*Washington D.C. trumpet player Anthony Harley, better known as Little Benny who helped define the city’s go-go style of music during the 1980s, died May 30 at his brother’s home in Washington. He was 46.
The death was confirmed by longtime friend and former business partner Keith Galloway, according to the Washington Post. He did not know the cause of death but said the musician apparently died in his sleep.
Little Benny was attending Ballou Senior High School in Southeast when go-go was born in Washington. R&B artist Chuck Brown began playing percussion between songs to keep his audience from sitting down between numbers. The result was an incessant beat — a blend of funk featuring conga drums, cow bells and call-and-response chants from the band leader — that gained widespread attention in the late 1970s with Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose,” the first go-go hit.
Brown was the godfather of go-go, but when he went on tour, he left a void in Washington that was filled by younger bands — the most prominent being Rare Essence, a group of teenagers including Benny. They performed up to six times a week at venues in and around D.C., continuing to shape go-go into a style of funk that is still identified with the nation’s capital.
“When you look at go-go from a historical standpoint, Little Benny, he stands out as one of the founding fathers,” Kato Hammond, the founder and editor of a magazine about the go-go scene, told the Post. “Chuck Brown laid the foundation, but Rare Essence — and Benny was part of it during that time — built the house.”
Little Benny quickly became known for having the boundless energy it took to continue making music from the beginning of the performance to the end. The Go-Go Hall of Fame inductee was a diminutive man with a powerful voice who led the band’s vocals on fast-paced songs and could play two trumpets at once.
He left Rare Essence in the mid-1980s and formed Little Benny and the Masters. Among his most popular songs were “Cat in the Hat” [See clip below.] and “Who Comes to Boogie.” Later, he played with the go-go band Proper Utensils and reunited several times with original members of Rare Essence.
“Little Benny helped put the District’s own musical genre on the map,” said D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, adding that he “will be remembered for his lifelong contribution to go-go.”
For much of his life, Lil Benny paid the bills with a number of jobs. He installed alarm systems, owned a moving company and worked as a cable technician. He was known as “the Helicopter” because he often played at several venues in one evening.
Recently, he had been playing regularly with Brown, including a show in Capitol Heights the night before his death.
Per the Washington Post:
Anthony Harley was born in Washington on Sept. 26, 1963. He grew up in Southeast watching rehearsals of his father’s singing group, Frank Harley and the Bell Chords. His father gave him a guitar, but Little Benny did not become serious about music until he was 12.
“I saw this guy playing a horn in the parking lot and told him, ‘Let me see that thing. How do you play this?’ ” Mr. Harley said in an interview published in Hammond’s magazine.
That impromptu lesson led to a teacher named Mr. Harrington, who took Mr. Harley to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to play with a group known as Mr. Harrington’s Little Giants of Jazz. On his way home from practicing one day, Mr. Harley passed a house where he heard fellow teenagers playing music.
He knocked on the door, and the musicians, who would later form Rare Essence, let Mr. Harley show them what he could do. He played “Hollywood Swingin’ ” on his horn, and when he finished, they asked him to play it again.