Scrolling Headlines:

UMass men’s basketball falters in the second half, falling to George Washington 83-67 Thursday -

February 24, 2017

UPDATE: SGA announces second and third artist for ‘Mullins Live!’ -

February 23, 2017

Divest UMass and STPEC host panel on building ‘solidarity economies’ in the Trump era -

February 23, 2017

UMass women’s basketball losing streak extends to 10 games after loss to URI -

February 23, 2017

Sixth annual Advocacy Day set to take place March 1 -

February 23, 2017

Panel discusses racial, sexual and psychological violence in response to art exhibit -

February 23, 2017

Judy Dixon enters final season with UMass tennis with simple message: One match at a time -

February 23, 2017

UMass baseball enduring early-season limitation in playing in New England -

February 23, 2017

Minutewomen softball begins season with cross-country travel, string of tournaments -

February 23, 2017

UMass baseball looks to bounce back from disappointing 2016 season -

February 23, 2017

UMass women’s lacrosse senior Hannah Murphy is Angela McMahon’s latest legend in the making -

February 23, 2017

UMass women’s lacrosse senior defenders accept leadership roles in quest for ninth consecutive Atlantic 10 Championship -

February 23, 2017

Kelsey McGovern rejoins UMass women’s lacrosse as an assistant coach after starring for Minutewomen -

February 23, 2017

UMass men’s lacrosse looks to continue improving throughout 2017 season -

February 23, 2017

Spring Sports Special Issue 2017 -

February 23, 2017

UMass men’s lacrosse defense relying on senior leadership with new faces in starting lineup -

February 23, 2017

UMass softball fills holes left by seniors with freshmen for 2017 -

February 23, 2017

The Hart of the Lineup -

February 23, 2017

UMass softball prepares for a long, busy season in 2017 -

February 23, 2017

UMass men’s lacrosse defenseman Tyler Weeks makes his way back from ACL injury -

February 23, 2017

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 crussell@student.umass.edu.

Leave A Comment