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R.I.P. Little Benny, You Are A Master

Peace. When the news of the passing of Go-Go music legend Anthony “Little Benny” Harley reached me, I had just spoken to my oldest brother about how far Go-Go has come and how much impact this form of music has had on our lives. Below, I’ll try to honor Little Benny the best I can because he was truly one of the greats of the Go-Go genre.

Growing up in the Washington Metro area, I had the distinct pleasure of watching our homegrown blend of funk, soul and R&B — Go-Go — grow from its fast-paced, jazzy beginnings to the grittier, slow-rolling grooves present today. I still enjoy Go-Go music as much as ever, but I’ll admit it has been some time since I’ve gone to an actual Go-Go concert. In Go-Go music, the most magnetic portion of its culture would be the live experience. But for those of us who were to young to travel to clubs to see the greats such as Chuck Brown, Junkyard Band, Experience Unlimited and the like, we had to listen and live vicariously through others via the P.A. tape. P.A. tapes were literally live recordings onto cassette of these concerts and typically marked by the band’s name, club/venue name and the date of the performance.

One of my friend’s older brother attended perhaps the D.C. area’s most legendary Go-Go Performance known as Go-Go Live At The Capital Center. He was raving about it for hours on end and the envy I had for him was on level ten. I was way too young to attend but there was so much chatter in school the next day about it. If you look at that video linked in this paragraph, that energy is undeniable. At the time, my fave band was the legendary Inner City Groovers aka Rare Essence. Led by the “lead talker” (or MC) Jas. Funk, Rare Essence had the best routines in the game. Little Benny was a member of this vaunted group of musicians and friends and he too had a rare vocal quality the belied his small stature.

I was working at a local fast food joint in 1988 when I first met Little Benny. By this time, he had gone on to form his own band Little Benny & The Masters.  He had the hit Cat In The Hat and he couldn’t have known how much I loved that song so I remember shyly telling him (forgive me, ya’ll, I was 15) how big a fan I was. He just said, in his gruff voice, “Keep Your Head Up, Big Bruvah!” and he gave me an autograph on a piece of receipt paper. My cousins were deep into the Go-Go scene (and also the local drug culture) and I’d started to get immersed myself. It was nothing to run into Jas. Funk at my friend’s house in Carriage Hill Apartments (in Hillcrest Heights, MD) or to see Sugar Bear around town in his car pointing to people — these men enjoyed their local celebrity as they should have.

Little Benny’s lead talker style was slightly different from Funk’s, as he had more of an emphasis on actual lyrics and rapping where Funk heavily relied on the call and response/cover song style that was typically done in the 80s and 90s. A lot of bands also did covers of hit rap and R&B songs to get them over at shows. I believe every band had a go-to routine but none of them could match Rare Essence, Little Benny and The Masters and even Chuck Brown at their heights. There was even some manner of copy-cat routines happening for a spell but eventually, the bands all hit their respective strides without (too much) conflict.

Little Benny and The Masters disbanded due to personal conflict (noted in the article linked in the paragraph before). It was then he formed the explosive Proper Utensils band (which featured former members of Rare Essence). While many pledged allegiance to bands such as Junkyard Band or Rare Essence (JYB had edged out RE to become my fave band), many people placed Proper Utensils at the top due to sheer workmanship, performance and the energy they showcased. Having attended a few Proper Utensils shows, I can clearly state I haven’t left a nightclub drenched in that much sweat since.  Check out this famous routine from the band and I dare you to try and stay still.

As the Post article at the top of this entry stated, Little Benny had been working with The Godfather of Go-Go Chuck Brown. He actually performed the night before his passing and it is with regret I say this. I had become so wrapped up in what the blogs are doing as far as new releases and focusing so much on other genres of music that I have allowed the homegrown music of my youth to slip through my fingers. I’m beyond disappointed that I won’t get to hear Little Benny’s trumpet or big soulful voice again. It almost embarrasses me to say that I have at times put this music on the back-burner in favor of more varied fare. In my defense, today’s Go-Go scene is a little rougher around the edges than I like. That isn’t to say good bands don’t exist but the 80s and almost all of the 90s spoiled me and many other Go-Go fans in ways I can’t express in this space.

This is indeed tough to write and I have so many memories of my brief chats with Little Benny. I remember he came into Iverson Mall often to “check out the honies” and he would come into the Kemp Mill Records store where I worked as a teen. We’d hold court about basketball, video games and who was the best congo player in the city (he and I agreed it was and always will be Go-Go Mickey). I remember his big, throaty laugh and how hard his handshakes were to be such a small guy. I’m going to honor Little Benny today and onward by playing as much of his music as I possibly can.

Little Benny…rest in divine peace. You are truly a master.

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2 Responses

  1. Awesome tribute post. I last saw Lil’ Benny perform at the Ben’s Chili Bowl 50th Anniversary show. He was truly a great performer and will live forever as a true DC music legend.

  2. This is really good and an awesome tribute post to Lil Benny!

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