Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Bennetts Brothers

Each year there are always new faces turning up on the inner harbour causeway to try their hand at being a street musician.
In the summer of 2006, two of these new faces were a pair of brothers, who although they are relatively new to the Victoria scene, they are anything but novices when it comes to busking in general, they are in fact busking veterans.

The two buskers, or “street singers” as they call themselves, Ian and Jonathan Bennetts began playing on the streets of Paris, France in 1957. Other places they have busked include Denmark, Switzerland, the Middle East, North Africa, New York and San Francisco. More recently, since the summer of 2006, they’ve been living and busking here in Victoria. They both play guitar, and sing a mix of folk, blues, rockabilly, skiffle and country.

Originally from Yorkshire, England, Ian and Jonathan, have a direct connection to the late ‘50s British skiffle scene through their younger brother Les, who was achieving success as a premiere guitarist in his own band Les Hobeaux, and then went on to play lead guitar as a member of Lonnie Donegan’s band.

After hearing a few of their stories, I knew their early experiences playing on the streets of Paris would be a different perspective from the Vancouver/Victoria angle that’s been the focus of the blog so far. Last January, I finally got a chance to sit down with the brothers at Serious Coffee in James Bay, where they shared a few of their memories from their early days as street musicians.

CD – How did you decide to become a street musician?
Jonathan – My father was a guitarist and a singer with a dance band, didn’t know him very well as he abandoned my mother at an early age. Not knowing him, I followed in his footsteps, joined the Paratroop Regiment and was posted to Cyprus, aged 18. That’s when I had this singular idea of being a singer, and it just stayed with me. I bought my first guitar in Cyprus just before heading back to (the) UK, and after checking out the local scene in London, figured I’d do a lot better in France, (it) seemed much more romantic than England and a hell of a lot less competition.
Within a couple of weeks of discharge from the army in 1957 and with about fifty bucks, I got the boat train from Dover, arrived in Paris, spent all my money quickly on a hotel room and largesse to waiters. I wanted to start from zero and declare proudly that I’m living totally off the money that I was earning as a singer.
I’d just turned 20. When I started singing, I knew exactly three chords, which my brother Les had showed me, plus one complete song, Yes Sir, That’s My Baby. I sang my lungs out, about thirty renditions, same song. Still makes me smile when Ian and I sing it on the harbour front here.

(Ian Bennetts, Alex Campbell & Jonathan Bennetts – photo courtesy of Jonathan Bennetts)

Jonathan – Then I met one of Scotland’s finest folk singers, Alex Campbell, (he) was working in a small club called La Contrescarpe, but wasn’t a street singer. I googled him recently and found out he made like a hundred LPs, really amazing guy. Anyway, he came roaring out of the crowd and said “For f--- sake, can ye nae play another tune,” and he grabbed my guitar and proceeded to play eleven different chords while singing San Francisco Bay Blues. We became really good friends and he taught me how to play the guitar, he was a lovely guy, he really was.
Ian came over and joined me about six months later after he got out of the RAF. We busked together probably about a third of the time. Generally we’d do it solo because you made about the same money, maybe ten percent more with an extra person, so it made more sense to split the places that we were doing.

Ian – I remember my first busking experience in Paris. When I got out of the service I went immediately to Paris where it was supposed to be really good, the woman were beautiful. I was put there by my brother Jon, with a guitar, right in front of Le Metro, the Parisian subway. (People) came piling out and I struck up with, I think it was a pretty poor attempt at Blue Suede Shoes, made not much better by the fact that my guitar was a very quiet electric Hofner cutaway I’d brought from England. It looked great, but was useless for a street busker (as) it had no volume or sound or tone whatsoever. And so there I was standing at the top with my knees shaking real bad and my voice was to say the least, feeble! I got through it somehow and within a few days I was totally confident that I was on my way to becoming what I’d hoped to be, a pretty decent busker. Still, after a while, I switched to a Spanish guitar, (which was) all you could get in France at that time.
I think probably we’re talking the late ‘50s, ’58 or something like that, Jon and I would sing outside of a café somewhere in the Latin Quarter of Paris. We’d do two songs and then Jon would go around with the hat, and while he did that, I would sing Summertime. At that time back then a long time ago I had a very sweet soft voice and I would sing Summertime and I’d usually aim my eyes towards a pretty young woman and sing the song as if I was singing it to her. I learned that trick as a busker early on, and so I did very well in the romance department by singing romantic songs, and that was a really good experience for me, and I’ve never looked back.

(Jonathan & fellow street musician Sammy Prosser entertaining the crowd at the Pont des Arts – photo courtesy of Jonathan Bennetts)

Jonathan – Every Saturday and Sunday, we’d go down to a place called the Pont des Arts which is just opposite the Louvre, and underneath the bridge on the Seine (River) we’d have a big outdoor concert, and usually about a thousand people watching our outdoor show. It was really extraordinary, a lot of the visiting musicians from Stateside, Jack Elliott, and Derroll Adams, Pete the Feet a superb 12 string player, and Joe Locker the banjo player, Mimi Baez, Richard Fariña, whoever was in town came down, and we’d do like a non-stop show, take a couple of crates of beer, and before the show started, holler at the gathering crowd to throw our beer money down, it was really fantastic, probably the best street singing experience ever.

(Columbia studio shot of Jonathan & Ian with Pete the Feet on bass in foreground – photo courtesy of Jonathan Bennetts)

Jonathan – Then we were discovered whilst busking, made a record for a small company called Unidisc, who recorded folk songs, we did EPs (extended plays) in those days, four songs and onto the juke box. Somebody from Columbia Records heard it and really liked what we were doing, so they got in touch with us and offered a one year contract, paid us about $500 a week plus our lodgings and expenses. (They) put us on a plane, flew us back to England, bought absurd tweed suits for us and then flew us back again on Air France, (where) we had the press meet us when we landed. We sang with people like Johnny Hallyday and Richard Anthony. Edith Piaf, was in the same recording studio as we were, I thought she was the cleaning lady the first time I saw her, and I was quite startled to discover she was “le petit oiseau, the little bird”. We toured all over France, during this year with Hallyday and Anthony, going to different cities and each night there’s a concert. (We) sang at the Palais du Sports and headlined the Olympia which is the French Carnegie Hall or London’s Albert Hall.
We did lots of television, made various records, often covers of hit Presley discs, we had several hits and the usual publicity, but no freedom of choice. Then we were offered a huge contract, but it was way too prohibitive. We used to go to Pamplona and run with the bulls every year, skied every winter, and I parachuted, lots of dynamic things, but we couldn’t do any of this in the contract. They were gonna put us in a house, (and) four mornings a week we had to have breakfast with specific visiting stars and music publishers and stuff like that. Plus wearing those stupid tweed suits, being British and I was supposed to smoke a f---ing pipe, like proper Englishmen, when actually, I smoked Gauloises like a good Frenchman.
Anyway, I turned it down, I said “No”, walked away from it and went back to the street scene. It was a good contract, a huge amount of money, probably like $500,000 a year, plus royalties for me as lead singer, and for the rest of the group it was a $100,000 each, but I didn’t want to do it, I really had no interest in being manipulated just to make some money, but I certainly had an interest in leading a free lifestyle. So, we walked away from it, pissed everybody else off, but I’ve never regretted it for a day.

CD – How would you describe your music at that time?
Jonathan – I was doing things like Bring A Little Water Sylvie and Lost John, Cumberland Gap, stuff from Donegan, and then as Presley got more and more popular, I started doing Presley songs and I moved easily into the diving around and doing the gyrations.
As far as I know, I was the first sort of rock ‘n’ roll singer to do a session on the street. There were French street singers, but they played the accordion and they did like the romantic songs, where as I was doing Elvis Presley, and from that it built up. After three years I think there was about 25 street singers from Germany, from Sweden, from America, from England, and it just got to be like an industry in that sense, so I’m really proud of the fact that we were there for the start of the whole thing. Then I got hired solo at the Moulin Rouge on Pigalle, and (laughs) I was stripped down to a pair of tight white pants and they painted my body gold and I stood on a thing and sang Elvis, Jerry Lee (Lewis) and Ray Charles numbers.

The brothers went on a trip to Turkey and sang in some nightclubs in Istanbul. They also traveled to Cyprus, Lebanon and Jordan, where they sang at a hotel called the Philadelphia Hotel, for King Hussein and the royal family.

Jonathan – It’s probably around ’59, ’60, Ian and I, we did various trips. I wanted to visit a lot of different places, and the beauty about being a street singer is that we literally didn’t have backpacks then, we just had a guitar case with a couple of pairs of shorts, and a pair of pants, and we didn’t need anything else. You just bought things as you went along, and you could arrive in a city with no money, and strike up and ‘bingo’. The first thing you’d do is make your hotel money, and then you’d make your food money. And then if you wanted a couple of days break, you’d work extra hard.
In Geneva, I was such a novelty, I was making around 50, 75 bucks a night, and that was a lot of money in those days, so it was pretty fantastic. I was the first street singer in Geneva. I know that for a fact ‘cause I got arrested and they said “What is this madness, singing in the street, rock and roll?”, and then I eventually I did a couple of days in jail, and they let me out, there was a newspaper article about my arrest, and then I got a booking in a nightclub, so (laughs) that was pretty nifty.
Then I kinda moved from singing in the streets if it was too cold, and I’d evolved into asking if I could sing inside of restaurants. So in the old town of Geneva for instance, (there) was a super five-star restaurant and I’d sing in there and I’d put like a twenty franc note on the silver collection tray, and I’d score around about $200 in one show, ‘cause they were very, very wealthy, and I spoke to them in French which helped a lot. There was a king called King Farouk, and he used to go into this place regularly. He lived in Geneva when he was in exile, and he was in there one night when I was singing, and he said “Do you know anything Arabic?”, he spoke in French, and I said ”Yeah.” There’s a song called Moustapha that was a very popular song by an Algerian singer, so I sang that, I figure he’s gonna give me at least fifty bucks, anyway (he) went up to the collection, and he pulls out a purse and he takes out a ten centieme piece, it’s like five cents, he clinked it on my tray. I picked it up, and looked at him and I said “Your Majesty, I understand you’re in exile, and things must be very hard for you, so I think you need this more than I do” (laughs), and I gave it back to him. He went berserk, so the owner of the place threw me out. He said “We’re terribly sorry, Your Majesty”, (then) threw me out, and he winked at me and he said “Come by tomorrow”. So I walked back in there the next night, and all the waiters and the chef came out and applauded me, they said “Fantastic, Jonathan”, gave me a beautiful dinner, and they said “This bastard’s been stiffing us”, he’d get a bill for $1000, and he’d leave a $1 tip”. (laughs). So I was popular for a long time in that place.

CD – You’ve mentioned that you guys have also done a bit of jail time for singing in the streets?
Jonathan – We probably went to jail, at least a hundred times, Even when we had a contract with the studios, if they were late in giving us our allowance for a week, I’d say “If you don’t give it to us, we’re gonna go out and sing”, and they’d say “Oh, no, you can’t do that, you’re stars now.” And I’d say “Bollocks!” and off we’d go. I think we got arrested one time, we were both stars in the system, and there was a big headline in the newspaper “Les Travellers sont arrêtés par la police”. It was actually fantastic publicity and it really helped us.
We lived in a very immediate sense in those days and the fame didn’t mean too much, though it was certainly a terrific kick to go in a bar and put on one of our hits on the jukebox, or stand casually next to one of the huge posters with our photos on them all over Paris. (We) were pissed off ‘cause we didn’t have any money.
Ian – I think that one of the funny parts that kind of pissed me off at the time, but looking back it makes me laugh, is when and if the cops got us, because we got so good at sensing the cops coming, we’d take our guitars and put ‘em under a car and stand in the crowd and say “What’s goin’ on?”, when the cops would be there. But when they got us, fairly good humored about it, take us to the local cop station, take all our money, and keep us for a couple of hours and let us go. (laughs)
Jonathan – We finally developed a system where we had girls collecting and the moment we’d collected like $10, we’d put it in a special bag and she’d hang on to it, we wouldn’t put the money on ourselves, so that way the cops didn’t get all the money.
Ian – Tell him about Tangiers.
Jonathan – Oh yeah, we busked in Tangiers and within thirty minutes there was a riot, all these women with their (burqas) they were screaming, hysterically, and all the men were shouting at us and we were just singing, and we were arrested and slung in jail, for creating a riot, it was the newspaper headline the next day. Then the chief of police came to see us and he said “You know I can lock you up for a long time for this, it’s very serious, but we’re having a police benefit, so if you agree to play at the benefit we’ll turn a blind eye”.
Ian – And that’s where they asked us to play, right there in the jail.
Jonathan – We sang for them, then headlined the police ball.

* * * * * * * * * *
CD – You’ve been busking here in Victoria now for five years, how does the causeway compare with some of the other places you’ve busked?
Jonathan – (laughs) Financially, not at all. For crowd reaction my favorite country in the world to sing in was France, the French are just so extraordinary, they really reacted ‘cause they just have a joie de vivre which you don’t find in North America. For whatever reason North Americans are really tough to get involved. On a percentage basis, in France, if I stood on the Carrefour de L’Odeon, which I did when I first got there, within ten minutes of singing, I had about fifty people around me, where as here I can stand there for an hour, if you get four people around you, you’re doing pretty good. So, Victoria, we do it more for our soul than for anything else.

CD – What do you enjoy most about busking?
Jonathan – I think the sense of freedom, and it’s just a joyful experience to be out there singing for people. It doesn’t get too joyful when people just keep walking by, but once you get an audience and get some people that are responding to you, then it’s really a terrific feeling. And even at our advanced age it’s still a turn-on to do that. It’s a good feeling. So I enjoy the exchange essentially, where you move somebody enough that they’ll stop and they’ll interact with you, come up afterwards and say “We really, really liked that. That was good stuff.” For me anyway it’s much more about that.
I haven’t done a lot of it the last couple of years ‘cause I was pretty sick for at least a year. Now, Ian, he’s been really solid, he goes down there three, four times a week on average, and he does it ‘cause he loves doing it, it’s not really for the money, unless you do like three sessions a day, you’re not gonna make enough money to live on.
Ian – I can’t really add much to that. I agree. It’s the idea that you’re doing something artistic and you’re getting reaction from complete strangers, you know. And one of things I love about busking is when either foreigners or children get into it, and you know that they don’t understand really what you’re doing, but they’re so happy about it and they’re jumping around and laughing and giggling and stuff like that.

* * * * * * * * * *
In 1963, Ian and Jonathan got free passage singing on a boat to the States, and ended up in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where they met and hung out with some of the up-and-coming names of the early ‘60s folk scene including Bob Dylan and the Clancy Brothers. (more on their Greenwich Village experiences in a future post)

In the meantime you can check out the following related links:
Bennetts Brothers – C.C.Rider
Bennetts Brothers – Lost John
Lonnie Donegan with Les Bennetts on guitar

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Keep On The Sunny Side: interview with Emily Molloy & Leah Barley

A week ago Saturday, I was doing my regular busking slot on the north corner of the inner harbour causeway, when I happened to glance southward and noticed that there were a couple of unfamiliar street musicians playing in the center spot. When I heard that they were just in town for the day, I relayed a message down to them, that I was hoping we might arrange an interview before they left.

I was just packing up my gear preparing to go down to the center spot and catch up with the duo, when I noticed them approaching me, and we made our introductions.

It was apparent that their musical talents and their friendly, outgoing, sunny personalities had made quite an impression among the passersby, and a few of the causeway artists. As we were talking, people were still coming up and offering them tips and positive comments about their performance.

Sunny Side Up, as they call themselves, are Emily Molloy, who plays guitar and sings, and Leah Barley, who also sings, and plays the banjo and tambourine, or as she calls it “alternative percussion”. Both are originally from Ontario; Meaford and Newmarket respectively. Emily spent some time in Invermere BC, and Leah was living in Canmore AB, before moving to Vancouver where they met.

Emily – We have a mutual friend, actually two of our friends, Scott Bell and James Green, who have a band called the Buffalo Swans, and I was there to support them, and so was Leah, and we met each other dancing. Then we didn’t see each other for a little longer, and then we met again at a party through James and we just started hanging out and playing music together, and we loved it. We really collaborate well and compliment each others style, so (we) kept it up.
CD – And how long ago would this have been that you started playing together?
Emily – About two months ago.

CD – What made you decide to try busking?
Emily – I knew a couple of people who had done it before and I thought about it. I was like, what’s the difference between me playing music in my room or in my house by myself, and being outside, standing on the street and getting feedback and energy from people, and you can kinda make some money doing it. So, yeah, I just started trying to do it that way and went, set out my little jar one day and it was working, and I was like “Wow, alright, this can kinda work” (laughs).

Although Emily had done quite a bit of busking when she first moved to Vancouver, she and Leah had never busked together until they decided to try it in Victoria.

Leah – On this voyage in particular, we just wanted to kinda get away, and come see what Victoria was like, and wanted to play and share our music, so busking is just an easy way to just do it. We love playing for people at house parties and whenever we jam with our friends everyone has such a great time, so busking is just an easy way to share our music with everybody.
CD – So, you came over on the ferry last night?
Emily – Yeah, then we hitchhiked into Victoria, and from there we had some friends pick us up and we played music all night and ate some food and…
Leah – Here we are (laughs).

CD – What do you enjoy most about busking?
Leah – I like when you’re into a song and you’re playing and you’re totally into it and then all of a sudden you’re finished and there’s a whole bunch of people all around you, and you didn’t even realize it and everyone’s just clapping. Or, like that little girl, we sang a kids song, Five Little Green Speckled Frogs (laughs), for this one little girl, and she was so happy by the end of it. You know, it’s just nice to share your music.
Emily – It is nice to share your music, and I like to close my eyes a lot, and I’ll open my eyes up and there’s a big crowd around, and they all smile and you think “Well, okay that’s amazing, my music does get out to people”. I know that all the musicians that I’ve been listening to, that’s how they got to me, and I like to be able to give back to other people.

CD – How would you describe your style of music?
Emily – Eclectic. I’ll sing anything from, you know, Nirvana, covers from like early ‘90s grunge to, like jazz, Ella Fitzgerald style, it’s pretty all over the place.
Leah – I like to cover music on my banjo that you wouldn’t actually hear on a banjo, so I do Sublime songs, and I like doing music from the ‘40s and ‘50s, like, I cover Blue Moon and Dreams. I like to do songs that people love and enjoy but they’ve never heard it in that style and it makes them think, and I just kind of put my own twist on things.

CD – Do you write any of your own stuff?
Emily – Sure do. I’m recording an album right now, it’s gonna be out hopefully in the next eight months and, yeah, you can go to, and it’s all there. I think I have a very different style, I’m not really sure what I am, I can’t really, it’s… powerful, soulful… it’s hard… it’s just music, happiness, that’s what it is.
Leah – I’m attempting to (write), I’ve been singing for about three years, but I’ve only had my banjo for about a year, so just understanding the whole dynamics of putting lyrics together with chords is very new for me. I’ve written maybe three or four songs but nothing major and I’m just kind of playing with it. I just really enjoy accompanying Emily and learning from her, and learning from our friends, but definitely I’m learning a lot from Emily.

CD – Is there a song that you never get tired of playing, that you could play ‘til the cows come home?
Leah – To play with Emily, my favorite song by far is No Rain (by Blind Melon), the song that we performed for you. That song has such a deep emotional impact on me from when I was a kid, such a fun, fun song. But, I just love playing and singing, so I can’t really pick one song because, depending on my mood, it’s just whatever comes out of me.
Emily – For me, wow I was gonna say Black by Pearl Jam, it’s the song that I absolutely love to play, and everytime I play it, it’s actually different than the last time. It’s one of the first songs that I learned how to play and sing and it’s just very powerful and yeah, I love it. I did get sick of it for a while ‘cause it was the only song that people wanted to hear from me for a while, and then I started writing my own music. In terms of my own music, the one song that I could play forever is called This Old Box, it’s kinda got a special little special place.
CD – And is it on your website so people can check it out?
Emily – It is, yeah. People can totally check it out.

CD – In your short time busking, do you have any memorable experiences?
Leah – Well, this (interview) is going to be memorable (laughs). Just today was great having everyone clapping and being nice to us. One man came and gave us some of his paintings, and everyone’s been so friendly, and definitely, that little girl coming over and letting us sing for her was really sweet. It was just nice to see everyone was just so happy. It’s nice to do something we love and to have it impact people so positively.
Emily – I have two that really stick out with me. A little girl actually came and started dancing and she was wearing a tutu and her name was Ocean and her mom was just walking by like, they weren’t gonna actually stop, but she just couldn’t stop dancing, and so her mom eventually just ended up staying, you know watching her kid dance (laughs). It was like the cutest thing in the world.
Another one, this man came by one day, he was just walking by (and) he had a bunch of sage with him. He gave that to me as a gift instead of throwing a twoonie or something, and he asked if he could take my picture and I said ”Of course”. He used some of the pictures as part of his art project, and he put me up in (laughs) one of his art gallery openings, yeah, so that was pretty cool.
CD – Did you get to play at the opening?
Emily – No I didn’t even think about it at the time (laughs) I could’ve but (laughs) I didn’t think about it.

CD – If somebody came up to you and said “You know, I think what you’re doing is pretty cool, I’d like to try it”, is there anything that you’ve learned from busking that you could pass on to them as advice?
Emily – Definitely, just don’t reserve yourself, I think that’s the biggest thing, is just have fun with it and be yourself, that’s all you can do, right? Just being yourself and playing what you love to play, that comes out more than any other thing. Just putting your heart into it, that’s about it. As long as you love what you’re doing, people will come around and wanna be part of it, so yeah.
Leah – Make sure your heart’s in it, come prepared, know what you wanna play, keep ‘em rollin’. If there is a crowd, kind of try to interact with them.
Emily – (And) go when it’s not raining (laughs).
CD – (laughs) Sounds good to me. Have you ever done it in the rain?
Emily – I have.
Leah – Yeah? You busked in the rain?
Emily – Yeah, but I was under a covering thing, and it was raining on the street. It wasn’t good. (laughs) It really wasn’t good!

So, there you go. Best advice is if you’re going to try busking, "keep on the sunny side".

The pair are hoping to have a myspace page set up in a few weeks, at which point I will link it.
In the meantime, you can check out Emily’s music at the following website:
Music Of Emily