A Texas Blues Tornado An Interview by Rob “Ribeye” Thacker
Austin Blues Monthly
It never hurts to take a little trip into the majestic ambience of the Texas Hill Country especially when you’ve got a green light to interview Texas blues tornado, Marc Benno. No sooner than my feet hit the pavement, I found myself tracking energetically on Marc’s heels at high rates of speed quickly touring through one of Marc’s favorite shops which displayed an array of every hot sauce know to mankind. It was the “Scratch n’ Sniff” and the “hotter n’ Hell” sauce that seemed to grab our attention most as he set the pace for a laid back but intense interview. I found myself sitting right across from the man that recorded with the “Doors” on L.A. Woman, co-wrote and recorded two albums with Leon Russell, played side guitar with Mance Lipscomb and “Lightnin” Hopkins, gave S.R.V. his first ticket to Hollywood and won a Grammy for a Beverly Hills Cop sound track song. Whew! Now I’m totally convinced that most local Austin music fans just aren’t aware of the musical legacies that are concealed in small hill country hideaways like Wimberley. I dedicate this interview to you and Texas blues fans everywhere. This continually growing community embraces some of the greatest musicians known in the world today. I hope to inform you of the invaluable musical heritage that surrounds you, and to especially share my afternoon interview with Mr. Marc Benno and his Mecca of music.
RRT: “Where were you raised?”
MB: “Dallas, Texas. When I was 10 years old, they sent me downtown with my brother to work at my uncle’s shoe store. There was the Orange Inn, where we had chilidogs, and what became Orange Julius. There was this Fun House, where I made my first record in a phone booth type gadget that spit the record out like those instant photo booths, except instead of photos it spit out 45’s with a little 78-rpm hole in them. On the corner out in front of the store, sat a blind Negro man selling pencils. When he played guitar, he drew such a large crowd the cops considered him a menace, so finally, the judge agreed to let him play his guitar on Elm Street in South Dallas, near the train tracks, under an old oak tree. Here he could play as much as he wanted and pass a hat. This is where I was born. Behind the Forest Theater, in the original Deep Ellum district. There were many European immigrants who came to Galveston Island, and then settled in Dallas among the blacks, right in the middle of The State Fair of Texas. This is where I came from. I thought Oak Cliff was out of town somewhere.
RRT: “Who were your influences and who do you listen to now?”
MB: “My first influences were hits on the radio, and the Cats Caravan Show on WRR radio. WRR played all the real good stuff, like Jimmy Reed, Little Richard and Ray Charles. Their theme song was “Night Train.” The daytime radio played hits by the Coasters, the Drifters, and a lot of white artists, from Buddy Holly to Elvis, and whoever had a hit record. These hit makers came to Dallas in 1959, while I was working for my dad in the beer garden at The State Fair Music Hall. He snuck me in backstage, and my life was never the same. I met Sam Cooks, Paul Anka, and these guys throwing combs out the window to screaming chick fans. The show-biz bug bit me for good right then. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I heard “Lightnin'” Hopkins over at a friend’s house, and began to get into the blues. At Cains Ballroom in Oklahoma City is the first time I met him and ended up touring with him as 2nd guitarist. Everybody thought I knew him, but it was really Mance Lipscomb that I knew, and I thought Mance was Lightnin Hopkins when I first saw him at San Jacks Café in Austin. Mance gave me my license to play the blues.”
RRT: “Who do you listen to now?”
MB: “Well, for years I listened to nothing but the blues. As has been said before, all the Kings, Juniors, Bigs and Littles. Lately, it’s been nothing but Chet Baker. He is the most no tricks singer I’ve ever heard. My favorite unknown guitarist is Lenny Breau. My favorite pianist is Bill Evans. And I like Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s Bow Wow CD. I’ve been playing piano a lot lately and learning classics, like “It Could Happen to You.”, “Like Someone in Love’, and some contemporary standards. My guitar playing has been used mostly writing originals for my new CD. But definitely Lightnin Hopkins, Jimmie Reed, Albert King, Kenny Burrell and Johnny “Guitar” Watson are my biggest influences. And jazz musicians are incredible. They have unlimited chops. They know their instruments. Of course, the classical masters are an inspiration when I’m relaxing.
RRT: “What was the name of your first band?”
MB: Marc Benno & The Victors. 1960, we entered the Texaco Talent Contest at The State Fair, and came in 2nd. Not bad for a bunch of kids. I joined The Outcasts in high school, and later met, and formed a duo with Leon Russell, called Asylum Choir. We had a hit album in the early 70’s, which led me to a solo recording contract with A&M. I did four LP’s for them and played guitar on the Doors, “L.A. Woman” and also had several artists record my tunes, including Jose Feliciano, Leon Russell and Rita Coolidge. Then in 1986, I had a tune in the movie, “Beverly Hills Cop” which won me a Grammy for songwriting.”
RRT: “What was Morrison like?”
MB: “A nice guy who was on a roll. He reminded me of a wild gorilla at the sessions. A hand-held microphone and a telephone book full of songs. He stopped the sessions, and took me to lunch. He ordered ox tails or something wild and drank Jack Daniels out of the bottle. It was a fun time, and I still can’t believe how popular that album is today. Jim had me show Robbie a lick I was playing, and we used it on L.A.Woman. From there, it was a straight ahead jam right through the album. We worked the tunes up on the spot, and did very few takes. The Engineer, Bruce Botnik, a friend of mind who got me on the session did a great job recording everything! Jim wanted a garage studio atmosphere, and that’s exactly what Bruce had built for the recording. None of those fancy Hollywood studios. This was an old building on Santa Monica converted into a makeshift studio. The talkback system was a drive-in speaker hanging from the ceiling, and the control room was upstairs. We never saw anyone but each other, which kept the distractions to a minimum, and also kept Jim from feeling inhibited, which I don’t think was a problem for him, anyway. But he cut loose completely while recording, and the result was a very spontaneous album.”
RRT: “When did you meet Stevie Ray Vaughan?”
MB: “I first met Stevie in 1969 at the End of Cole Avenue club in Dallas. He asked if he could sit in with our band, and told me he was Jimmie’s brother. That was all I needed to know, and I offered him my guitar, but he had his own in the car. When he jumped on stage, it was hypnotizing. He had a style that was his own, and played much like he always would. I recording that jam, and still have it on cassette. I’d say he was about 13 at the time. I later formed a band called Marc Benno and the Nightcrawlers. I was referred to Stevie by his older brother. That night, I went down on Lamar, in Austin, to a club called Mother Earth. The band was Blackbird, and Stevie was perfect, dressing in a purple velvet suit playing his ass off. The next thing I knew I was meeting him at the LAX Airport in Hollywood. This was in ’73, and Stevie did the lead guitar playing and Doyle Bramhall was on drums and vocals. We recorded an album for A&M, which never came out, but did a major tour with Humble Pie and J. Geils. This was out first taste of rock stardom, limos and the works.”
RRT: “Tell me about the new Mance Lipscomb movie you’re doing and how all that came about?”
MB: “In the sixties, I played at the Studio Club in Dallas, Boz Scaggs and Steve Miller played down the street, and Felicity, who later became the Eagles, played there too. I took a trip to Navasota and my bass player, Wally Wilson, told the club owner, Larry Lavine that he ought to follow me down there, with his new 16mm color camera, and film some of that stuff. I left for England, but Larry and Wally did finally make it to Navasota. This old footage was just recently discovered by Lavine while he was unpacking in the new house he got in Dallas. I made the suggestion to contact major artists. The movie has become the Mance Lipscomb Story, and features Ry Cooder, Taj Majal, Gatemouth Brown, BB King, myself and others doing Mance tunes and telling Mance stories about his influences and philosophies. But the part I like is all that footage from back in the sixties.”
RRT: “I love that “Shape I’z In” by the Arc Angels, How did it all come about with you co-writing that tune and having it recorded on their debut album?”
MB: “In 88, when I was touring San Francisco, Little Doyle Bramhall came to one of my gigs. I ended up taking him back to Texas where he stayed with me in Grapevine. One afternoon, Doyle’s dad called, and said he had a hit title. He wanted Little and I to write the song. He told us over the phone it was called Doin Pretty Good for the Shape I’m In. Man that’s a hell of a title. I thought, and I couldn’t wait to get off the phone. We wrote the song that same day, and later when the Arc Angels came together, it turned out to be one of the picks for their album. Originally, I had written the verses about bowling, “hangin on my thumb and slippin on my feet,” then little Doyle called during the recording session, and told me we had to rewrite the verses for the tune to make it on the album, according to producer, Little Steven. So Doyle and I rewrote the verses over the phone while they were recording in San Rafael. The new lyrics were blues lyrics like, “down on my self, both day and night,” “couldn’t get a thang to go just right,” and “I’m doin pretty good for the shape I’z in.” Well I guess I’z am.” Later I found out Doyle Sr. saw a bumper sticker with the line on it…hehheh.
RRT: “So Marc, what’s next on the horizon?”
MB: “I’m working on a new cd and appearing with the NEO NIGHTCRAWLERS, but the main thing is that things changed from the old days. Now every day is new for me. I know I’m a lot more mellow than when I was doing James Brown with my hair dyed white, so I’ll just continue to write songs, and keep creating until I uncover all sides of myself.
The Return of Marc Benno
“Lost in Austin” found in London
By Kirby Warnock
“Tres cervezos, por fa vor. I learned a lot of Spanish when I was hanging out in Viacuna,” grinned a slightly beaded Marc Benno as he leaned over his plate of enchiladas. It was a hot summer night in Dallas as Marc, manager Danny Eaton and I talked over beer and Mexican food at Casa Dominguez. Benno’s new LP on A&M records, Lost in Austin, had just been released, and it marked the return of one of your more mysterious Texas musicians, a man with a mystique that still has people scratching their heads at the mention of his name and saying things like, “Didn’t he play on that Doors album?”
Benno’s name seems to pop up on album credits with regularity. He was with Leon Russell’s Asylum Choir. He wrote two of the songs that Rita Coolidge did on her first LP, and he played guitar for the Doors’ final album, L.A.Woman, but his status among early Texas rock banks only enhances the mystique as one of the early forgers of the Texas sound and a man who was doing “punk” before the word even existed. “What do you want to know about that stuff? Is it really worth going over?” he mused. I mentioned that our younger readers were unaware of the great Texas bands of the 60’s, and Benno’s recollections could help them out in Rock and Roll History 103.
“I had my first band at 14, called Marc Benno and the Victors. We entered the talent contest at the State Fair back in “64 and did Roy Osbison’s Mean Woman Blues” in front of 4,000 people. I thought that it was the greatest thing that had every happened to me, but we came in second to Jesse Lopez (Trini’s brother). “Then I appeared as the White Tornado, with Wally Wilson. I wend downtown and had this tailor make me a white satin suit, and I would come out of the fog onto the stage, jump around, and do all kinds of crazy shit. Everytime I hit my knees, the girls would scream as loud as they could. (Must have got that from the Beatles performance on Ed Sullivan Show.) But my funkiest band was back in 67, at the height of the psychedelic movement. It was call Le Circ, and we all dressed up in circus costumes made from drapes. Leon arranged our first single, ‘The Land of Oz’ that came out on the old Buddha label. If this sounds a little bizarre, bear in mind that in 1967 Dallas was not exactly the most liberal city in the world, and someone with Benno’s off-the-wall approach to rock was looked upon as being, well, a little “strange”, but “the best was yet to come.” “My next incarnation was as Benie Darvon and the Bagettes. My press kit billed me as a former pro roller skater who turned to the world of dancing and music.” A Mark Lee Management creation was enough to get Benno and band onstage with the Spencer Davis Group, Jimmy Reed, Kenny and the Kasuals and the Lemon Pipers (remember “Green Tamborine”?) at the 1960 Flower Fair. From there the chronology becomes muddled as Benno rattles off a string of projects that included hanging out with Mance Lipscomb, eating ox tail with Jim Morrison at the Blue Boar restaurant in LA, playing with Robert Ealey, Louann Barton and The Careless Lovers in Fort Worth, and a stint with Lightnin’ Hopkins around the US. He traveled to Memphis to record with Leon Russell as the Asylum Choir, and it was there that he met Rita Coolidge (“She’s one of the most down-home people I’ve ever met. A beautiful lady.”) In 1974 Marc and formed a band called the Nightcrawlers and recorded an LP for A&M Records title Crawlin’ With the Nightcrawlers featuring Stevie Vaughan. The record was never released. “It was just too funky for them. Everything about it was just . . .well, it was even funky for us. Just wasn’t the right tine, he sighs. Then followed a long period of inactivity in the sense that Benno wasn’t in the public eye. He began to hang out in Viacuna, Mexico, but he was still writing music. Coming full circle, Benno returned to Dallas after preparing his new record and put together a band that consists of the present members of the Bugs Henderson group. “It took me all this time to get back to Texas, but I just couldn’t find the right people to play with until I got back here. I never thought of coming back to Dallas because I had always thought of it as a city with lots of money and no desire for entertainment, but about five years ago I noticed things were beginning to happen. If Hollywood had as many movie stars as Texas has guitar players then they’d all be rich. There are people playing around here who could blow anyone off the stage. Texas has just got the players.” The waiter clears that table as Benno orders another round of Bohemias. He talked about being under contract with A&M for almost 10 years, but no being ready to re-enter the “record race” until now, with Lost in Austin. The record boasts a literal Who’s Who of rock and roll, with help from Eric Clapton, Albert Lee, and Carl Radle, and Jim Keltner. Besides a cover of the old Bobby Darin tune, “Splish Splash” (I did it cause my daughter likes it”), the title song is an attempt to put things back into perspective for the former Benie Darvon. “Lost in Austin was an underground poem that was going around. I just took it and blew it up. It covers a long period of time, about Viacuna, Mexico and other things.” Marc looks at his watch and reminds Danny that they have a rehearsal at 9 o’clock. As they head out to the car and the headlights disappear into the Dallas night, I wonder if the world is finally ready for the latest incarnation of Marc Benno. A man who was doing his own thing to shock the audience long before it became “hip”. He seems to have mellowed a bit, but not enough to make him any less dangerous. I sure wish that I could get a hold of a copy of that Nightcrawlers record.
Guitar World 2011
In December, as the group resumed work on the album, Botnick persuaded the Doors to hire young Texan Marc Benno as rhythm guitar foil to Krieger. Benno would play on four numbers: “Been Down So Long,” “Cars Hiss by My Window,” “L.A. Woman” and John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling King Snake,” part of the repertoire from their 1967 club dates. “Morrison was a nice guy who was on a roll,” Benno says. “He reminded me of a wild gorilla at the sessions. He had a hand-held microphone and a telephone book full of songs. One day he stopped the session and took me to lunch. He ordered ox tails and drank Jack Daniel’s out of the bottle. When we got back, Jim had me show Robby a lick I was playing, and we used it on “L.A. Woman.'”
Marc Benno Guest musicians were common on Doors albums, but it wasn’t until “L.A. Woman” that the group included a second guitarist: Texas native Marc Benno. In the studio for “L.A. Woman” (left to right): Jim Morrison and Marc Benno — courtesy of Marc Benno. With his first solo album under his belt, Benno was back home in the Lone Star State when he got a call from Bruce Botnick, the longtime engineer for The Doors who was going to co-produce the “L.A. Woman” album with the band. David Anderle, who produced Benno’s debut album and was a Botnick friend, had recommended the guitarist for the project. Benno remembers the two-story building in Los Angeles where the album was recorded as a “deep-thinking environment,” with Morrison referring to the words he had written in a big book. “I think someone from England had given it to him,” he says. “It was gigantic, like an L.A. phonebook, but it was leather-bound and full of poems, lyrics and drawings. I remember him showing me ‘L.A. Woman,’ and I thought, ‘That right there will be a great blues tune of sorts.'” Benno played guitar on that song as well as a few others. During the sessions, Morrison “got into it as if he was performing to a live audience. He had a handheld mike, and that’s when I realized, ‘This guy is getting so into it.’ My jaw dropped when he started doing the vocals.” One day, Morrison took Benno to lunch at the Blue Boar, which the guitarist recalls serving “a lot of game and unusual foods – the most normal thing on the menu was turtle soup.” Morrison brought more than a guest to the restaurant. “He had a bottle of Jack Daniels with him,” Benno says. “I said, ‘Are you going to walk in [with that]?’ And he said, ‘They know me; it’s OK.’ And when he walked in, it was, ‘Mr. Morrison!'” Back at the studio, Morrison took notice whenever Benno played Freddie King guitar licks and Leon Russell-style piano between takes. “He would just stand there and watch and smile at me,” Benno says.
Marc Benno brings to the stage not only his formidable vocal talents, which include a keen and perceptive realization of the lyric content of the piece being performed but also such a relaxed and mature style of singing and playing guitar that the listener immediately becomes captivated and enchanted with the easy professionalism with which he imbues his chosen material. Moreover, he’s great to watch. You know he knows what he’s doing. He has a wonderful sense of time…and humor, which he shares with his audiences, but not the ultra-hip, exclusive brand, of which the average person is outside. Benno’s real…and for real. One can’t help but enjoy a Marc Benno performance. He’s been out of the public eye for much too long, but thankfully, he’s interested in returning…we need him. This rare breed of a seasoned and confident, talented and sensitive performer is not in abundance these days. — Steve LaVere (Music Historian/Robert Johnson Estate)