The universal themes in the music of Arlon Bennett become apparent when he talks about his love for baseball. Bennett, a native of Suffolk County on Long Island, grew up and remains a passionate Mets fan.
A couple of years ago, Bennett wrote a song, “Summer’s Voice,” in honor of longtime Mets TV and radio broadcaster Bob Murphy, who died in 2004 at the age of 79. “He was the voice of the team ever since I could remember,” he says. In August, 2006, the Mets formally honored Murphy at Shea Stadium, and part of the tribute was Bennett’s song. “He had always been a constant in my life since I was young, and I had been moved to write the song in his honor,” says Bennett.
The honor, inadvertently, reached another baseball icon in another city. “I was doing a show in Philadelphia last year,” says Bennett in a phone interview from Nashville, where he is recording songs for a new CD, “and a man came up to me afterward and said it was the best song about (Hall of Famer and longtime Phillies broadcaster) Richie Ashburn that was ever made. At first I thought about telling him the truth, but then I figured that if that song brought out those feelings about someone so loved in Philly, then I was doing my job.”
Bennett formally unveiled his new CD, Summer’s Voice, last month at Havana in New Hope. Although it was March Madness, and the Georgetown/North Carolina basketball game was on the projection TV at the restaurant, it was still a great day — clear and warm — to sing about the boys and girls of summer.
Bennett recorded Summer’s Voice largely in Nashville, where he finds that he has been spending more and more time. Nashville is known for country and gospel, but it is also home to many of the country’s best working folk/acoustic musicians. “New York is the music city and center of things, but in many ways Nashville is the music city as well,” Bennett says. “Many of the top studio musicians, acoustic musicians, and great songwriters from all over the country make their home here. And I am able to make many business contacts here that will ultimately make my business more financially viable.”
Bennett, who says he’s “a spry, lean 47,” now lives in Tappan, New York, just over the border from Bergen County. He keeps a post office box in Bergen County “because everyone still knows me as a Jersey guy.”
He and his wife, Catherine, a fifth-grade science teacher, were married in April, 2005, and their first child, Arlona, was born five weeks ago. Did Bennett come up with his daughter’s name? “Actually, it was my wife’s idea,” he says.
Parenthood has been a change, and an inspiration, for Bennett. During his Havana show, he had a large photo of Arlona on the table where he was selling his CDs, and he spoke about his daughter often from the stage. The appearance of Arlona in Bennett’s life has also helped his songwriting. “I had begun writing a song called ‘Carry Me’ from the perspective of an unborn child. I never really finished it. After I had Arlona, I finished it right away. Her birth has made me want to take on many of the tasks I have put off and finish them.”
Bennett grew up in Bay Shore, Long Island, near Fire Island. His father worked for a company that made avionics panels for commercial airliners and his mother was a travel agent. “It was pretty much the typical suburban upbringing,” says Bennett. “I was lucky that there were all kinds of kids in the neighborhood, and after school I would always play baseball and other sports.”
Bennett says he didn’t really get into music until he was in high school. When his parents divorced when he was 14, “that had a real impact on me,” he says. Aside from the collateral emotional effects, Bennett had more time on his hands to fill. He turned partially to music through scouting. During his high school years, Bennett became a very good swimmer, and that in turn got him positions as a counselor at a Boy Scout camp in upstate New York.
“Scouting is where the music really started,” he says. “I learned how to lead people in song in Scout camp and how to play the guitar. I really had not been into music. I enjoyed it, but I had really been more into sports.”
At camp he began playing an old guitar his father had given him. “I started teaching myself. I didn’t keep up with it for long, but right before I went to college, when I was 20, I asked for the guitar again and this time I stuck with it.”
Bennett attended Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, intending to pursue an engineering degree. In his sophomore year, he switched his major to mathematics, and he received his B.S. in 1983. While in school he also stuck to his guns musically; Bennett had one goal, to play at the university’s Campus Sounds, a small cafe that featured musicians from and near the Purdue campus. “I first played there in 1982 or ’83,” he says. “I remember it so well — that was my goal.”
After graduating, Bennett returned to the Northeast, working as a math teacher and doing computer-aided drafting and other graphic work. He moved to Princeton in 1993 while working as a corporate trainer for a technological firm. “Princeton was geographically in the middle of my territory,” he says. He also enjoyed the many arts offerings in the area. “It was the perfect place to go.”
In Princeton Bennett really began to concentrate on his music and songwriting. “In Long Island it was more like a hobby,” he says. To hone his craft he began appearing at open mikes, such as the one at the former Encore Books in the Princeton Shopping Center. In 1999 he released his first CD, Fountain of Dreams, and followed in 2001 with The Watch Man. All are independently released. He also maintains ties to the area by serving as president of the Princeton Songwriters, the local chapter of a national organization called the Nashville Songwriters, which holds workshop/meetings twice monthly and include songwriting lessons, peer song critiques, and discussions. The workshops are designed to help educate songwriters, both in terms of the writing process and the music business.
His work shows the influence of all the musicians he loved as a younger man — Harry Chapin, James Taylor, Jim Croce. Bennett believes it is very important to address the ills of society in his music. “I try to be the kind of person that I admire,” he says.
Bennett says he has become a better businessman since he first started recording. Although he has appeared on radio stations locally and in Philadelphia, he wants to make an all-out effort to expand his radio exposure. He has hired a publicist (former Trenton Times columnist Randy Alexander) and has a strong Internet presence.
He may get a boost from one unexpected source. A few months ago in New York legendary folk singer Pete Seeger heard Bennett play his “Be The Change.” “He told me he really loved the song,” Bennett says. “He wanted my contact information so I gave him a CD. I hope to see him again soon so I can ask him what he thought of it.”
Arlon Bennett, Saturday, April 7, 8 p.m. Mine Street Coffeehouse, First Reformed Church, 9 Bayard Street, New Brunswick. CD release party for singer-songwriter’s latest, “Summer’s Voice.” 732-545-1005.