Guest columnist Gregory-Dean (Smitty) Smith: Farewell to a legend

  • Bennie “The Motown Bucket Man” Johnson is shown in 2019. gazette file photo

Thursday, February 04, 2021

The Pioneer Valley is one of the most special territories in America, if not the world. Its history has been and continues to be a veritable haven for social justice activities since the days when Sojourner Truth lived here. And it continues to be laden with legendary activists today.

In this article we are saying farewell to an unsung legend, Peter Johnson, who is affectionately known as Bennie “The Motown Bucket Man.” He came from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and his musical gifts and talent came from his bloodline going back to his mother’s uncle — the man history dubbed as the Father of the Blues: W. C. Handy.

Bennie and his brother were known as the Johnson Brothers, who have several recordings and were the opening act at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. They traveled the country working with such groups as Ray, Goodman and Brown, Bo Diddly and a host of others.

Bennie was also socially conscious and very active: As a little boy he learned of the stories of Jesus who became his hero to model himself after. When he became a teenager he endeavored to receive his activist training from Dr. Martin Luther King and Andrew Young. His zest for life didn’t stop there, among other tinkerings, he invented a talking clock. After leaving New York, he brought his family to set roots in Northampton, the petri dish of social justice activities. This is where he became “The Motown Bucket Man” living free and easy feeding his family by singing Motown songs in the streets.

This is also where Bennie created a program that would allow wealthy white people to pay poor Black people handsome sums of money to come and stay in their homes for a week. This caught the attention of Phil Donahue and landed him several interviews on the “Phil Donahue Show.” One of his last projects he was working on before he passed from this earth was an ecologically conscious super hero comic book. Only in this story, “The Motown Bucket Man” was a character scolding Ironman and the Hulk for all the violence and damage to city property done in the name of fighting crime.

The Motown Bucket Man act was only a part of his missionary work. Bennie’s greatest gift was that of his ability to emulate his childhood hero Jesus. He’d pick up strangers laying in the streets, wash them down and let them sleep next to him in the same bed. He turned his two-bedroom apartment into a shelter and a soup kitchen for the homeless and hungry; and he did this with the money he earned doing street theater as “The Motown Bucket Man.”

Only those who can fully appreciate the level of trust, love, compassion and intention it takes to demonstrate this kind of humanity on a continuous basis. Only in this helter skelter world of today where trust has become an atrophied muscle, can see what a great soul has been among us. The Motown Bucket Man, a street minister, without a church, budget or resources, flexing his herculean-muscle of trust — becoming one of those rare human beings to lift up the so-called “dregs of society” and bring them home. For him, all life is sacred. It is not hyperbole to say that his humanitarian efforts put him in the rarefied air of people like Amma, the hugging Guru or Mother Teresa — not at their expansive level, but definitely of the same DNA. Was he a saint or sinner? He was undoubtedly both, but none of his trepesses can ever cast a shadow over the luminous flame that lit up the darkest night for those in distress.

We will forever remember he lived his life on his terms doing his level best to walk the ways of his hero Jesus. We will remember his final exit from the stage of life was as fearless and graceful as his entrance into life and how he chose to live. How he valiantly submitted his resignation to the God he served! We will remember how his request to retire to a place in heaven with his wife Margarita Feliciano, who passed last September, was granted to him with honors. And he went home singing the song he always sang to his wife: Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”

The Heavens will open and the angels will sing all the Motown hit songs welcoming him in to be the angel in heaven that he was on Earth. To all of the Johnson clan and friends my heart and the spirit of so many who knew him will share in the loss of this bright spirit who always let his love-light shine.

Farewell, Bennie “The Bucket Man” Johnson.