Motown Man welcomes all
Benny Johnson approached about 20 drunken revelers dancing to rap music at a Lincoln Street house party late on a recent Thursday night. Once people recognized him the music was turned off and the requests poured in.
“Motown Man, play a song!”
Johnson 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, Johnson left with a Keystone Light as a parting gift.
“Parties are fun, but I like playing on the street more,” Johnson said while walking toward downtown Amherst to entertain the bar hopping crowds that congregate on the sidewalk.
Johnson, 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 Johnson sing John Lennon’s “Stand by Me” outside Subway in downtown Amherst.
“I appreciate it. You’re not bullshit,” she told him. “You’re pretty good.” She called for an encore, and Johnson chose Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” which elicited an immediate response from Alvatte, “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,” they sang.
Jessica said she is glad to have someone of Johnson’s caliber singing in Amherst.
“It’s extremely nice having him out here,” she said. “He sings Al Green. You don’t even know who Al Green is, do you?”
Johnson started playing in the clubs of his hometown New Orleans, La., 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 has developed a science for bucket playing. He made several small depressions on the bucket’s bottom which produce different notes. He also 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.”
Johnson 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 Johnson’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 Red Sox 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.”
Hellmer said this as Johnson 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,” Johnson said.
Hellmer is a testament to this, as he got down while singing a duet of James Brown’s “I Feel Good” with Johnson.
“I have more fun singing with him than being in the bars, swear to god,” Hellmer said.
Johnson is impressed with Hellmer too. He designated him “Party Man” because “he always brings a party,” a title Hellmer said he will treasure for the rest of his life.
“It feels like I have accomplished more than I thought I would in college,” he said. “It means more to me than my degree.”
Even though Hellmer was (hopefully) being hyperbolic, it’s easy to see why he would make such a statement. Johnson 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 Johnson. One must perform with him to believe it.
The next time you’re in downtown Amherst or Northampton, look for Johnson. He’s out most 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.”
Chris Russell is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.