A Profile of a Local Street Musician

Benny Johnson approached about 20 people who were dancing to rap music at a house party late on a recent Thursday night on Lincoln Street in Amherst. Once people recognized him, the music was turned off and the requests poured in.

“Motown Man! Play a song!”

Benny quickly obliged, performing “Twist and Shout” with a bucket, a kazoo hanging from his neck and a worn shaker held together by masking tape.

The crowd’s dancing soon engulfed him as the whole room sang along to the classic Beatles song. After two encores Benny left with a Keystone Light as a parting gift.

“Parties are fun, but I like playing on the street more,” Benny said while walking toward downtown to entertain the bar hopping crowds that congregate on the sidewalk.

Benny, 62, performs in Northampton and Amherst several days a week, usually sporting one of his many colorful capes. He answers to a variety of nicknames, including Bucket Man, Motown Man and Motown Benny, “because I play Motown music,” he said.

He’s good, too. Real good. At least that was the opinion of Mount Holyoke junior Jessica Alvatte after she heard Benny sing John Lennon’s “Stand by Me” outside Subway in downtown Amherst. She called for an encore, and Benny chose Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” which elicited an immediate response from Jessica.

“I love this song! This guy knows what’s happening!” She quickly turned the performance into a duet, and both sang with intense passion. “I’ll keep on loving you, whether times are good or bad, happy or sad.”

Jessica said she is glad to have someone of Benny’s caliber singing in Amherst. “It’s extremely nice having him out here,” she said.

Benny started playing in the clubs of his hometown New Orleans, eventually traveling the world as a drummer and vocalist in a band with his five brothers.

He said playing the bucket is as enjoyable as playing the drums, and over the years he has developed a science for bucket playing. He made several small depressions on the bucket’s bottom which produce different notes, and moves a laminated piece of paper around the inside while playing to achieve the desired pitch.

“Music is my high,” he said. “When I’m playing I don’t feel the injuries I have in my shoulder or spinal cord.”

Benny still plays in clubs- he once performed his array of instruments in Northampton’s Academy of Music alongside ballet dancers- but especially enjoys interacting with people while performing on the street.

“It’s a lot of fun to get out and get people to sing,” he said.
UMass senior Erik Hellmer quickly recognized Benny’s talents after seeing him perform in downtown Amherst two years ago.

“I’ve seen people in Boston playing the drums outside of Bruins and Redsox games, but I have never seen one man entertain so many people like he does,” he said. “It’s incredible. His charisma is out of this world.”

Erik said this as Benny entertained an impromptu sidewalk dance party with a jazz- funk interpretation of “monster mash.”

“It doesn’t matter if people are drinking or not, my beats make them move,” Benny said.

Erik is a testament to this, as he got down while singing a duet of James Brown’s “I Feel Good” with Benny. “I have more fun singing with him than being in the bars,” Erik said.

Benny is impressed with Erik too; he designated Erik “party man” because “he always brings a party.”

Benny is an everyman’s musician who plays for the love of music and performing with others. It’s rare to find someone as friendly, engaging and talented as Benny.

The next time you’re in downtown Amherst or Northampton, look for Benny. He’s out many nights, serenading pedestrians with some of the 200 songs he has memorized, a tradition he hopes to continue for many more years.

“As long as I can stand and hold my bucket I’ll still play,” he said. “Even if I have to go out with a walker.”


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