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Early Sunday morning, Washington D.C. lost one of go-go’s pioneering musicians, Anthony “Little Benny” Harley, who at age 46, according to published sources, died in his sleep, after having performed with Chuck Brown the night before at the Capitol Heights Ballroom in Capitol Heights, MD on a bill with EU, Bela Dona, and Da Mixx Band. Little Benny joined Rare Essence as a teenager in the 1970s, playing trumpet, adding distinctive husky-voiced vocals, and leading their choreographed dance steps. In the mid-80s he formed his own group, Little Benny & the Masters, best known for the catchy “Cat in the Hat,” and this always busy musician later performed with Proper Utensils, the Legends of Go-go, a reunited old-school Rare Essence, and Chuck Brown. Harley recently had back surgery and was walking with a cane. An autopsy is going to be performed. Mayor Fenty issued a statement, The Washington Post noted his death this morning, and WUSA channel 9 news did so last night. Fans have been paying tribute to his one-of-a-kind skills on WPGC’s website and the Facebook sites of the P.A. Palace and EU’s Sugar Bear, to name a few. Funeral information or an address for charitable donations has not yet been provided. Chuck Brown, Kip Lornell, Tom Goldfogle, and Soldierette offer their thoughts to the City Paper below.
George Washington University professor, and co-author of “The Beat: Go-Go’s Fusion of Funk and Hip-hop,” Kip Lornell recalled, “The first time I met Benny was about 12 years ago when I went to his home to interview him for “The Beat”. Benny was most gracious and opened up his home. He patiently answered my questions and it was clear how important go-go was to him and, by extension his family and his peers. Benny was always a solid trumpet player since his days at Ballou High School but it was his singing and warm presence on stage that placed him near the top of the “most asked to come up on stage” list around town. In addition to his days with Rare Essence and, later with Little Benny and the Masters, Mr. Harley often appeared with the Godfather. There seemed to be a special warmth between Chuck and Benny. Whenever Benny came on stage, Chuck seemed to feel utterly at ease knowing that everything would be kicking just fine when he turned the stage over to Benny who was always exuberant, exciting, and professional. Because he was so enthusiastic Benny could hype a crowd without even trying, it was just his way.”
Rene Dickerson, better known as Soldierette, a longtime DC blogger who also managed Benny’s group “The Legends of Go-go,” said “Benny was my friend and confidant. I’ve seen Benny perform thousands of times; the first time being with the Masters. I was his personal manager and promoter during the heyday of “The Legends of Go-Go” so I’ve seen him perform in tiny basements to great halls to nightclubs to little shacks in the hills of Virginia to huge coliseums. My last time seeing him perform was the night that I left DC for Illinois. We had the most fun we’d had in years and he wanted me to make sure I took pictures of not just him, but of everyone that wanted to be in a picture with him.” She added, “One of my fondest memories of Benny is him calling me every morning, for years, at around 4am, just to talk until it was time to get his kids up and take them to school. I would be dead asleep, but would get up and put some coffee on and keep his company after a night of performing. He had great plans for the rest of his life, and even greater plans for the kids in his life. His love of children is something most didn’t even know about him. He dreamed of a children’s music school that taught kids how to read music, play an instrument, and especially carry on the history of go-go music. He would perform anywhere for free when it involved little kids. He left behind a 5 month old baby who would never get to know how special he was.”
Regarding Benny’s place in the DC go-go scene she concluded, “Benny was important to the industry because he always kept it competitive. He was always looking to be different from the rest. He’d start a new band when no one thought he could. He would show up on someone’s cd out of the blue. He would come back when everybody was saying he had lost his voice, or was on drugs, or was doing whatever the popular rumor was; he always came back. He just loved music and would study it as part of his life; part of his being. He was fascinated by Miles Davis and John Coltrane. He wanted more for go-go and he wanted to be the one who took it to that level. Other talkers and musicians looked up to him as the one to strive to be like, or to pass on the circuit…He always made his band members stronger players, and that is what will live on past his life with us.”
Tom Goldfogle, Chuck Brown’s manager, stated “I can only tell you that Benny is sewn into the fabric of this community and its culture and he brought so much joy to so many. The energy he brought to the stage everynight was unparalleled. He lived life to the fullest and loved to perform. ” Chuck Brown said, “I am heartbroken at the loss of my dear friend Lil Benny. I used to go to some of the Rare Essence rehearsals in the early days and watch them. I was honored to produce their first record, Body Moves. One day when I was not feeling well and my voice was giving out I asked Benny if he would come to the show and help me out. That was sixteen years ago, and he’s been with us on stage ever since. There is nobody like him. No one can replace him. He was such a crowd pleaser, a motivator, always had a positive outlook. He was a true pioneer, a music legend. He performed the songs we all grew up on and loved. He took it to another level – every night. Words cannot express how much he will be missed.”
* Photo from Soldierette’s website