35. Nobody Knows Me Like You – Benny Hester
NOBODY KNOWS ME LIKE YOU (1981)
Benny Hester’s classic “Nobody Knows me Like You” is the very best Adult Contemporary pop album in the history of Christian Music!
There will be other album that are classified as AC or pop higher on this list, but most of the albums were not really “current,” commercial vehicles. They appealed to a pop market, but were not actually purely pop music for the day. But NKMLY was in a class all by itself. All the while the CCM market was discovering they had a treasure in Benny Hester the artist, who, over the years, has not only delivered memorable songs, but actual classics that changed and shaped the CCM landscape. Most artists would be honored to have one song that could be listed amongst the greatest in the history of the genre, while Hester has a handful!
Long before he made a mockery of radio chart records with “When God Ran,” has had made a very potent career of not just brilliant hits, but overwhelming good albums within his genre. Borrowing liberally from the hit music makes of the late 70’s and early 80’s (Hall & Oates, Christopher Cross, Bee Gee’s, Elton John), Hester mastered his songwriting craft early and never slowed down. He was driven to be a recognized artist, all the while he was driven to express his faith in original and honest ways.
Unlike the vast majority of his peers, Hester did not release an album every year like clockwork. Often there were a few years between releases and this gave him the opportunity to create great collections of well-written pop music. But no album would surpass his third (second CCM) album.
With the album (and many albums like it) it is often the backstory that makes the album so intriguing and lasting.
In the late 70’s Hester had record a series of songs and was getting nowhere with record labels. His debut (mainstream) release owns a tragic story and has become a collectors item of sorts. The label he was signed to folded and the warehouse holding the LP’s burned to the ground, destroying most known copies. Only a handful ever found there way into the hands of listeners. I am one those lucky few.
Hester took those few songs and drove from Las Vegas to Canoga Park, CA and the then offices of Sparrow Records. Hester sat in the reception office until Bill hearn (Sr.) finally agreed to meet with him. Hester played the songs for Hearn who signed him on the spot. Those songs and a few others were released as Hester’s “debut,” the self-titled Spirit Label release that was later knows as “Be a Receiver.”
Soon after the release of the album, Hester found himself driving across the Golden Gate bridge in San Fransisco. By the time he had crossed the bridge he had written the chorus to the song “Nobody Knows Me Like” without an instrument. He spent the rest of the day in San Fransisco writing the song that he would forever attached to and that would make Hester one of the most popular CCM artists at the time.
Hester went into the studio with a who’s who collection of musicians and emerged several months later with his classic. But the album took longer to get going because his new label (Myrrh) wanted Hester to work with producer, Michael Omartian. No one could blame Hester and the label for waiting to work with Omartian. But the time off also allowed Hester to fine tune his craft. It also gave the industry just enough time to forget who he was, and Hester and the label would have to start all over again and making Hester a known commodity.
It wouldn’t take too long.
The album starts off with the funky R&B tune, “Come Back.” The call to the wandering pilgrim is the perfect lead track as it possesses enough kick to grab the listener while still working on radio, where it found a home. Omartian has this amazing knack for knowing exactly what sounds right for an artist. His ability to arrange songs that sound unique and familiar at the same time has made him one of the best ever in the industry. Here the combination of keyboards (safe) and guitars (dangerous) work just right.
“No Man’s land” is a warning to avoid allowing oneself to enter a place where sin can have its way you. The funky guitar work fits with Omartians “horn section” sound perfectly. A little Chicago mixed with Hall & Oates puts the song squarely into the pop world of 1981. Again, the guitar work, is great, but it here that one begins to note how great the bass work on the entire project really drives the rhythm. A quick peek at the credits show it is the work of master bassist Abraham Laboriel.
Next to the title track, the most compelling and memorable song (especially for long time fans) is “Rubber Canoe.” An airline had sent Hester a rubber raft as a promotional piece and while taking the device on its maiden voyage Hester realized what a powerful metaphor it represented; the life without God is a constant struggle on the ocean of life with little to nothing to grab onto. Laboriel and keyboardist Jeff lams drive that song musically. One can also hear for the one of the first times the powerful vocals of Tommy Funderburk in the background. Where most pop songs would be content to just verse/chorus its way through the song, Omartian adds a great instrumental closing after a false finish.
This works well into the next song, the classic title song, as it begins with a long and beautiful (almost classical) piano intro, with some limited string support. the long into was devised over several years of performing the song live. Hester would talk over the songs introduction and the speaking time grew longer as time went by, so did the introduction musically. It worked so well live they decided to kee a limited instrumental into on the record. Singles released to radio had a limited intro, and, as it turns out, many radio stations went with the album version intro.
As for the song itself, it is a classic by all standards. A beautiful and stirring ballad, it was a mainstay on Christian radio for years and even crept into many hymnals and traditional worship services. the accompaniment track remains one of the best sellers of all time. The plain and simple truth matched with an unforgettable melody made for an all time favorite that worked both in concert and in Church services.
Interestingly enough, the song also became a major crossover hit on mainstream radio. the song charted extremely well on secular AC charts. But sadly, Word Records was ill-prepared to respond to the demand and the album fell through the mainstream cracks and the song, despite its huge popular response did not drive the mainstream success it should have.
“Step by Step” returns the album to its pop roots with its clearly radio friendly melody and instrumentation.Again Hester here delivers on memorable hooks and a common CCM theme without sounding nearly as preachy or contrives as his contemporaries. A great bridge separates the song from most of the fluff that passes for CCM, and a message of hope and faith despite limited understanding. Knowing that God has a plan is easy to believe until one has to act based on that assumption.
As a fledgling little rocker as a Sophomore in High school I have always has a soft spot for “One More Time.” The most “upbeat” song on the album it also contains Martin Walsh’s finest guitar work. It is really quite good and reminds the listener of Dan Huff and Michael Landau.
A song that would remain a staple of Hester fans over the years, and another potential “classic” is “Goodbye Salty.” There is more than a little Loggins and Messina here as the story of an old fisherman represents Jesus’ call to be fishers of men.
the song that reminds the most of Omartian and his work with the Imperials is “Real Change.” The song again flirts with the like of David Messina, Rupert Holmes and Steven Bishop with its California coast, smooth jazz-influenced melody and Beach Boys like backing vocals. Kim Hutchcroft’s great and silky sax work just sounds like the breezy coastal driving of 1980.
“You Loved me” remains my personal favorite musically. Jeff lams and Michael Omartian’s keyboard work drive this great song of God’s unconditional love. The song would have worked quite well on Matthew Ward’s “Toward Eternity” as well.
The album closes with a wonderful and stirring cover of the hymn, “Christ, the Solid Rock.” The arrangement is simple and true to the song, but works well as a closer for an album of faith like this. It is also the first time the listener hears the rougher edge to Hester’s vocals; something that would become a mainstay for Hester in a few years.
Many cringe at the whole concept of pop and AC music, but when done well it can create a lasting legacy. The alternative music snobs will probably not find the placement here proper or deserving, but another group of readers, who can trace their fandom back before The Choir and Steve Taylor will recognize what an important and brilliant work that album is.
The album’s lasting nature can be attributed to an artist that never really received the total recognition he deserved. What limited contact I have with Hester would lead me to believe that fame, fortune and public recognition were never the priorities with him.