Herman Bennett's Biography
My first involvement with music was in elementary school. They made us buy Tonettes, sort of a glorified ocarina (sweet potato? recorder?) so we could hone our musical chops. We, as a class, were supposed to learn Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and songs of that ilk. I couldn't figure out how to hold the damn thing, much less where my fingers were supposed to go. I was given a solo to play that was the simplest possible - count the beats and add a finger to the next hole on every beat. I just couldn't master it, no matter how much I tried, practiced, hoped. When it came time to perform it in class, I was flubbing it pretty badly and Jane Wright (my heart throb from grades 2-6) leaned over from her chair and put her fingers on my instrument and saved the day. Maybe there is some sort of Freudian implication there, maybe not. The teacher saw her do it and, from then on, assigned me some sort of percussive duties.
Fast forward to junior high. Boy's Chorale. Mr. Fry conducted. He was a military sort of a guy and a wonderful teacher. He recruited me. I loved singing and he needed sopranos. My voice hadn't completely changed yet and I could sing the pants off a tune as long as I approached it with my falsetto. My family lived a few blocks from the school and I would walk home for lunch every day. The house would be empty because both my folks worked and my brother and sister, a couple of years older than me, were at high school. I'd practice, seeing how high my voice would go, how long I could sustain the notes, trying my chords at vocal gymnastics, thinking I was the only one listening. The next-door neighbor reported to my mother that there were some strange noises coming from our house during the middle of the day - was someone strangling cats?
The big performance for the chorale was the proverbial Christmas program. Being Jewish, I had mixed feelings about singing holiday songs that I had no vested interest in, but I did my best, taking direction from Mr. Fry. I was holding my strongest, highest note as one song ended and Mr. Fry brought it to a close. He looked directly at me and gave me an almost imperceptible nod of approval. I was thrilled. I liked performing, even though I was a failure in the playing an instrument department. Mr. Fry's nod had validated me.
My quavering voice did not go unnoticed. I, along with Ellery Lacy, Al Province, and Leland Gaspard, were tapped to become a Barbershop Quartet to sing a tune titled With Someone Like You. I was, without even knowing it, beginning to gather styles and filing them away.
Being from Port Arthur, this always comes up, so I'll address it now. My sister, Karleen, was friends with Janis Joplin. She and Janis and their friend Arlene shared a love of music and I remember them turning me on to Billie Holiday, the Del Vikings Come Go With Me, and Willie Mae Thornton's version of Hound Dog. Janis also liked Elvis but was already getting into Odetta and Ledbelly and other stuff that didn't make the charts. Janis was the first to make me realize that there is life after Top 40.
My sister and Janis learned the deaf alphabet so they could talk in front of me with their hands without me being able to understand, but I did figure out 'go to hell.' I was propelled to do my best to learn how to use swear words properly, so they would have the maximum impact. So finally Janis and Karleen and I had a contest to see who could list the most cuss words. I was amazed at their repertoire. I lost miserably.
In high school I became friends with Ruben Cantu. He was one of three brothers who had a band together. Their dad taught music and I loved their family. Roger, the oldest, played piano. Richard, the youngest, played alto sax. Ruben played tenor and they were, along with some other members, The Rockin' Knights, a Rhythm and Blues band.
Ruben did his best to teach me how to play baritone sax. My fingers had other ideas. I was as worthless on sax as I had been on Tonette in grade school. But Ruben immersed me in Ray Charles, Louie Prima, James Brown, Otis Redding, Johnny Mathis to try to make me understand the music. I got the music; I did not get the ability to play it on the baritone sax.
I actually got on stage with the Knights a couple of times holding, though not playing correctly, the huge instrument that I was supposed to be learning (oh, where was Jane Wright when I needed her now), but I heard one of the other horn players telling Ruben, "I don't care if he stands there; I don't care if he sings, but if he can't play the right notes, then he can't play." So that was the end of that exercise, but I was invited to come up and sing doo wops or whatever backup they wanted. I did pretty good at that.
That band broke up, or at least the non-Cantus quit, and Ruben decided that he was going to start his own band and cop the Rockin' Knights name again - they would be back in action. I was happy about that because I knew Ruben would let me get up and back him when he sang Time Is on My Side and a few other tunes. Abruptly, as Ruben was laying out his plans for finding players, he turned to me and said, "We are going to need a singer, Herm, and that's going to be you." He went to his record collection, thumbed through it, found what he was looking for and handed it to me. "Here, learn this." It was the James Brown Live at the Apollo album.
I laughed, thinking he was kidding because it was such a daunting task. "Okay, the skinny, white, glasses wearing Jewish kid singing James Brown... that should be funny."
"I'm not kidding, Herm. You can do this. Oh, and you'll also be the focus for the band so you'll need to learn stage presence and falling on your knees and all that stuff."
"Yeah, right." But Ruben had a way of looking stern that large Mexican men can assume. He did so. I knew he wasn't kidding, so I thought I'd better try. I listened, sang, screamed, hearkened back to the sounds I had achieved when my neighbor envisioned me strangling cats a few years earlier. I couldn't imagine that I was doing the songs any justice at all, but Ruben was complimentary and supportive. "Man, your are going to give James Brown a run for his money."
Ruben's brothers were almost amused at me being the front guy, but they were busy playing their instruments and were willing to allow Ruben to put the thing together. So I tried, tried, tried. Ruben pushed, cajoled, bought me beer, complimented, reassured - until I was almost convinced that I was doing at least okay. We practiced and practiced and practiced and finally took it public. Turns out I was doing okay. I got enough positive feedback to get me hooked. Even though the band didn't last very long, I loved the music. I loved to sing.
Ruben and I graduated from high school and it was off to the local commuter college in Beaumont. I actually took a music class. If I made a passing grade, I didn't deserve it. I could understand what notes are, what a measure is, and what a bar is, but I couldn't translate it to what was on a piece of paper or how it related to me - and I certainly didn't know, and I still don't, how the players decide what key to play in. Anyway, I was much busier in the more real world type of bar, testing my limits on how much I could drink. Ruben quit school to join the Navy to avoid the draft. The Rockin' Knights ended once again. I stayed in college, 'cause Mama said so (and also to avoid the draft), and stayed on the outer edge, cutting classes, sometimes passing, sometimes not.
Janis and I re-connected around this time. She had returned from San Francisco, as she put it, "to be straight for my mother" and we carpooled to college. We'd go to parties together, mostly a collection of all eleven or so malcontents in the college arena trying to carve a niche. It was pretty brutal - wearing beads and having long hair put your existence at a definite risk. But I was fortunate. From the stage I had made friends with the captain of the college football team, who had come up to the stage in a semi-stupor and hollered, "You are one singing mother fucker." He 'protected' me as best he could and let it be known that we were friends, but he was not exactly a bodyguard with me all the time. I still got a lot of flak just walking through the Business Building and a lot of "Can I help you ma'am?" everywhere I went.
Janis would bring her guitar to parties and sing folk songs and copy Ma Rainey or Odetta. She hadn't yet found her voice. She soon dropped out of school to return to San Francisco. A couple of months later my sister got a SF mag in the mail. It was sent by Arlene, my sister's high school friend, who now lived in SF and owned a porno movie house. The magazine had stories and pictures of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and, hey, what's this, Big Brother and the Holding Company. And who is that??? Janis. Chet Helms had gotten Janis to return to San Francisco to front the band he was managing.
That was almost irkish. Here I was, still trying to get a garage band to back out of the garage and Janis had fallen into something wonderful. Well, she had found her voice and a vehicle and she still is an icon for every female vocalist. She was a terrific singer in the right place at the right time.
It was about this time that the hippie culture emerged in Beaumont and drugs, mostly pot, began to creep into that culture. I hung out a lot at The Methodist Center, a little building close to campus. It was a comfortable atmosphere with a head honcho who was friendly to the idea of being a magnet for the anti-war hippie types who came in.
I was invited to join a band. Tom Arrington, a casual friend from high school, had the notion that the 'English Wave' was a tsunami fixing to wash over the United States and he wanted to put together a band that would do covers of everything from the Animals to the Beatles to Gerry and the Pacemakers to the Stones to the Zombies. Very alphabetical. And just for a little flavor, we'd do some Paul Revere and the Raiders stuff and even cover some other American bands.
I dismissed the idea. I really didn't have much experience singing--the Rockin' Knights had only played a few times and I wasn't comfortable singing this 'new' style. Tom (again I had a relentless coach) insisted. He said, "Okay, fine, we'll do some of the songs you were doing. You can bring the soul and R and B with you."
Well, okay then. I was convinced. I was ready to sing Please, Please and Mustang Sally without horns.
So, The Basic Things was formed (Tom Arrington, Charles Jayroe, Gerald Pierce, Larry Quinn, Ronnie Cooper, and me - and later David Neel would replace Tom) and I got to scream - again or still. One of the first things we did, after being together only six weeks, was enter a battle of the bands in Houston. We learned the Isley Brothers' Shout and I was able to scream and vamp as long as I wanted. Strangled cats to the nth degree. I loved it. Playing tambourine so hard that I may still have bruises on my leg.
We did exceedingly well at the battle. Thanks to the Beatles, everyone and his grandmother (well, okay, still not me or my grandmother) had learned to play guitar and garage bands proliferated, so there was lots of competition. There was the 'no fear' mentality of youth. We won a couple of other local contests and I became a SINGER.
It was a fun time and we cut a 45 of Wilson Pickett's 99 ½ and a B side, You're Still Dreaming, that was written on the spot in the recording studio because it hadn't occurred to us that we'd do more than one song that day. But, the engineer pointed out, "If you are going to release a record, you'll probably want something on the other side." Good point.
The Basic Things stayed together for awhile, did well regionally and when we split up, I got together with some people and formed The 1956 Love Affair. Our material ranged from Travis picking tunes to hard rock, doing Buffalo Springfield songs, Hendrix, Cream and Vanilla Fudge (you just can't beat their version of You Keep Me Hanging On). It was pretty cool. I brought with me the drummer from The Basic Things, Ronnie Cooper, and that was helpful because we shared a love for the hard rock/british beat/blue-eyed soul that the Basic Things had created. Ed deSteiguer, a friend from high school, played bass, and Rodney DeCoux was on guitar. It was this band that actually got arrested on stage at a club named the Purple Haze Machine for disturbing the peace. The cops got their chuckles parading us through the station in our Indian boots, beads, and long hair, for everyone to laugh at. By the time that went to court, the club had closed and the judge gave us a suspended sentence and a fine to be paid if we ever disturbed the peace in that club again. I respected authority so much that it was hard to put it into words.
I moved on to a band doing straight ahead blues with extended guitar leads, drum solos, and a pretty heavy sound. I got to sing my heart out and a friend commented to me, "You made the hairs on my neck stand up." Again, with the validation. But I was still trying to sound like James Brown or Mick Jagger or Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix with my own twist, depending on what 'kind' of band it was. The blues band didn't last very long, but I loved the music and expanded my horizon.
It was during this time of Methodist Center and finding a comfortable place among the local reps of the flower power culture that I first saw Honey, a Port Neches girl, wearing huge hoop earrings and walking past the Center one day.
"That's her," I thought. We met. I fell in love and we got married (at the local courthouse with barefoot friends attending and even someone holding a cat) soon after. Two weeks later, after crashing on the flea infested floor of a friend and each of us being seriously ill with a flu in kind of a tag team sickness, she left while I was at school registering for the next semester at college. She never spoke to me again, but I was sent divorce papers to sign. I was told by her sister that the issue was, "All he wants to do is fuck and play music". Hmmmmmm.
So what's a boy to do? I drank, smoked dope, ate diet pills (not prescribed to me for weight loss) sank into youthful depression, made some rather poor choices, got busted, got probation, got busted off probation, went to prison and did 10 months of a 2 1/2 year sentence. While in prison, I sang country music with the prison band (the warden's favorite band, thank you very much), and developed a postal romance with Bridget, a beautiful, sweet woman I had also met at the Methodist Center, who was nice enough to write me while I was incarcerated. When I paroled out, the romance was kindled and we got married.
Shortly after that, Rodney (from The 1956 Love Affair) and David Donovan, a washtub bass player, and I formed a jug band called Mama's Home Cooking. I started playing washboard and really liked the music we were doing. It was sparse and inventive. We had a killer version of Led Zepplin's Whole Lotta Love with a Blind Willie McTell flavor, done with some respect, but a whole lotta jug band influence. Rodney was writing tunes and I started to write songs, as well. We didn't stay together too long, but while we were together we became the house band at a bar in Beaumont called Our Place. It was great. It had a lot of Bandido Biker clientele and became a hangout for frat types as well. Interesting mix. One New Year's Eve we were scheduled to play and Johnny and Edgar Winters showed up with Uncle John Turner from Johnny's band. Billy Gibbons was there along with Keith Ferguson (later the bass player for the Fabulous Thunderbirds). Billy was playing harp, not guitar, that night. I was pretty sure that this was our big chance to wow these already established players. When it was time for us to go on, Rodney said, "I can't play... I did too much acid". Uhhhhhhhh... what??? So we didn't play. And we broke up soon afterwards, partly because of the differing views on musical ambition and partly because of Rodney's wanderlust.
Recently, a tape emerged from David Donovan. It is a 7-inch reel-to-reel recording of Mama's Home Cooking and has about twenty songs of jug band music... pretty raw, pretty basic. It sounds like the recordings that used to be made in the 30s and 40s of Robert Johnson or later recordings of Lightnin' Hopkins. Not fancy at all. I'm going to take this tape to an engineer and see if we can include some of the songs on my next CD.
Soon after that, Bridget told me that I needed to make a decision - her or music. Well, I said, "Okay, fine. I'll stop playing music." I may be exaggerating this, but it seems like the very next thing that happened was the phone rang and someone said, "Hey, we are getting together to jam and maybe get a band together. Y'wanna?" Without thinking, I said yes, turned around to see Bridget's jaw dropping and realized that I'd made more than one decision. So the last couple of months of our three year marriage were not so perfect, but a band named Partly Cloudy and Wild was born, doing a mix of the jug band stuff, blues and some originals.
I am happy to say that Bridget is now married to the perfect husband, a friend of mine who has always been in love with her. It's a beautiful thing. I'm glad I'm still friends with them.
So then Robert Gracia, Coy Fuller (best drummer I've ever seen or played with), and Gary Bailey called. They had a band named Knights in Daze, doing heavy rock - Clapton, Hendrix, Doors, etc. They needed a singer and I heeded the call. They were amazing musicians. We played around for awhile and then, as always, the band broke up.
I was still living in Port Arthur/Beaumont/Golden Triangle area but all my musician friends had moved out of town, either to California or Austin. I decided that if I was going to play music I needed to get to Austin, not make the big jump and 'split for Cal.' Rodney had moved to Austin and it seemed logical that I should also move there to reconnect with him to start another jug band with an additional (terrific) guitar player named Greg Jerome. That didn't work because I wanted to do some of my songs, couldn't even tell the guitar players what chords to play (as it turns out they are all pretty much the same anyway - either CFG or CAminFG) and that interfered with doing Rodney's more elaborate chord structures. I felt stifled. The upside of that exercise was that we tried out a drummer named Butch Jarvis. The band didn't work out, but Butch fell into place in a later effort.
That effort was Lowdown, a blues band, was formed with Keith Ferguson, Lynn Moore, Butch Jarvis and me. It didn't last long, but we sounded good as we played for eight hours straight at the Lamplight Saloon on 6th Street in Austin for ten bucks and all the beer we could drink. We made sure we were as overpaid with beer as we were underpaid in money.
I was doing plumbing throughout this whole thing - actually I'd been doing plumbing since I was in junior high. I got my Master Plumber's license right before I moved to Austin, so I could have something to fall back on if the rock and roll thing didn't work out. Lynn (maybe Fat Man Floyd, to you), a guitar player from PA who I knew from The Basic Things days, moved in with me and Keith soon moved into the tiny back porch of the house I'd bought. I had convinced the bank that I would be able to pay the note 'because I'm starting my own plumbing shop'.
Lynn knew Jim Franklin, the Armadillo artist, from his time at UT and hanging at the Armadillo World Headquarters. They ran into each other at AWHQ. Lynn gave Jim one of my business cards and asked him if he knew of any plumbing work that I could do. Times were financially difficult, having moved to Austin with only $400 in my pocket. Jim, indeed, did know of some work. He and his friend Bill Livingood were going to renovate and re-open the Ritz Theater on 6th Street as a music venue and there was lots of work to be done. I took the job for the promise of $12/hr as a plumber and $2/hr to do anything else (maybe one of these days I'll actually get paid). At that time 6th street was as dead as downtown Port Arthur. We got paid with promises and sustained with pot, crystal meth and coke. It wasn't so bad.
Lynn was also friends from high school with Clifford Antone. Clifford had an import and sandwich shop in Austin and decided that the time was right for him to start his blues club. Clifford had been a big fan of the Basic Things back in Port Arthur and I was called on to do the plumbing at a long closed storefront on 6th Street. It became Antone's Home of the Blues. It has moved several times over the years but has maintained its reputation as a place where all blues musicians want to play, thanks to Clifford's and Susan's (his sister) tenacity and love of the music.
I did some plumbing work for a Beaumont girl, Roberta Caraway (at the time) and she mentioned that she had a friend, Johnny Edson, who had some songs he wanted to record but he didn't know any musicians. Could I help? I said I'd listen to his stuff and see what we could do.
I read Johnny's songs and thought, "The lyrics to most of these songs are just strange. I don't know of anyone to play them". But there was one song, Boppin' at the Big Oaks, that I liked the lyrics to. Then Johnny came over to actually play the songs for me. Well, there you go. Roberta harmonized, I played washboard, and we worked on arrangements, still with the notion of someone recording them, and, wouldn't you know it - a band was born. Johnny came up with the name Uncle Uh-Uh from an old Robert Crumb comic book and we added 'and the Uh Huhs' for good measure. Our first gig was at the Ritz Theater with Doug Sahm and Harry Anderson, who, back in those days, was a traveling magician. We opened the show and did pretty well because we were having such a good time. How could you not have a good time when you are playing three part harmony kazoo rides?
Then, thanks to friends, we played at Liberty Hall in Houston, opening for BW Stevenson. The night was being broadcast on Pacifica Radio. But no one told us that and we didn't know. On the drive to Houston, we put a set list together. We decided to start with one of Johnny's songs, Kickin' Shoes. It would wake 'em up, we surmised, partly because it's a catchy tune with a funny story, and particularly because it starts with the lines, "Hey, mother fucker... hey what'd you call me... hey whatcha staring at me for". This will, indeed, get their attention, we thought. And correctly so.
It also got the attention of whoever monitored the seven second delay that keeps the airwaves clean for human consumption. We were cut off by the third word (that'd be 'fucker') and remained cut off until our set was over.
In retrospect, according to David Hargis, who told me he was there that night and, 35 years later, said, "It was a great moment in rock and roll".
So Uncle Uh Uh played at Soap Creek Saloon and a few other spots, catching the attention of Townsend Miller, beloved music critic for the Statesman back in the '70s, and we got some press and recognition - too much attention for the comfort level of Johnny, who decided that he wanted to continue writing and recording but didn't want to perform, and not enough attention to keep Roberta from bailing out to attend nursing school.
Me?? I was hooked. I was convinced that Johnny's songs were (are) just what this country needs to achieve a higher level of consciousness. And he was patient enough with me, as a friend and musician, to find the right chords to some of my songs. And Roberta was instrumental in arranging other songs of mine.
So I decided, upon getting the news that UUUUH was ending, to put something together that would carry on and help grow the seed that UUUUH had planted. I was comfortable with the notion of doing originals (again, mostly Johnny's) or covering stuff in an original way that would please me and some bandmates first, enough to take it to the bars and let others pass judgment, and then tweak and tweak and tweak until the delivery and response was fluid.
I liked singing with a female vocalist. I found one - Mary Maddox. She found David Christy to play guitar and Boo Resnick to play bass and we practiced, starting with Boppin' at the Big Oaks, and it sounded good.
As things developed, Doug Powell came on board playing mandolin. We played a couple of jobs and Mary moved on and Sally Hamilton auditioned for female vocalist. She was great singing Johnny's songs, but made it clear that music took a back seat to soccer and her job. So we continued to look for someone who was more driven by the music. We were on the verge of hiring another woman when Sally called and said, "I can't get those songs out of my head. I want to do this."
Kismet. We became Ain't Misbehavin'. We're still playing together occasionally thirty+ years later.