Little Benny's go-go music uplifts crowd at funeral

A crowd turns out at the Washington Convention Center to memorialize one of the founding fathers of a music scene native to D.C.
By Phillip Lucas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2010

The speakers were thumping, the crowd was swaying and in between there were more than a few tears. It might have been hard to tell that the hundreds of people packed into the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Friday were there for a memorial service, but it could have been no other way for Little Benny, one of the founding fathers of D.C. go-go.

Fans dressed in three-piece suits and T-shirts, hats and spats showed up to celebrate the contributions of Anthony Harley, who they all knew as Little Benny. Harley died in his sleep May 30 at his brother's home in Washington. He was 46.

James Dunkley wiped away tears during the ceremony that paid tribute to the man who was known for his high-energy concerts. Harley had even played the night before his death. Another fan, who was a few rows behind Dunkley, was all smiles as she danced to the music that has long defined the city's musical identity.

"When you hear go-go music -- white, black, Hispanic -- you can't help but move," said Pastor Deron Cloud of the Soul Factory in Forestville, who gave Harley's eulogy. "When he grabbed the mike," he said, "he took over."

Harley, a trumpet player, performed with local bands Rare Essence and Little Benny and the Masters. He followed in the footsteps of Chuck Brown, whom he also performed with, to become a fixture of go-go.

Cloud's eulogy uplifted the crowd of mostly African American mourners in the convention center, at times bringing some of them to tears.

"This is our music from here in the city," said Dunkley, who added that he has been a fan of go-go music for more than three decades. He became emotional when photos of the musician were projected on a screen near his white coffin.

"It just hurts so hard to see him go like that," he said as still more fans danced and swayed to the beat coming from the front of the convention hall.

Dunkley said Harley's music will serve as a constant reminder of the unity go-go fans shared in the late '70s and early '80s, when go-go began establishing itself as part of the city's artistic identity.

"Back in the day, there might be a fight here and there, but there wasn't no shootings," he said. "Everybody looked forward to that next go-go. It's something that's galvanized the city in a lot of ways."

Harley developed a reputation as a humanitarian, something fans should also remember him for, said D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who attended the service.

"He cared about people. He overcame a lot of obstacles like we all have to and made it successfully to the top," Barry said.

Charlene Slye, who met Harley when he attended Ballou High School, said go-go music has suffered a tremendous loss with his death.

"You'll never get another voice like that -- never," Slye said. "Benny made up stuff, and he just put the music to it and it was phenomenal. To me, go-go will never be the same."

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