and group.”

  Carla: ”At the time I was a music major.  I was always singing, and I was following in my parents’ footsteps, because they were teachers, so teaching is like a family business.  So I was at school studying to be a teacher, and Barbara Ingram, who is my first cousin, called me.  She was friends with Thom Bell.  Thom had called her and said ‘do you know two other girls?  You could make a lot of money’, so Tommy was the reason we got together.”

  Known as The Sweethearts Of Sigma or simply The Sweeties, the trio of Carla Benson, Barbara Ingram and Yvette L. Benton could best be described as the ”The Sweet Inspirations of the 70s”, since they are the background vocalists on dozens and dozens of Philly and New York recordings in the 70s – not unlike the Sweet Inspirations, who were heavily used for background purposes in studios in the 60s; not to mention their own recording career.  The Sweethearts’ voices can be heard on numerous Philly and disco hits by such artists as the Spinners, the Trammps, the Stylistics, Bunny Sigler, the O’Jays, Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass, McFadden & Whitehead, Archie Bell & the Drells, Lou Rawls, Bell & James, Blue Magic, Jerry Butler, Major Harris, Eddie Holman, Phyllis Hyman, Shirley Jones, Barbara Mason, Melba Moore, Dexter Wansel, Johnny Mathis, the Jacksons, Atlantic Starr, Dionne Warwick, Claudja Barry, Jean Carn, Luther Vandross, Ronnie Dyson, Loleatta Holloway etc., etc…

  ”We were not credited on a lot of disco hits.  There was a time, when we said ‘if we have to say one more time WHOOOAA, we’re gonna scream’.  Every disco track had that on it.  We did Grace JonesI Need A Man, we did Tell Me Why on MFSB, Salsoul Orchestra… We did a lot of ghost work on those disco things, where it’s us and not the artist that’s credited.  A lot of them are actually our vocals.”  One famous example was Ritchie Family’s Brazil in 1975, which Jacques Morali cut with Carla, Barbara and Yvette, and only after it became a hit did they gather a group of three other girls to carry on from there.  ”Our first session was Pool Of Bad Luck for Joe Simon” (in 1972).

  Mainly the Sweeties worked with Thom Bell and Gamble & Huff.  ”We worked with a lot of different producers and different producers want different things, but Tommy Bell always knew exactly what he wanted for every second.  Some producers gave us a lot of freedom.  They would say ‘do the background’.  But Tommy knew exactly what he wanted and he respected our musicianship, because we can read.  A lot of vocalists can’t read music, but I always could, because I was trained to become a classical singer.  We could read and our ears were very quick.  We were very fast, and the blend we had was just one of my greatest joys.  Tommy respected us.  He knew what he wanted and he knew we could give it to him, so it was very easy.  We called him our Godfather.  Tommy was a lot of fun.  Gamble was more serious.”

  ”With Tommy usually the tracks were already there, even strings and horns.  A lot of times background was the last thing, because a lot of times the producers wanted us to sing a string or horn line at the same time, so a lot of times everything was there except us – maybe a tambourine would come behind us.  Usually the track was about 80-90 % finished by the time we were added to it.  Maybe the vocal was not complete.  A lot of vocalists wanted to sing using the background for an inspiration, so we still had a rough track.”

  ”We were mainly working in Philadelphia and New York – occasionally in L.A. – because the producers would come to us.  That’s the only reason.  I think it was cheaper to bring their tracks to us than to house three women somewhere else.  We worked with a lot of producers.  That’s all we did exclusively for ten years.  In the 70s we stayed in the studio.  We didn’t even want to go on the road.  Barbara and I had young children, so we preferred to stay home.  We liked what we were doing and we were making enough money.  There were days, when we had three sessions in one day.  We would start ten o’clock in the morning and often it would be midnight, before we got home.”

  ”In the 80s we were on the road with Patti LaBelle, five years at the most.  That kind of wore us out, and after we left Patti I went to a solo career.  Barbara was very ill.  She passed in 1994.  Yvette went into the classroom, and I had another son, so I kind of took off to be with my children.  Today Yvette is the regional director for South Jersey Head Start, which is a government pre-school program.  She directs all the Head Starts in all of South Jersey, which is a huge area.”

  During her career Carla hasn’t released any solo records under her own name.  ”People who work at the frontline have to pay.  I didn’t want to pay that price.  I was making enough money, and as long as I’m singing that’s all I need.  It’s easier for me just to sing and go home without having the pressure other people need to have.”

  Carla has performed in numerous plays (Dreamgirls, Ain’t Misbehavin’ etc.), on TV, in a couple of movies (such as Beverly Hills Cop) and her soprano can be enjoyed also in commercials.  ”Now I’m a music teacher in high school in Camden, when I’m not with the Funk Brothers.”

Heikki Suosalo


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