Friends, family recall Bennie ‘Motown Man’ Johnson

  • In this file photo from June 6, 2019, Bennie Johnson and Linda Grosberg, both of whom had lived for over seven years at the now-razed Amherst Motel apartments, talk about their community at the former Northampton Road complex. Residents had received “notices to quit,” or vacate, by July 1, 2019, as the property was slated for demolition and redevelopment as the Aspen Heights apartments. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • In this file photo from June 6, 2019, Bennie Johnson and Linda Grosberg, seated, are shown outside the now-razed Amherst Motel on Northampton Road. Residents of the complex had received “notices to quit,” or vacate, by July 1, 2019, as the property was slated for demolition and redevelopment as the Aspen Heights apartments. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Bennie Johnson SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Bennie Johnson SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/27/2021 4:24:05 PM

AMHERST — It was well after 1 a.m. when the man arrived at the Amherst Motel apartment complex from Springfield, but even at that late hour Bennie Johnson prepared to welcome him with food, shelter and companionship.

Transporting the man was Floyd Williams, an emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Massachusetts and a Christian minister, who saw firsthand the compassion Johnson, who died Jan. 19 at the age of 73, had for those less fortunate.

“He would take people into his home and really put his money where his mouth was,” Williams says. “It was not just talk for Bennie, it was a sacrifice he put forth to do that.”

Going by the names “Bennie the Bucket Man” or “The Motown Man,” Johnson, who lived in both Amherst and Northampton from the early 1980s, may have been best known to many for his time on the streets, regaling people outside stores by singing Motown hits and playing a 5-gallon plastic bucket. One of his trademarks was the colorful capes that accompanied his often flamboyant suits.

Petey Johnson, one of Johnson’s three grown children, said his father was much more to the family, going back and forth to New York City to provide for them, while still trying to meet the needs of a larger community.

“He was always giving to people, he was always cooking,” Johnson said. “He’s going to be missed by a lot of people.”

Johnson’s positive attitude and demeanor gave many people hope, said former area resident Gregory-Dean Smith, who goes by the name Brother North Star. Smith posted a tribute on his Facebook page:

“His costumes, the bucket he beat on, singing a plethora of Motown songs brought joy to people of all ages, colors and persuasions of our community,” Smith wrote. “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.”

Until moving to the Live 155 apartment building in downtown Northampton in 2019, Johnson and his late wife, Marguerita, for whom he was a caretaker, spent much of their later years in Amherst, including at the former Amherst Motel. There, with a new development planned for the site, Johnson organized the tenants to make sure they would have places to go when it broke ground.

Johnson was also outside Amherst Town Hall in 2010 leading a protest against the abrupt closure of the town’s first seasonal homeless shelter, arguing that it should remain open until the cold weather had passed, and he participated in discussions over the fate of Echo Village Apartments in 2013, advocating for families being displaced when the new owner turned the affordable homes into market-rate units.

Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, his mother worked in the cotton fields while his father was employed in the oil fields by Standard Oil. After his parents separated, Johnson moved with his mother from the Mississippi Valley to Harlem, and then arrived in Northampton in the early 1980s with children Petey, Margarita and Joseph.

Not long after coming to Northampton, a city he told the Gazette “is better than any place in the United States I’ve been,” he settled at Florence Heights and gained national attention by launching the Pay to be Poor program in 1983. The concept, which earned him profiles in magazines and newspapers and an appearance on the Phil Donahue Show, was to have “rich people,” as Johnson called them, pay money to live at the housing project and have the privilege of experiencing poverty firsthand.

The first to pay the $500 was Sylvia Kay Ambaruch from Oswego, New York, who used her time there, living with a single mother, so she could write a thesis for a social science master’s degree.

A year later, though, Johnson got into trouble with the Northwestern District Attorney's office, which accused him of stealing money donated to a group he started called the Florence Heights Unemployed Coalition. Even though residents there defended him as one providing food through a food bank program and helping them get jobs and the first PVTA bus service, the case ended up with Johnson pleading guilty to a lesser charge of embezzling $250, which brought him a year of probation instead of up to 15 years of prison time. 

Jacqueline Smith-Crooks of Amherst interviewed Johnson on the Black in the Valley segment on WHMP but also knew him from shopping excursions.

“I spoke to him often when I was out and about in Hadley and Amherst and was touched by his compassion for people as well as his passion for sharing music from the ’60s,” Smith-Crooks said. 

Johnson long claimed that he had performed in bands that backed up legendary musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Melba Moore.

More recently, Johnson earned attention by being featured in a comic book titled “The Adventures of Motown Man” illustrated by local artist Trent Aaron Poole.

Services will be on Friday at Ahearn Funeral Home, 783 Bridge Road, Northampton, with a walk-through visitation from 2 to 3 p.m.

“He was just a good man who really cared about people, especially people who have fallen on hard times,” Williams said. “The thing about Bennie is he always fought for the rights of people who are disadvantaged, not just in the abstract.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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