Music : Fulltime musician Mike Benjamin calls the Vineyard home
Photo by Susan Safford
Mike Benjamin has worked as a professional musician for more than 30 years, since he was 16. He has learned how to turn just about any song into a memorable experience. He can get down and dirty with the blues or sweet and mellow with a ballad or pop song. He can channel Jimmy Reed or Robert Plant, Van Morrison or Jesse Colin Young, but mostly he is himself, a honey-voiced singer, guitarist and songwriter.
He has played with some top performers, including Susan Tedeschi, James Taylor, the David Letterman Band, and the Blues Brothers. He was the lead guitarist and singer for the Boston Music Award winning band Entrain, and he plays with The Grateful Dread. In the studio, he has worked with Mark Cohn, Delbert McClinton, Patti LaBelle, and Carly Simon. He played for Bill Clinton's 60th birthday party.
This winter he has been playing a solo gig on Friday nights at the Newes Pub in Edgartown. Well-known singer-songwriter Kevin Keady stopped at the News last Friday to listen to Mr. Benjamin before taking the Chappy ferry home. Mr. Benjamin immediately began singing one of Mr. Keady's songs before going into a series of his own songs. "Mike is the best," Mr. Keady said. "There isn't anything he can't do, and do really well."
The Mike Benjamin Band plays for social events and weddings, but you might also see them at the Ritz or on stage with a national touring act. His guitar work is top-shelf, whether finger picking his older Taylor Dreadnought guitar, bought from the late Island bluesman Maynard Sylva, or rocking out with one of his Fender electric guitars.
Mr. Benjamin's musical life and his life on the Vineyard are inextricably linked. His first memories of the Vineyard are when his parents rented a house up Island for a couple of weeks during summers and brought the family down from Cambridge, where he grew up.
He developed a fondness for the beaches and the Island lifestyle. He and a friend spent a summer on the Vineyard between their junior and senior years in high school, camping out and staying with friends. It was then that Mr. Benjamin got his first paying gig at a small restaurant called the Coffee Shop on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs.
A band he formed in high school decided to make money playing on the Vineyard during the summer after graduation. They arrived with girlfriends and others with no work lined up. They rented an unfinished house off Tea Lane in Chilmark. "Some of the windows weren't even in yet. It was rough and ready. We pretty much camped out for the summer," he recalled. "There was almost always at least one too many people there."
The young rock and roll band called themselves Kitch 'N Sync, later the young Mr. Benjamin played with groups called Special Interest Group, and one with more of a Vineyard touch, Live Bait.
The 18-old Mr. Benjamin printed up pictures of the band and put together cassette tapes of their music that he dropped off at prospective venues, one of which was the Seaview Hotel, an Oak Bluffs waterfront hotel with a bar hosted by the colorful owner Loretta Balla. "Loretta told me she was booked up."
About a week later, Loretta called. "She said you kids are playing here tonight. You start at 9:30. She didn't even ask if we were available. It was the start of a pretty incredible summer." After their first couple of nights at the Seaview, Mr. Benjamin recalls, "Loretta said you kids are playing Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday."
As it turned out, the actor, comedian and, musician Dan Ackroyd lived near their Tea Lane house. He was hot off of his years as a top Saturday Night Live performer and involved in the emerging success of The Blues Brothers. Mr. Ackroyd gave one of Mr. Benjamin's hitchhiking friends several rides into town and heard about the band. The blues brother showed up at the Seaview with a harmonica and yellow hair and sat in. "It created a buzz that lasted all summer."
After Mr. Benjamin earned a bachelor's degree from Hampshire College with a focus in music, he lived in New York City making a respectable living as a musician, making trips back to the Vineyard to play music from time to time. He performed in bands, wrote some music, and did some session work, but his big paychecks came from his freelance work singing on TV and radio commercials.
Wearing a beeper, he was always on call. His voice could be heard on commercials for Coke, Budweiser, Clorox, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Coors Lite and The Heartbeat of America, Chevrolet, among others. "It was lucrative work," he said.
Mr. Benjamin bought a fixer-upper in Edgartown and moved to the Vineyard in 1994, about the time the jingle business spread out around the country, due to technological changes and the growth of cable TV. His music business has been centered here since.
He lives in Edgartown with his wife, Sandra Stone, who teaches dance at the Boston Conservatory, a 16-year-old daughter who sometimes sings with him, and an eight-year-old son. He travels occasionally to play off Island in Northampton and Boston.
He plays a lot of weddings and other events on the Vineyard and will help plan weddings as well. He plays various steady summer gigs and continues to write and record in his home studio. In his self-deprecating way, he considers himself only an aspiring songwriter and performer of original material, but his history reveals him to be highly accomplished.
"It's been a thrill making a living doing what I like to do," he says.