The Songbook of Benny Lament by Amy Harmon

The Barry Gray Show

WMCA Radio

Guest: Benny Lament

December 30, 1969

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, this is Barry Gray, and you are listening to the fabulous 57, WMCA in New York. Happiest station in the nation. I am here for you, keeping you company in the darkest hours of the night, especially on this, the last show of the year, the last full night of the decade. Tomorrow the clock will strike midnight and the sixties will be gone, and I’ve been lucky enough to cover it all.

“What a decade it’s been, folks. What a decade it’s been! The sixties brought us death. War. Revolution. We lost a president. We’ve lost almost fifty thousand young men in Vietnam. Some of you might say we’ve lost our moral compass. Or maybe we never had it. Sometimes I wonder. Dr. Martin Luther King was gunned down. Bobby Kennedy too.

“But it wasn’t all bad, my friends. Five months ago, on July 20, 1969, America put a man on the moon. We put Thurgood Marshall, the first Negro justice, on the Supreme Court. I believe history will look back on these years and say this was the decade of civil rights, the decade of desegregation. The times are a-changin’, as Mr. Bob Dylan so aptly put it.

“We play music all day long here on WMCA. Mine is the only program in the WMCA lineup that doesn’t. The Good Guys spin the hits and tell you what’s playing around the nation. All day long today, listeners heard a wrap-up of the biggest hits of the decade. Did you know the number-one song on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1960 was ‘Theme from A Summer Place’ by Percy Faith? It was a pleasant little number with a full orchestra and not a single lyric. Remember that song? It isn’t a song you can dance to, unless you’re dancing cheek to cheek, which, by the way, is Mrs. Gray’s favorite way to dance.

“I think it’s telling that we finished the decade with Woodstock, a folk-music festival last August in Bethel, about a hundred miles northwest of New York City. We began and finished the sixties with vastly different music. Some might say two totally different worlds. I was there, covering the festival, as you all know, and I must say, I still prefer Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Sam Cooke. But nothing highlights the last decade more than the shift in what, and who, we’re listening to. If you want to know what’s happening in a nation, look at the music.

“Now, I don’t play the hits on my program. You all know this. I talk about the world. I’ve interviewed people from every walk of life, from leaders and activists to the biggest stars. But I don’t think any of my previous guests could tell you more about the intersection of music and change than my next guest.

“You’ve most likely heard his name, but I guarantee you don’t know his story. Not all of it. Not even close. He’s an entertainer, a producer, and a prolific songwriter. Name an artist, and chances are he’s written them a tune. Tonight he’s promised to play for us and maybe sing a little too, and he’s going to tell us about the songs that have marked his life and his career so far—the ones you know and the ones you don’t.

“Welcome to The Barry Gray Show, Benny Lament. Let’s talk.”





1

CAN’T CUT IT OUT

I wrote my first song when I was eight years old, a chocolate ice-cream cone in my hand, while my father roughed up a shop owner. My song was a simple little thing with a one-line chorus and a single verse, but I never forgot it. Pop is a scary man. Better do what he says. Pop is hurting Gino’s hand. Better do what he says.

That day, in front of Gino’s, I didn’t need a piano to write my song. The melody just appeared with the words. Dissonant. Ugly. Mrs. Costiera would have covered her ears. The only piano I ever got to play in those days was in her apartment, but she let me play it whenever I wanted, and she’d taught me the names of the keys and pointed out the patterns so I could combine the notes into chords.

Chords are like families. The notes go together. Like you and your father and your aunts and uncles and all your cousins. There. Hear that? Isn’t that beautiful? That’s an F chord. F for famiglia. But listen . . . let’s add a stranger. See? It doesn’t sound so good. That note doesn’t belong in the F chord.

I was supposed to be sitting on the bench across the street by the ice-cream cart, lapping up my melting treat while my father paid his visit to Gino. I liked Gino. He’d given me a harmonica once, and I wanted to see him more than I wanted the cone. I recognized the ice cream for what it was: a bribe to keep me occupied while my father went inside the shop. My father told me to stay put, but I had my harp in my pocket, and I wanted to show Gino how good I was.

That’s what Gino had called it. A harp. When I took to it after only a couple tries, instinctively knowing where to move my mouth to change the sound, Gino threw up his hands and said, “He’s gonna be a harp man, Lomento. Listen to that. Kid’s got a knack and an ear.”

I could see my father through the window. His big back was to me, the back he carried me on sometimes, and Gino faced him over the counter. Gino’s face was twisted like he was trying not to cry, and his hands were splayed wide above the display case of his watches and wares. He looked as though he was “reaching for the octave,” as Mrs. Costiera called it, but my father’s knife protruded from the back of his hand.

I wanted to shout, but I didn’t. I was shocked, but I wasn’t. I was scared, but I didn’t run or turn away. I sang silently instead, the words clanging through my head, rhyming and rhythmic, the tune fully formed like it belonged with my lyrics.