by Len Lear
One of the country’s most popular country & western music bands, Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel, founded by two Chestnut Hill area musicians, is returning to Philadelphia next Monday, March 2, 8 p.m., at World Café Live, 3025 Walnut St., to perform selections from their Bob Wills tribute album, “Still The King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys,” which will be released March 3 on Bismeaux Records. The band is on a U.S. national tour in support of their new album.
Asleep at the Wheel’s lead man is Ray Benson, a native of Wyndmoor. Benson went to both Springfield High School and Penn Charter and co-founded the band with Springfield resident Ruben “Lucky” Oceans in 1970. Both are Jewish. Since the formation of the band, which specializes in southwestern swing, they have recorded more than 30 albums and won nine Grammy awards.
“I spent a lot of time in the Wissahickon as a kid,” explained Benson in an earlier interview with this reporter. “My friends and I would pretend we were Davy Crockett. I’d hunt snakes and toads, and we rode horses a lot. It’s just a shame that the park has gone downward since then.”
Several years ago, when Asleep at the Wheel appeared at the Conkey Center on the Chestnut Hill Academy campus, the event was a sell-out. Unhappily, dozens of late ticket buyers were turned away at the door because the auditorium’s capacity was reached at 400 people. However, the event was also a huge success for Friends of the Wissahickon and contributed more than $17,000 for trail maintenance and work around the Valley Green Inn.
Asleep at the Wheel, which has had more than 100 different members down through the years, had its origin in Wyndmoor, where Benson grew up. The band’s co-founder, Lucky Oceans, was a resident of Springfield and the son of Under the Blue Moon restaurant owners Gene and Phyllis Gosfield. Benson, who will be 64 on March 16, played varsity basketball at Penn Charter High School, but “they threw me off the team in my senior year because I wouldn’t cut my hair. Then they threw me out of school later that year. I was a rebel.”
Benson, who always wanted to be a musician, began playing professionally at the age of 11 when he played folk music at the Robin Hood Dell as part of the Youth Concert Series. “I also played tuba in a marching band, and I was in a square dance band. I listened to every kind of music, but I just felt that country roots’ music was my thing. In about 1960 or ’61, I first heard the music of Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline and Conway Twitty, and I just loved it.
“I also played bass in my school band in 10th grade, and my musical director introduced us to Count Basie. And I knew jazz, because Philadelphia is a great jazz community. And Lucky’s parents were sort of like beatniks; his dad gave us some Lester Young records when we were still in high school, but I was a weird kind of guy. I was also into folk music, Chicago blues and country. My goal was to be more different than anybody, and that’s what Asleep at the Wheel was all about, doing roots music that was different and eclectic.”
Benson, who has lived in Austin, Texas, for 42 years (and has picked up a Texas accent), recalls going to the Chestnut Hill Library and Allens Lane Art Center for nature classes. He was a “Stage Door Johnnie” who would hang outside the Electric Factory in hopes of meeting stars like Eric Clapton and Cream. In fact, he swears that “Janis Joplin could not get her car started after a concert, and I actually helped her start it.”
Benson, who jokingly calls himself “the only hillbilly to come out of Springfield Township,” said his parents discouraged him from pursuing a career in music, but he never hesitated. As to the seemingly contradictory notion of a Chestnut Hill area native playing country music, Ray replied, “It’s what’s in your heart that counts. If a guy like Van Cliburn, who was from Texas, could play classical music, I can play country music.”
In addition to being the only Chestnut Hill area native who ever became a country music star, Benson has a couple other distinctions. He is almost certainly the tallest country music star at 6-foot-7 (Trace Adkins comes closest at 6-foot-6), and he is the only Jewish country music star. (There was another one years ago, Kinky Friedman, 70, whose band was called “The Texas Jewboys.”)
In an interview with a publication called the Jewish Journal, Benson was quoted as saying, “I didn’t want to be known as a Jewish country & western singer; I wanted to be known as a country & western singer who happens to be Jewish. You don’t usually tell your religion or politics on stage. For years, because I’m 6’7” and people don’t think Jews are tall, and because I guess I don’t look like the stereotyped Jew, most people don’t known I’m Jewish.”
Benson grew up in a Reform Jewish home. He and his sister put together a folk group, and he showed superior musical talent early on. “In those days, if you’re a Jewish kid, you go to college, or you enter your parents’ business,” Benson said. “So, I obviously chose a different path.” In the 1970s, when the band first started touring, Benson recalled, country music was a “southern, conservative, Christian, white domain, period,” and he repeatedly came up against prejudice and ignorance about Jews and Judaism.
Asleep at the Wheel has toured with some of the biggest names in the business, including Bob Dylan, and has played with music greats ranging from Willie Nelson to George Strait. They regularly fill stadiums in the Southwest and are often featured on Austin City Limits on PBS. The band has also played at inauguration parties for former Presidents Bush and Clinton, and they played at an Austin fund-raiser for Barack Obama in 2008, where the President-to-be joined them onstage for a chorus.
The Hill area native, who is on the road doing one-night stands much of the year, told me he will keep doing it “as long as I’m alive. Every time that I figured I was going to quit, we’d have an incredible show where the people were so appreciative of this music that it’s like, ‘Well, hell, this beats working, so why not keep doing it?'”
For more information about the March 2 show, call 215-222-1400 or visit www.worldcafelive.com.