Benny Anthony Harley, better known to the Go-Go community as Little Benny, is one of the few pioneers who still remain in the game after over twenty years. While growing up in southeast Washington, DC, Little Benny developed a passion for music. This passion was influenced by the musical creativity of his father, the late Frank Ford Harley. Mr. Harley bought both of his sons (Anthony and Frank Jr.) at a very early age their first guitars. At this time Little Benny and his brother were encouraged by their father to pursue their musical talents. Although Frank’s guitar stayed in the closet, most of the time, Little Benny’s thirst for music was just beginning.
During his early years as a child Little
Benny would watch his father’s singing group rehearse at his home.
That group, Frank Harley and the Bell Chords were his first introduction
to the music he would learn to love. At times Little Benny would
join his father’s group and sing along using a carrot as a microphone.
His mother also noticing her son’s interest in the music field purchased
him his first horn. This is modest beginning has given the area one
of its true musical icons. On the hot Thursday evening when Mark
Ward and I caught up with
IN THE BEGINNING
KATO: Who were some of your musical influences?
LITTLE BENNY: Well… my father of course. As I got older, I listened to a lot of Chuck Brown. Gregory (Sugar Bear) Elliott and (Experience Unlimited). Then, back in the Rare(RE) Essence days we did a lot of listening to Earth, Wind & Fire, and Frankie Beverly and Maze. That got me. Just listening to the old groups.
MARK WARD: How old were you when you got into music?
LITTLE BENNY: I was about twelve years old when I really started getting serious about music. I used to just trip off of people carrying instrument cases in their hands. I saw this guy playing a horn in the parking lot and told him, ‘Let me see that thing. How do you play this?” He said, “Just do like this (pressing his lips together), and play like this.” I pulled that joint out and just blew. He was like, “Man, why don’t you come and go with me?” He took me up to the Baptist Center where I started taking lessons from this a gentleman named Mr. Harrington. We would go up to Walter Reed (Army Medical Center), where I used to play with little jazz band called Mr. Harrington’s Little Giants of Jazz. I played the top (which is similar to soprano notes for vocalists). While I was there I learned how to play everything from flute to drums to sax to bass, but Mr. Harrington kept me on trumpet.
KATO: Is that where you developed you skill of playing two horns at the same time?
LITTLE BENNY: I learned that from Tillery, Chuck Brown’s old trumpet player.
KATO: When did you start playing with Rare Essence?
BENNY: In 1974, I hooked up with Rare Essence. They were called the Young Dynamos back then. We practiced in Andre (Whiteboy) Johnson’s living room. Then we went around Quinten (Footz) Davidson’s house and he changed the name of the band to Rare Essence taken from Rare type of perfume.
MARK WARD: So, they were already a band before you started practicing with them?
LITTLE BENNY: Yea. I was coming from practicing at the Baptist Center one day, when I heard them playing. I knew how to play, so I told a friend of mine, “knock on that door and tell them to let me play this horn and show them something.” So, I went in there and played “Hollywood Swingin”. They were amazed. (John) Big Horn said, “Play that again?” You see, I was trying to get with them because they had a cabaret coming up at the center. So, I just said to myself, “Let me get up in that thing right quick.”
MARK WARD: So, tunes like “Hollywood Swingin” was the kind of music that they started off playing?
LITTLE BENNY: Yea, that’s what we played before the go-go thing – top 40s. Actually, James (Jas. Funk) Thomas is the one that got us into playing go-go during the time when he was the DJ for Chuck (Brown). He basically worked that style.
KATO: Okay, I can tell you the first time I saw Rare Essence, I was about 14 years old. You guys were playing outside of Prince George’s Community College. Do you remember that show?
LITTLE BENNY: You’re talking about the one when we were playing up high on that platform.
KATO: Yes… that’s the one I’m talking about. I can remember during that time Funk was up on the front line leading and I faintly remember the rest of you all. I also remember some of the slick things you used to say on your microphone. Although during that time it was evident, because your presence was so dominant, how did it grow to where you began taking over as lead?
LITTLE BENNY: As far is doing that outside leading?
LITTLE BENNY: Basically, it was when we really started the style of vamping tunes before going all the way into the songs. I always had this way where I would just say little things to flow with the music. We became so used to it that they would build off of it. That’s the way we began setting off the grooves. Funk would just talk and I would groove it. Then, when it came down to the horn parts, Mark (the Godfava) Lawson, Rory (DC) Felton, Bighorn and I would just work them out with steps that I would create and teach to them. So, basically that whole cycle started making it more stronger in showmanship for Rare Essence. And, that’s how that came about for me as far as being more in the front.
KATO: So, although Whiteboy was the one calling the songs, you were more like the person who coached it on.
LITTLE BENNY: Right!
KATO: So, that was the something that evolved into the style you guys created and became so potent that other bands began coming out sounding like either you or Funk during that time.
LITTLE BENNY: Right. I guess many of them just decided which style they wanted to use, Funk’s or mine.
MARK WARD: Were bands like EU already playing go-go back then?
LITTLE BENNY: Nah. That was around the time when I taught Sugar Bear how to rap to their stuff. They were more into the rock style of the music.
MARK WARD: Were you guys the first go-go band after Chuck?
LITTLE BENNY: Well… basically yes. Chuck used to let us open up for him. Sugar Bear started doing it during the time EU were playing at the Las Vegas 5000. Trouble Funk was really already out there, but they used to come around and snatch. But, hey… somebody had to take from and to somewhere, just like we listened to Chuck and got that style. It all worked, though.
MARK WARD: Didn’t Redds (of Redds and the Boys) play with you all in the beginning?
LITTLE BENNY: No. Actually, Redds came in when Michael (Funky Ned) Neil broke his neck. He had a bad accident one day and was in a cast from chest to head.
MARK WARD: So, Redds played bass then?
LITTLE BENNY: Redds played bass and lead guitar. When Whiteboy went to Mississippi for his summer vacation, Redds would sit in on the guitar. Yea, that’s when Mississippi was a bull frog for about two summers, I think. But, Whiteboy was the original guitar player.
KATO: Back then I used to really study Rare Essence. I think someone may have told you about this, but I was a Rare Essence/Little Benny fanatic. I mean, if you read my high school yearbook caption, it gives the rap to “If you’ve been thinking about leaving home and going to Hollywood…”
MARK WARD: Yeah… he even carried around a Rare Essence notebook that he made.
KATO: I’m saying that to say that I would to analyze it. And, what I noticed was how you all could just take anything and build on to it so much that it would finally become a complete body. There were a lot of tunes, and I never really understood why they were not recorded, and if they were recorded, why they were never released. But I guess now would be too late. We’re talking about almost 20 years.
BENNY: It could still be released. All they would have to do is doctor it, swing it and update the old hooks. All that stuff from “Don’t Stop - Don’t Stop” to “Spotlight” to “Funky Stuff”, there is so much of that stuff. That’s why Rare Essence is really picking off of it now, such as the tune, “On and On.” I was surprised when they called me to come and record with them. I said, “What song are you doing?” They said, “Jungle-Boogie, but we’re calling it “On and On.” So, I said, “Okay.” I guess they wanted the squeals, shakes and break stopping the way we used to hit it back in the day.
MARK WARD: Do you have a favorite groove from back in the day?
BENNY: “Roll Call.” “Shake-It, But Don’t Break-It.” “He Big Fun.” I used to like all of them. That’s why I can just take a rack of them and just go for a long period of time with them.
MARK WARD: We’ve heard all types of rumors, but I want to clear the air. Tell us about the story of where the title “Get On The Wagon” came from.
BENNY: Well… we used to hang up posters from the back of the truck. We called it the dick wagon. Funk would be driving and yelling, “There goes a pole - There goes a pole! Whom ever has got the staple gun here goes the posters.” We used to tell the girls to get on the wagon and giddy-up.
MARK WARD: You were always saying, “Tell ‘em ‘bout the One On One.” Okay, tell me. What is the “One On One” about? How did you come about the name? Is there a story behind that?
BENNY: Nah. Actually, I think we probably named it the “One On One” because of the rolls that Footz did to bring us into the groove. Funk would hold up one finger on each hand, and we knew to play “One On One.” Basically, we were just naming stuff back then.
KATO: What about “He Big Fun?” Who is “He Big Fun?”
BENNY: Oh, this real big girl. We used to hang out with a bunch girls at this house and just kick it. “He Big Fun’s” name was Jennifer.
KATO: Was she ‘sysed’ to have a groove named after her?
BENNY: Yeah… she probably was. As a matter of fact, I was up at the radio station recently, and she called and said, “This is Jennifer.” I said, “Who?” She said, “He Big Fun.” I said, “What’s Up, Girl!” I mean she was pretty big. When we saw her coming, we would play the Jaws theme in the groove. Then we would take it on down to the ‘freaky-deak’ part, singing, “That’s what we’re talking about - That’s what we’ve come to do, y’all!” But basically, that’s what we did. Just vibed off of the people. That’s how we did it. Like “Don’t Stop.” We would feed off of the crowd and then decide to put some horn parts to it. Just vibing.
KATO: When did you finally realize that you guys definitely had something that the people were digging on?
BENNY: In 1983 when we played
with New Edition and Trouble Funk at the Capital Center. We did good
on that show, because New Edition called our manager the next day and asked
her if we could open up for them on the road. But, I think she was
asleep at the time. So, she told them to call her back. And,
I said, “Oh my God! I’ve got to get out of here!” That
was around the time my head starting going, “This ain’t going nowhere.”
I mean, we had a beautiful show that night. We rocked with that joint.
THE BREAK UP:
MARK WARD: I noticed during one of the many RE transitions when Funk began to step down, Lawrence (The Maniac) West began to get on the microphone.
BENNY: Well… Funk used to just go in and out with the band, so basically we said we’re going to go ahead and try to do it ourselves. So, they brought Lawrence in as a singer and he began to rap also. He used to rap for Peace Makers. So, we just worked it out like that.
KATO: In 1985 I left to go into the Army. However, a little while before I left I did notice some things just didn’t seem to click the same on that stage. The night before I left I went to see you all play at Crystal Skate. A few months later, I came home on leave and you were no longer with Rare Essence. You formed a band called Little Benny & The Masters. What happened?
BENNY: Yeah… right around that time, I basically began to get fed up with things. I just said whatever, you know. This ain’t my band. This is your band. This is a corporation now. I had that hit record over in London (Who Comes To Boogie). Then, they went over there for a month. During that time, Rare Essence played at the Panorama Room every Tuesday. Things started getting crazy around that time, I was just about ready to get up out of that camp. Basically, I didn’t even tell them that I was going overseas. My brother went up there and told them I had left town. So frankly, I just figured what they were paying wasn’t worth all that trouble. So, that’s what made me say, I’ll just go get my band and make exactly the same thing.
KATO: So, that’s when you started Little Benny & The Masters?
BENNY: No. Actually, Ayre Rayde called me and asked me to play with them. (John) Cabalu started playing with Rare Essence. We even played on the same show with them, which we gave them a little whipping that night.
MARK WARD: So, how was your relationship with them after you left the band?
BENNY: I wasn’t dealing with them. I didn’t have anything to say to them. Basically all the pictures I had of them, I gave away to my friends. I just didn’t want to be bothered with them anymore. Then, we got into the legal things of it, and just ended up settling out of court.
KATO: You were about how old during that time?
BENNY: I was pretty young – about 21 years old then.
MARK WARD: So, you were pretty tight with some of the guys in the band that left with you?
MARK WARD: Did they have the same problems? Is that why they left?
BENNY: Yeah. They were like, “we could go with you and play with you for real. We could make just as much with you paying us.” The whole thing is when you turn a group into a corporation without everybody agreeing to it… you know, back then they used to say I was 10 guys to 1 in their group. “He won’t never sign no contracts. He won’t never do this. He won’t never do that.” Whiteboy was right behind me following every move I did. So, if I wouldn’t sign a contract, Whiteboy wouldn’t sign a contract. Then they would call my mother and say, “Benny won’t sign the contract.” And, my mother would say, “Well, I gave him advice on what he should do, but it’s up to him. If he chooses not to sign a contract, that’s up to him.”
KATO: So, then came Little Benny & The Masters. I guess I could say that you went through some stuff in that camp too.
BENNY: Yeah. You’re always going to go through some stuff with groups. The switching of drummers – I always had a different drummer. I kept having to change up congo players. Actually the whole band.
KATO: Well, okay. That must have been during the time you called me. I guess some of them were doing the Groove Masters thing.
BENNY: Yea. That was during the time David Rudd wanted to do his slick thing. I was letting him set up some little things, you know. I guess one night, he just called himself to go out and do his thing calling themselves the Groove Masters.
KATO: Actually, he was calling them Little Benny & The Masters. I had seen them playing somewhere thinking I was going to see Little Benny & The Masters. But when they got on stage, there was some of the Masters, but no Little Benny. Then Lawrence (The Maniac) would get on the microphone, and they would say that Benny wouldn’t be able to make it.
BENNY: (A surprised look on his face)
KATO: Yeah. That happened a couple of times. It wasn’t until I got the call from you that it started to click that he was doing shows behind your back.
BENNY: What did they sound like?
KATO: Basically, they were playing that stuff that the Masters were playing back then, but with Lawrence talking. That’s what threw people off. See, I think that has always been the thing with Little Benny & The Masters. The main focus was on you. And, with the Masters it really didn’t matter. When people came, they basically came to see Little Benny and the Masters, not Lawrence (the Maniac) and the Masters. And, that’s what it sounded like. It sounded like it sounded when Rare Essence played with just Lawrence on the microphone. No Benny.
BENNY: Yeah. That was something with David Rudd learning how to pay his rent being sneaky. That’s probably why he didn’t last too long in the go-go thing.
MARK WARD: How did the Proper Utensils thing come about?
BENNY: I had Funk come down the Metro Club and check us out when Little Benny & The Masters was playing. He would come through, and I would say, “Get him on stage.” He had already assembled Proper Utensils. Then, see I was getting tired of the Masters -- people not coming to practice and stuff like that. I basically asked Funk to come on and join the group and we’ll work out whatever - whatever. Then Mike Hughes talked Funk into calling me and asking me to join them. I was like, “Yeah, tell him to call me. I’ll come and play.” Funk was like, “Well, you know I want you to play all them horn parts.” I said, “Man, I’ll play any horn part as long as there’s a part to learn.” So, I just went to his practice and went from there. He had some tight cats, like Roy Battle and Brian Mills. Funk likes playing a lot of swing horn parts and big horn sounds. Basically they’d write my parts down and I’d learn them. During that time, Funk had Herald Little playing with them, and was basically trying to decide which horn player he was going to keep. So, he just told Herald that he was going to just use me for a while until he found out what’s what. I knew he was going to do it anyway, because it was like Herald versus me. I knew that I would serve four parts in the band, play the horn, play the tambourine, rap and dance. He had to weigh it like a scale. No doubt, Herald sounded damn good playing that horn, on solo too. And, that’s one thing I wasn’t doing was soloing. From there, we just came out and did the “Rump Shaker” down at the Down Under Club. Then, they put it on the air and we just went on from there. Then we went and did another CD. And, we just finished another CD under Charlie Fenwick’s label called, “That’s Enough.”
KATO: That leads me to the question of how you hooked up with Chuck Brown? It’s ironic that one of your musical influences is now one of your peers.
BENNY: Actually, what happened with Chuck was that I got a beep from Liaison Records, who asked me if I would like to go to Japan. I said, “Sure.” They said, “Well, Chuck wants you to go with him.” Keith (Horn Man) Holmes told me that everywhere they went in Japan they were playing my stuff all over the place. So, I went on over there with him and found that they really were playing my records all over the place. I got there and they had “Cat In The Hat” albums holding it them up in the air. They knew that I was coming with Chuck. They really liked the “JuJu Dada” better. That’s why I went back into the studio and did some of that stuff over. They don’t play those songs in this area that much. Except when I did “Do Re Me,” they waited two years later and started playing the heck out of the joint.
MARK WARD: Is Chuck Brown’s style the go-go style of music you like to play?
BENNY: That’s the style I like. I like playing with Chuck. I like playing with Funk too. Chuck would do his thing, then turn it over to me. Then, I would do my thing for a while. Then, he’d come back up and do his thing. He was like I’m going to do mine and you handle your own. Whereas, Funk would basically say to me do that particular song. I would do it, and Funk would move on to what he wanted to do next.
KATO: Since you’ve been in that camp, is there a lot more you’ve learn about the business?
BENNY: Nah. It ain’t
nothing new. I’ve been in this for a long time.
GO-GO IN THE 9OS:
MARK WARD: What do you think about the go-go of today in comparison to the go-go of back in the day?
BENNY: I like the back in the day style better. I mean the style of today with the open hi-hats and all is cool, but the kids of today don’t really know of the yesterday. Only what you throw at them.
MARK WARD: Most of the nationally successful Go-Go songs originated from a more mature style than today’s. Do you think that there is anything the bands can do to be more mature musically?
BENNY: Well… Backyard does play a little more music, I hear that in their style. Rare Essence has the capabilities to do it, but they’re kind of on the bang-bang right now. That’s why I say Backyard is a little more mature, while still maintaining their “go-go” flavor.
MARK WARD: Well… I always thought that the kids tend to follow what ever the bands played. They are strongly influenced by these bands, and the bands say that they are playing what the fans like. But, they have the ability to change their style to be more creative.
BENNY: Right. And, add the new school flavor with the old school, and make it funky again. That way, you won’t let the go-go seem like it ain’t going nowhere. Because, right now musically, where can you go from “Rowwl-Rowwl” and just a percussion? I mean, what else can you do to it? If you ain’t flavoring the joint up and putting anything to it, you’re still going to be at the same place.
KATO: So, why do you think go-go isn’t getting the national attention that it deserves?
BENNY: Not working together as far as making commercial records, first of all. Groups are not working together. I mean, you look at New York. Those guys be working with each other or doing something to keep hip-hop alive. They ain’t knocking each other. They might have their little publicity beefs, but still they’re keeping it there and keeping people in what the heck is going on with them. See, they know what they are doing. They’re working it. Even in that, they are saying, “Man, let’s just go at it like that and see what drama we can draw up, how much attention we can get and how much money we can make.” But they’ve got record companies that’s backing them. That’s like back during the old go-go days after Chuck Brown made “Bustin Loose” and came back, they should have took the four band, Chuck Brown, Trouble Funk, EU and Rare Essence and try to move that market. If they would have done that, it would have paved the way. See, now after Chuck’s “Bustin Loose” then years later, EU comes out with “Da Butt.” But see, if we would have caught it right after “Bustin Loose” like Max Kidd tried to do. But, see that comes into robbing people. I don’t know who was robbing who, but I was watching it all. That’s how it went. Max Kidd had the movie “Good To Go” out. The movement. Which made the ugliest movie out. So, it like poisoned the go-go.
MARK WARD: Rare Essence didn’t have anything to do with the movie?
BENNY: I don’t know what really went on with that. But, I know Max Kidd had Chuck, Sugar Bear, Redds & The Boys and Trouble Funk.
MARK WARD: It seems like back then, a lot of people were really starting to know about go-go, but it’s back to square one today. I mean, I run into a lot of people here who are not from here and know absolutely nothing about it.
KATO: So, the point is, is to get it back focused in the right direction.
BENNY: Right. It’s like, who in the heck are going to give you a contract sounding like the way it’s sounding now? Then again, you might get one. I’m not the judge of it. But what I’m hearing, I don’t see nobody making a record company want to invest no money in it. But, it might be.
KATO: So, what’s going on with the group you have in the workshop called The Legends?
BENNY: Basically, The Legends consist of The Godfava, Rick (Sugar Foot Ricky) Wellman, Milton(Go-Go Mickey) Freeman , (John) Bighorn, Tyrone (Jungle Boogie) Williams and myself. Actually, I’m going to bring them all out, Markell (Markey) Owens, Scotty Haskel, Lawrence West, Michael Muse, DC and the rest. Sugar Bear and myself, along with this project, are getting ready to do a Little Benny - EU - Rare Essence reunion. The mission is to get all those guys together.
KATO: Okay. I want to end with this question. How important is family to you?
BENNY: It’s all that I have. It’s the most important thing in my life. I mean, if I had to choose between family and Go-Go, I would choose family.
KATO: Do any of them play music?
BENNY: Well… Benny and Brian are more into basketball. But, Brandon is more into singing and stepping. He likes to watch the videos and learn the steps. He’s pretty much with all that. He usually writes down the lyrics to tunes for me and let’s me know when I’m doing them wrong. Yeah… he just sits me down with the little tape recorder when I basically had to learn two or three songs in a night. And, he won’t go to bed until, I have a couple of the verses down.
KATO: Thank you for your time. I appreciate it.
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