Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Sunday dinner with the Motown Man

Nancy Pierce/Collegian

Many Amherst residents know or have heard of the “Motown Man,” a street performer who belts out James Brown renditions in the middle of Amherst Center.

But few may know the true man behind the cape and bucket.

Every Sunday, Bennie Johnson, commonly known as “Motown Man,” serves dinner at his place in the Amherst Motel to any guest willing to join him. On a Sunday in March, a Massachusetts Daily Collegian reporter joined him for a dinner of hot fried wings –  his claimed specialty – accompanied by endless cups of red Kool-Aid.

Johnson was sporting a white fedora with multi-colored feathers jutting from the top and a white and black striped collared shirt. He wore a maroon pantsuit with white leather alligator print shoes peeking from under the pants. His purple sequined cape – one of his 12 in his collection – draped over his back in what Johnson called “his signature look.”

His living room – full of couches and chairs spread around the room – was home to funky hats hanging on the walls. One was an oversized pink and purple fuzzy top hat, the other a pink cowboy hat. A stuffed singing dog – a gift from a fan, according to Johnson – sat on a shelf holding a heart with “Sugar Pie Honey Bun” embroidered in the middle.

Other dinner guests included Chris Bartolich and Russ Lambert, two men working with Johnson on a comic book, he said. The comic stars “Motown Man” and features Bartolich as his “Robin counterpart,” said Johnson. Its cover – drawn by Lambert, the illustrator – showed “Motown Man” dressed in a suit holding up the world.

In his comic book series, Johnson said he is on a mission to “fight the powers that be” –

structures in society that he believes perpetuate racism, discrimination and hate.

Johnson said he has a bone to pick with health care and legal policies in the country, as well as the housing system in Amherst.

“The rich can pay their way out of a crime, the poor can’t,” he said.

And he has a problem with how the homeless are treated. He dislikes shelters – which he said take people in at night and kick them out in the early morning – because he thinks they “give people a false sense of hope.” The solution in Johnson’s mind is more affordable housing and control on the high rent prices.

Johnson has taken matters into his own hands in the past. He is the creator of “pay-to-be -poor” program, which began in Northampton back in 1982 and allowed people to live with a family in a low-income neighborhood for a fee of $500, money that went to the family, according to Johnson. His project received national attention, and several news outlets picked up on it, including the New York Times.

Johnson and Bartolich also give people rides in the red Buick that was parked outside his home, helping to buy groceries for those less fortunate as part of what they called their “street ministry.”

Johnson is not only a street performer and activist, but also a husband and father of three. He has been taking care of his wife Margarita, who suffers from Multiple sclerosis.

During dinner, Johnson was more than willing to perform some of his covers. Equipped with his bucket, kazoo and microphone, he bellowed out in a raspy voice versions of Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World,” Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bun).”

Johnson said he would rather play cover songs that everyone knows than original songs, because the covers bring people together through song.

“It’s about making the crowd happy,” he said.

But Johnson also helps himself with his music as well. He said he suffers from knee and back pain and noted that “playing music helped get rid of the pain.”

Johnson hosts a show every Wednesday from 4  to 5 p.m. on Amherst Community Television, where he sings and invites people to speak out and voice their opinions.

And he can be typically seen on Thursday nights around Monkey Bar and Judie’s performing his soul music and taking requests from enthusiastic fans.

As for the bars, he can no longer go inside, Johnson said, because everyone tries to buy him drinks.

Nancy Pierce can be reached at [email protected].


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    masonApr 9, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    I love motown man