Joe Bennett in|
This YouTube World
Posted April 14, 2008
A Telegraph Column By Paul Sylvain
For better or worse, there's no question the Internet has made this old world a whole lot
smaller. I found that out last week when I connected with two musicians I once played with
in Berlin, Germany, nearly 40 years ago.
Sure, I could be writing about the teachers contract, or immigration, or some other thing
in the news these days, but you get enough of that stuff seven days a week in the news
pages of this paper.
I have music artist pages, with my mug and songs, plastered on several sites on the
Internet (IndieMusicWorks.com, iMusicScene.com, MySpace and even The Telegraph's own
Pretty much every profile template asks about influences, and the list of guitarists who
have inspired or shaped my playing over the years usually includes Link Wray, Alvin Lee,
Buddy Guy, my late uncle George Lemire and several others.
One name that should have been on that list is Joe Bennett.
I met Joe at Tempelhof Air Force Base in Berlin, Germany, in 1969. I was a
wet-behind-the-ears, 19-year-old kid who thought he could play lead guitar. Joe was around
10 years older and really could play that thing. I had never heard of the guy before, but
he was pretty well known around the base, and rightfully so.
You see, back in 1957, four young high school kids from Spartanburg, S.C., performed at a
show with several other local groups. In the audience was a representative from a record
company hoping to find the next big thing. Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones, as they were
called, took the top prize and wound up being signed by ABC Paramount Records.
All of the guys were in their teens, with the youngest around 14. They cut a single called
"Black Slacks," which went to No. 1 in the charts later in 1957.
It's a goofy kind of song, as many rock 'n' roll tunes of the day were, but the song's
chart success led to nationally televised appearances on the "Ed Sullivan Show," "American
Bandstand" and the "Nat King Cole Show," among others, and they toured pretty heavily the
next three years.
Maybe so, but I still had never heard of the song or of Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones.
"Hey, Ma," I remember asking in one of my phone calls from Germany. "Have you ever heard
of a song called 'Black Slacks'?"
"Oh, yeah," my mom beamed back. "That was a big song by Joe something."
So, now I had heard of him, but I still didn't really know him. He was a military air
traffic controller working in a different unit than me. I worked in radar control, too,
but my job was to put planes together - intercept controller - not keep them apart.
One guy I did get to know early on was Lutz Turba, a young German cook in the dining hall.
Lutz also was the drummer in Joe's band on the base. It was through Lutz that I got to
meet and play with Joe.
Knock-knock-knock came the sound on my door one Saturday evening. I opened the door to
find Lutz standing there, a bit winded.
"Can you play bass?" he asked, explaining they had to start a gig at the base's NCO club
in five minutes and that there was no sign of Frank, the band's regular bass player.
"Guess I could," I said, "except I'm a guitar player. I don't have a bass guitar or amp."
"Don't worry about that," Lutz said. "We have Frank's stuff."
Mind you I had never heard these guys play, had no clue about what they played or how they
played it. Nada. But they were a mostly country band, and I figured I could wing it
through most of those three-chord tunes.
I spent the next four hours guessing my way through the progressions and watching Joe for
chord changes. When the night was over, he asked me to back him up on guitar.
Joe soon switched musical directions and jumped on the bigger band sounds that were
emerging at the time with groups like Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago Transit Authority
(which later became just Chicago). Joe added three horn players from the Berlin Brigade
Army band, a German keyboardist who frequently toured Europe backing a popular British
singer, and a vocalist who could wail.
Joe was as down-home, down-to-earth a guy you could ever want to meet. What I remember him
for most, though, was as an unselfish teacher of his craft. Every time the band practiced,
Joe would take time out on his breaks to show me some licks and tricks.
Joe had all the enthusiasm of a wide-eyed kid in a candy store when it came to playing the
guitar. And he was unselfish in his willingness to pass on what he'd learned over the years.
Every time I play the guitar, I find myself pulling out some little lick or another that
he showed me almost 40 years ago.
I played with Joe for about a year, until he left Berlin. Of course, I saw Lutz most every
day in the dining hall, but lost track of him, too, when I left Berlin in 1973.
So, one night last week, I visited YouTube and happened to think about Joe. I entered his
name and was surprised to find old black-and-white videos of him and the Sparkletones
playing "Black Slacks" and "Rock It." I also found a more recent video of him playing at a
rock 'n' roll revival in Wisconsin in 2005. He's now 68 and still performing with all the
original members of the Sparkletones.
Reading the listener comments, I saw an entry posted by someone saying he also played with
Joe in Berlin.
The guy's name? Lutz Turba, now 60, who still lives in Berlin.
But I also discovered that Joe has a page with a great band biography on the Rockabilly
Hall Of Fame site (www.rockabillyhall.com/joebennett. html).
Apparently Joe wrapped up his military and federal air traffic control careers, returned
to Spartanburg and reunited with all the original members of his band.
I e-mailed Joe and Lutz, and received a great e-mail back from Lutz. He assures me Joe
will respond as soon as he checks his e-mail again. Hopefully, the shock won't be too much
None of this would have been possible without the Internet.
The greatest thing I learned last week was that Joe is still sharing his craft with
younger guys. One 13-year-old kid posted that Joe is teaching him how to play the guitar.
I think the youngster summed it up best when he called Joe a "really cool guy."
I couldn't agree with that boy more.
Thanks, Joe. You still rock!
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