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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the October 15, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
From Philly Sound to History BA
For drummer, producer, and arranger Keith Benson, the
temptation of the money to be made was too great. So as a young man
he interrupted his promising college career at Howard University in
Washington, D.C., and went to work in Philadelphia’s recording studios.
He knew his decision hurt his mother, who always placed an emphasis
on getting an education as she raised Benson in their Camden home.
On Saturday, October 18, Benson will deliver a commencement address
to graduates of Thomas Edison State College, the college without classrooms
where students continue their education through courses of home study.
Benson, who was born in Camden and graduated from Camden High School
in 1972, says that — contrary to what some may think about his
hometown — it wasn’t such a bad place to grow up in the 1960s
and early 1970s. "There were quite a few nice clubs around, the
Apollo was there. There was a nice scene for music in Camden,"
Benson related last week from his home in Cherry Hill.
"We never locked our doors and we didn’t find out we lived in
what they called `the ghetto’ until I was in high school," he
"In the 1960s and early ’70s," he says, "Camden was a
beautiful place. Not to look at, but in terms of people and relationships."
Neighbors would look after one another and one another’s kids, he
Benson began playing drums as a 12-year-old. "My mother bought
me my first set," he recalls, adding tearfully that his mother
died in February of this year, shortly before his official June graduation
from Thomas Edison State College.
His first professional gig was New Year’s Eve, 1969, in New York City.
The pay, $100, was great money for 1969, and it had an impact on Benson,
then an impressionable ninth grader.
"I got 100 bucks for playing for four or five hours. That really
opened my eyes," Benson says. "By 1974 I was one of three
studio drummers for Philadelphia International Records, working on
the Philly sound with songwriters Gamble and Huff and others,"
In the early and mid-1970s, Philadelphia International Records had
a stream of top 10 and top 20 hits on AM radio with songs sung by
Teddy Pendergrass, the O’ Jays, Lou Rawls, and Patti LaBelle, among
others. Philadelphia International was the second largest company
in the history of rhythm and blues, Benson adds, "and while Motown
sold singles, Philadelphia International was the first record company
in the field to be selling full-length, 33 1/3 LPs."
In February Benson won two Grammy Awards for his role
as an associate producer on the documentary film, "Standing in
the Shadows of Motown." Benson and his associates also won Grammys
for "Best R&B Vocal" and "Best Compilation Album."
"Standing in the Shadows of Motown" chronicles the contributions
of the Motown session musicians, the Funk Brothers, to pop music history.
The success of the film spurred a series of tours for the Funk Brothers,
and, with the untimely death of drummer Benny Benjamin, who played
on thousands of Motown recordings, Benson was invited to play with
the band as it embarked on its world tour.
Not surprisingly, Benson, like so many who grew up in the era of "classic
R&B," which lasted until the mid-1970s, has problems with what
some people and radio stations call "R&B" today. It’s urban
contemporary music, but it’s not classic R&B. What’s worse, some of
it is even produced with drum machines.
"It’s hard to make a computer sound like a live band," says
Benson. "I know a lot of musicians who spend their whole lives
wishing they could work with one major artist, and the fact that I’ve
been blessed to work with so many of them, at Philadelphia International
and later Motown, is still amazing to me."
For seven years, from 1974 to 1980, Benson was one of three drummers
who accompanied Pendergrass, the O’Jays, the Four Tops, LaBelle, Rawls,
Edgar Winter, and others on albums recorded by the label.
"I used to make tons of money. When I started getting in to the
studio scene in Philadelphia, I practically ran out of college. I
was making upwards of $1,000 a day," he recalls. Asked what he
majored in at Howard University, Benson says, "I did nothing,
basically. I majored in party!"
"In the early ’70s, you were either protesting or partying,"
he adds, "so I chose partying."
Philadelphia in the early 1970s was a great place to be involved in
the record business, he recalls, adding he worked mostly out of Sigma
Sounds’ two Philadelphia studios. "Things were laid back and relaxed
and comfortable. We would take all day sometimes to record two songs,"
he says. "I remember we didn’t much care for the way they did
things in New York, ’cause there was also a Sigma Sound up in New
York. It was a whole different culture. We weren’t used to it. Everything
was by the clock, and there were contractors, and it was so much more
time-conscious and money conscious."
"We used to say, `We’ll get it [on tape] when we feel it.’ And
that’s the way we used to do things in Philadelphia," he says,
"it was more fun and informal, and I think the work is more still
more vibrant and valid — and ultimately more artistic than a lot
of the studio work we did up in New York."
He knew his decision to leave college would hurt his mother, so he
moved out and got his own apartment, later a house, in Cherry Hill.
"My mother was a teacher and she instilled the value of an education
in me," he says, "but I didn’t realize that when I was with
her. It wasn’t until after I left school and had gotten kicked around
in life that I realized she was right. In my ignorance, I figured,
‘She’s not making the kind of money I’m making, so she doesn’t understand
why I’m doing this.’ But later on, after I got the rug pulled out
from under me and I hit rock bottom, I realized the error of my ways,"
Benson began attending Camden County Community College when he was
42, soon after his "economic demise," as he calls it. He enrolled
in Thomas Edison in 1997 and finished his degree, a B.A. in history,
Aside from the emphasis his mother always placed on education, what
motivated Benson to aim for a four-year college degree?
Several years after Philadelphia International Records went out of
business, Benson went to work with at-risk kids in Camden. "One
of them asked me one day, what degree I had. Even though I was an
educated man, and I inhaled books all the time, I had to start tap
dancing and tell this kid I didn’t have a college degree."
"When I enrolled in Camden County Community College, it was with
the forethought that I would go on to a four-year school. I was determined
to study history and get my degree."
So how does it feel to be the proud holder of bachelor’s
in history? "So far it has had no bearing on my professional life,"
says Benson, who operates a recording studio out of his home.
"The rush of being on stage with great names soon leaves you.
But if this rush I’ve been feeling since June ever leaves me, I’ll
probably go out and get another degree."
After Philadelphia International Records folded in the early 1980s,
Benson began to play out in clubs again, encouraged by the development
of the casino industry in Atlantic City. When the casinos first opened
up, the quality of the "lounge acts" was very good, Benson
argues, and so was the money, but that only lasted until about 1990.
"The artistic quality was really high there and the main room
acts in A.C. have always been high quality," he says, "but
from 1980 through 1988 or 1989, the lounge acts were every bit as
good as the main room acts." But when the casinos discovered they
didn’t need to be paying out money for top-notch lounge acts, the
gigs started to dry up.
Then came "the Great Depression," as Benson calls it. "I
was worried about my house, I was thinking how I was going to survive,
because I had children who were kind of young, and I was thinking
about my wife, the pressure I put on her by not having a real job.
I tried to get a 9-to-5 job but nobody would hire me at that time,
so I ended up playing in a wedding and bar mitzvah band. I was making
pretty good money, enough to stabilize the family finances," he
says. He enrolled at Camden County Community College in 1996 and by
1998 was enrolled at Thomas Edison State College.
"Then in 1999 the concept of this film about Motown came up,"
he says, and that led to his two recent Grammy Awards for his role
as an associate producer of the film and an accompanying recording,
as well as the touring as part of the Funk Brothers-Motown revival
"These days, the film continues to sell on DVD and videocassette,
and there are even certain schools and colleges that are talking about
making it part of their curriculums," he says.
Asked if he has thought about what he will say to his fellow students,
Thomas Edison’s 2003 class of 1,621 graduates, Benson is perfectly
"I hate to be a bummer for your article, but I haven’t really
thought about it," he confesses. "I mean, what do you say
to self-motivated people like this? I mean, these people have been
around, they’ve been there, done that."
Benson’s Response for Graduates address will follow Senator Jon S.
Corzine’s commencement address. Corzine, a successful investment banker,
was elected to his first term in the U.S. Senate in 2000. The Phi
Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
in 1969, who earned his MBA at the University of Chicago in 1973,
will be presented with a doctor of humane letters by George A. Pruitt,
president of Thomas Edison College.
"I’m sure I’ll have something to say by October 18th at 2 p.m.,"
says Benson, who will cut short an engagement in Atlanta to deliver
his address. "But whatever I have to say, it’ll be brief, because
everybody hates having to go to graduations! When people start getting
longer than three or four minutes, everyone gets fidgety. After all,
these people are adults, they’ve made their marks, and they’ve done
the college education route for their own reasons."
"I can’t exactly give them the `Life — give it your best shot’
speech, when half of them are in their 30s and 40s," he adds.
— Richard J. Skelly
at the War Memorial, Trenton, 609-943-3560. Senator Jon S. Corzine
presents the commencement address and receives an honorary doctorate
at the 31st annual commencement ceremonies. Keith E. Benson responds
with a graduates address. Princeton Pro Musica presents musical selections.
Saturday, October 18, 2 p.m.<
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