Three and a half years have crept by since the untimely passing of Little Benny Harley on May 30, 2010, notable bandleader and larger than life personality. Harley would have turned 50 years old today.
Through the years of entertaining the GoGo patrons of Washington, D.C., the City turned out in droves to pay their respects at the Washington Convention Center in June 2010 to the man who shared the stage with Chuck Brown, Rare Essence, Proper Utensils and his own band, Little Benny and the Masters, well known for the hit “Cat In The Hat”.
Longtime friend and collaborator, Mark “Godfather” Lawson remembers his best friend on this day.
“We grew up as little kids together. Our moms were friends. I miss the early Saturday morning phone calls. That was his thing. You just know you are going to get that Saturday morning call. That’s all it was with us, family and music. As kids, we used to buy Yacht Magazine from the 7-11 because Benny loved that stuff. He said he was going to get a yacht so we could take all of our boys around. When we were younger, we would always stop and get chocolate eclairs and a box of Captain Crunch after a rare Essence show. When we got older, it was Hennessy and Heineken.”
Famed percussionist Milton “Go-Go Mickey” Freeman adds, “I miss his drive to push whatever band he could put together to make things happen. I also miss late nights playing Play Station.”
James Funk, who also grew up with Harley and played in various bands with him misses “his friendship and musicianship.”
Thomas Sayers Ellis, poet and close friend of Harley wrote a poem, The Helicopter” in tribute as everyone struggled to come to grips with the untimely passing. It was to be read at the funeral and is as follows:
and still busy,
the hit and run hovering,
in the moon’s
One, two, three shows a night,
fingers pressing and releasing the rooftops of valves.
Take off and land vertically,
hover, fly forwards, backwards and laterally.
Like a red and white air ambulance,
trumpet––a propeller, spinning. Southeast, next Northwest,
weekday gigs split in the private rooms
where rotors are kept, Panorama and Maverick.
Once he landed, leg in a cast, outside
the historic Howard Theater, lunchin’ hard.
All passengers transported safely,
Carter Barron to Club LeBaron,
homecoming to stadium, Inter-High proms.
A Rare, Master,
of the Golden Age,
baby Soul Searcher,
the Soul Man
Tambourines, the round wooden ones,
didn’t even have anatomy
before the spiral patterns of Benny’s signature,
the way he would shake it with one hand,
stick the other hand through it
like a magician, then strike it with the other hand,
twist of wrist, hard palm, forearm flick.
Little Mafioso hype-man, in a vest, next to Chuck,
sometimes he wore it around his arm like an engagement
elbow ring or bracelet, married to Go-Go.
His voice could syce the wind.
“Said we gonna take some time
just to watch what you doin’.
We need that spotlight
so we can see what you doin’.
Let’s get that spotlight together,
so we can take some time out
to watch y’all boogie down now!”
All of D.C. used to open like a Showmobile stage in Summer.
The bridge he blew, but a groove he built,
vamped in organ warmth,
friendship, the grand dad of Godfava trust.
Traffic signs, a siren, blinking traffic lights.
Miss Mack, that big white truck, red and white sweats.
An orange show poster on the side
of a mid range cabinet, the trickiest guy in town.
If James Funk was the noun in their fluid,
grammatical front line, then Benny was the verb,
“Ain’t it good to you, yeaaaaaaah boy!”
but the power still went out.
A step a step a slide,
one mouth, two trumpets,
fall and scream. Left arm, a marching band
bent at the waist, action
added to it, the crank
Ballou to UDC.
What’s more mournful: an empty trumpet stand, the closed faces
of old venues, or basements
with Alzheimer’s like the one on Xenia?
Memory is a synthesizer, sensitive
as the H in Harley, hurts. All I want is for
that laugh to slip between that top, gap-tooth smile,
in need of monitors, a million more times,
then for every name he ever called to jump back up
on the Roll Call and “Say What,”
“Where you wanna go, Where you wanna go,”
but, in the Pocket, death is just a technical difficulty,
a reunion of legends, common as Bamas fighting with chairs.
For now, though, a bell chord weeps
and this body moves, no more.
Finger hook to flare,
lead pipe to pitch,
The tuning of slide,
of pistons in casings.
Bootleggers press down.
Their tired mouthpieces
breaking into hips.
This is the final fort, a funeral worth votes,
the one a child will have to hold down
whether the family, split by a Convention aisle, wants to or not.
Who comes to boogie comes to sunrise,
who comes to sunrise comes to rest, who comes to rest
comes to sunset––light’s braided remembrance,
the gold wings of sleep, protective casket
colder than anvil case silver.
Just like a Libra. The moment he took off he joined
the loose blood pressure of white tees,
XL and XXL, the property of our at-risk, overweight memories.
It’s so hard to bury an Air Sign––the worn clichés
for grief like ‘Gone but not Forgotten’
and ‘Rest in Peace’ never properly shrink to fit.
Let the bad rep end. There is nothing violent
about crashing in one’s sleep, but
“The man said we got to go.”
“When you leave,
would you please leave carefully.”
“Take him away,
take him away, take him away.”
“Goodnight, Good morning.”
“Bye bye baby,
Reprinted with permission of the author, Thomas Sayers Ellis 2010
Tonight, Harley’s former band, Proper Utensils, will pay tribute at the legendary Takoma Station Tavern 6914 4th Street NW, Washington, DC 20012.