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October 20, 2013

Musical explorer: Quest to see the world is a full-circle journey for Marshall native Chris Bennett

Marshall lies 5,553 miles away from the mountains of Tahiti, far too distant to see from the French Polynesian island paradise.

The small Illinois town can’t be spotted from Germany, either. Or Los Angeles. Or Croatia.

Chris Bennett has performed in all those far-away places, and many others, but her heart needs no GPS to locate her hometown. It’s the place where she grew up, listening to her dad, Judge Caslon Bennett, sing and play piano to his favorite jazz tunes. The place where her mom, Vera, taught music in elementary school. The place where Chris ran her own dance studio as a mere 14-year-old. The place she left as a teenager, full of dreams and ambition, to study dance and music at the University of Illinois, and launch a diverse entertainment career that keeps Bennett, now 65, moving, learning and improving, constantly.

She loves Marshall, still owns 14 acres of land in Clark County, and feels “very blessed to have grown up in a small town.”

Yet, Bennett yearned to experience the world beyond.

“I loved my parents, but I’ve always had a gypsy spirit,” she said earlier this month, referencing a trait perhaps inherited from her grandmother.

Bennett returned to Marshall to perform an Oct. 10 concert in the community’s renovated and historic Harlan Hall.

She sang and played piano, accompanied by guitarist Boots Vaughn, drawing on material from her 12 smooth jazz albums and a lifelong affinity for that musical genre. “I’ve come full circle,” Bennett explained. “I’ve come back to my roots, which are in jazz.”

The roots trace to her father. “He had a gorgeous voice. Totally untrained, but he could sit at the piano and play anything,” she recalled.

Decades later, music critics give Chris similar praise. Scott Yanow of AllMusic.com called her “a versatile singer whose spine-tingling voice generates soft power.” Her most recent album, “Sail Away,” recorded in Tahiti in 2010, pleased reviewer Christopher Loudon of the Jazz Times. “Bennett remains remarkably underappreciated. Her near-vibrato-less voice suggests the crispness of Chris Connor, yet also echoes the dewiness of Doris Day, with just a hint of Julie London smokiness,” Loudon wrote. “Throughout ‘Sail Away,’ Bennett, now age 62 [in 2010], sounds as vibrant and pure as when she first ventured into the jazz arena, and her songwriting skills remain sharply impressive.”

Bennett took that step into jazz and solo work in 1993. It marked a stylistic departure. Still, her early musical career, despite its difference, prepared Bennett to perform alone, center stage.

Her voice, dancing skills and photogenic beauty opened opportunities for Bennett once she moved to California to pursue a graduate degree at UCLA. Singer Jim Nabors chose Bennett, just 23 years old, for his Las Vegas act, which toured nationally. She sang backup for Dean Martin, as well. Then, a talent scout who first discovered Wayne Newton spotted Bennett and offered her the chance to headline her own shows in Thailand. She had to choreograph her dancers and prepare her band’s sets. She began writing her own songs.

A big break was brewing.

Discovering the world

As she toured Europe and the Far East, famed producer and composer Giorgio Moroder caught the blonde singer’s show and invited her to front a German disco band, the hot-selling Munich Machine. Moroder, an industry pioneer sometimes called “the father of disco,” knew the ingredients for creating popular songs. His long list of collaborations includes “Love to Love You, Baby” and “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer in the ’70s. Moroder positioned Bennett as Munich Machine’s lead singer on a new album featuring a dance rendition of the Procol Harum gem, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and a riveting image of her on the cover.

“I was strictly the chick singer then,” Bennett quipped.

Yet, she loved the experience, and Germany. “I was really, for the first time, discovering the world outside my small town,” Bennett said.

Her world soon got even bigger. Casablanca Records signed Bennett to a recording and songwriting contract, and she recorded a duet album with Moroder — the only one he did during his noted disco era — titled “Love’s In You, Love’s In Me” under the name Giorgio & Chris. In 1978, Moroder composed the soundtrack to the film “Midnight Express,” and asked Bennett to write the lyrics to the title track, “(Theme From) Midnight Express,” and sing it. Usually, in collaborative songwriting, Bennett prefers writing the music and leaving the words to a lyricist. This time, the roles were reversed, and it worked.

The film’s true-story plot follows an American college study, Billy Hayes, getting caught and imprisoned in Turkey for trying to bring hashish back to America as he boarded a plane in Istanbul with his girlfriend. He spent nearly five, dark, grueling years in a Turkish prison, before escaping. Bennett pondered the storyline as she prepared to write the theme song’s words. “I can remember thinking all night about writing this from the perspective of [Hayes’] girlfriend,” she said.

One of the closing lines promises, “Until your heart is free to fly, then I will keep the sun for you.”

The soundtrack won the 1979 Academy Award for Best Original Score, and the theme song earned a Grammy Award nomination that same year for Best Composition for a Motion Picture. In February of ’79, she trekked to Los Angeles for the 22nd annual Grammys in the Shrine Auditorium, where CBS broadcast the show and John Denver served as host.

“To get to go to the Grammys in a limo and hang out with the rock stars was pretty heady stuff for a 27-year-old from Marshall,” Bennett recalled.

Though her music resume extends through four decades and packs a vast catalog of compositions and recordings, the “(Theme From) Midnight Express” remains Bennett’s most notable reference point with the listening public. “It’s my biggest claim to fame,” she said. Nonetheless, her other efforts are far from obscure. Following Munich Machine and “Midnight Express,” she provided background vocals for Donna Summer, Rita Coolidge and Johnny Mathis, and had her originals covered by Tina Turner, The Manhattan Transfer, The Three Degrees and Keb Mo.

Turning to her roots

With those strong credentials, Bennett returned to jazz and the spotlight, behind the piano and microphone, on stages from California to Europe.

“My act is similar to Diana Krall’s,” she explained. “She’s a better piano player, but I feel I’m a better performer.”

She hones both skills constantly. Bennett takes weekly lessons in dance and piano, teaches two yoga classes, and has auditioned for recent TV commercials. “I’m in better shape now than I was in my 20s, thanks to yoga,” Bennett said.

New ventures keep coming. This week, she’ll do her first big band concert, backed by an 18-piece ensemble, at the Typhoon in Santa Monica. She’s teamed with three other veteran female session singers — Pattie Brooks, Suzi Lane and Billie Kaman — in a Vegas-style act, Disco Divas of Club Majestic, which could turn into a reality show next year. She also recorded a widely noted duet with Brooks, “Everybody Has The Right,” a marriage equality anthem.

“I feel like I’m really better, but continuing to grow,” Bennett said of her array of projects and travels. “I’ll never stop performing. They’ll have to drag me off the stage with a hook.”

Bennett’s most recent album, “Sail Away,” entered new territory in her songwriting. As a long marriage ended, a friend invited Bennett to house-sit for five weeks in the Tahitian mountains. She wound up writing and recording the CD there.

The emotions from her broken relationship “just poured out” in the music. “I’d never written songs like that,” Bennett said. “This was definitely the most personal album I’d ever done. It was cathartic. Anyone who’s had their heart broken knows.” The title track along with selections “Won’t Let Me Go,” “I Can’t Think About It” and “All For Naught” — all Bennett compositions — reflect that hurt. During the sessions, she “fell in love” with a filmmaker from Paraguay and the tone brightened. “By the time I got to ‘Besame Mucho,’ things were looking up,” she said.

At a performance in Tahiti, an audience member requested the “Midnight Express” theme song. “I hadn’t sung the song in years,” Bennett said.

Likewise, people in Marshall embrace the full spectrum of Bennett’s career. The Oct. 10 concert — a benefit for Harlan Hall — attracted her former teachers, friends and friends of her parents as Bennett sang and played in the 141-year-old building’s opera theater. “People showed up from everywhere,” said Susan Richardson, Harlan Hall director.

Once a year, Bennett returns to Marshall and walks those 14 acres, Richardson said. Bennett likes the chance to be herself, wherever she goes.

“At one point, I thought I wanted to be Madonna,” she said. “But I don’t want that notoriety. I want to be able to go to Walmart in my sweatpants.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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