By Myra Chanin
I arrived early at Don’t Tell Mama to watch Dean Benner and his Rockin’ Six-Piece Band’s Country Jukebox show and found myself at the end of a long line of compatriots who watched Mama’s Booking Manager Sidney Myer carrying unoccupied tables and chairs into Mama’s big showroom to accommodate the overflow crowd which included me. Boy, was I impressed. The boy had many fans.
But I soon learned Dean Benner is not a boy, or a longtime guitarist or a native New Yorker.
He grew up in rural Indiana, in a home where the music his parents’ generation – The Greatest – preferred was played. Dean graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in finance, earned an MBA from Loyola University in Chicago and married his teenage sweetheart, whom he noticed during his first morning in high school. She was the prettiest girl he ever saw. Upperclassmen shared Dean’s evaluation, so it took Dean two years to get a date with her. He married her, they’re still together, they raised three children and he still thinks she’s the prettiest girl he ever saw.
Dean spent the next thirty years climbing the Midwest version of Wall Street’s financial ladder which resulted in an offer nobody in their right might would refuse from Axis Capital, a New York investment firm. He moved to New Jersey where he was known as the only neighbor who actually mowed his own lawn – how it was done in Indiana — and remained CIO and Executive Vice President of Axis Capital until 2014 when he retired.
Dean had always liked to sing but never thought about performing until 2010 when he met Linda Amiel Burns, the Director of The Singing Experiences. After he participated in several Singing Experience performance workshops, he was ready to strut his stuff and in 2011, made his Cabaret debut at Don’t Tell Mana. The show was called “Nice and Easy” and it contained many of the songs he’d heard when he was home in Indiana. The response to his show was gratifying enough for him to do it again but not immediately. Two years later in 2013 at Don’t Tell Mama, country music crept into his repertoire in “Honky Tonk Moon.” The biannual spacing between appearances seemed right and he continued creating an entire new show every two years. In 2015, “Still Cookin’” featured more C&W songs at the Triad. He returned to Don’t Tell Mama in 2017 with “Night Time Man,” which continued his C&W trend. How Country is his repertoire now? Country enough for the word to have invaded its title. 2019’s Country Jukebox just completed its standing room only 5-night stand at Don’t Tell Mama.
For Country Jukebox Dean wanted to play with the band when he was singing, but wondered if he could learn to play guitar at this late stage in his life. Psst! He looks like he’s in his mid-fifties, but being retired means he’s older than 65. Still, he took lessons and persisted, surprising both himself and Linda Amiel Burns. “Dean is a hard worker and when he puts his mind to something, he makes it happen!” He certainly did. He convinced me he’d learned to strum those guitar strings as a teen-ager. He was certainly comfortable playing, singing and talking on stage.
Country Jukebox would win four stars from Ken Burns, whose impressive documentary series about country music is wowing Public Television. Most of the country’s best country singer/ songwriters are represented on Dean’s songlist: Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues, Willie Nelson’s very appropriate “It’s All Goin’ to Pot. Randy Travis, Bob Wills, Alan Jackson, Buddy Holly are included. And what’s this? U-Turn Blues! About the perils of driving an automobile in cloverleaf New Jersey, written and performed by a new country singer/songwriter whose name is Dean Benner. One final note. Dean includes some tunes in the program he remembers from his nice and easy Indiana childhood – Hoagy Carmichael’s “Two Sleepy People,” and the classic “Down by the Riverside.”
What’s nicest about Dean Benner is the fact that he’s a natcheral man, especially when he talks about his life and most of all when he sings about the high school sweetheart who became his wife. His tribute to her was expressed in “Come Rain or Come Shine.” When he sings, “I’m gonna love you, like nobody’s loved you …” you know he means every word and has achieved every syllable.
Dean’s lively guest artist, Christine Shuler, also found her cabaret voice and solo stage presence via Linda Amiel Burns’ Singing Experience. And his six-piece band is top drawer. Richard Danley, his music director/arranger/pianist impressed me as much this time around as he had when I first encountered him in a very different milieu, as International Cabaret Star, Adrienne Hahn’s very sophisticated music director. Guitarist Peter Calo is a singer/songwriter. Jack Bashkow also plays reeds in Broadway’s Mean Girls orchestra. Jonathan Russell is a multi-prize- winning fiddler. Bag of Bones’ Mike Campenni beat out rhythms and Matt Scharfglass, who describes himself on line as an embarrassing dad, abuser of Whammy bars and coffee junkie, is also one of the most versatile and accomplished bassists in New York. Kudos also to Director Linda Amiel Burns who kept Dean’s 20 song program good and lively.
After seeing Dean interacting on stage with the band and Guest Artist Christine Shuler – everybody having a great time – and with the audience after the show, it’s obvious that everybody he spoke to loves him and vice versa. You see how they feel about each other in their body language when they shake hands or hug Hello/Goodbye.
With Dean – what you see is what you get. A really honorable person who presents a wonderful show. If you haven’t heard or seen Dean, you might have to wait till 2021 which is when he’s due back for his biannual return to Don’t Tell Mama.
Photos: Linda Amiel Burns