Joe Bennett of the Sparkletones Passes On

Joe Bennett of the Sparkletones.jpg

Story Credit: Dan Armonaitis

Joe Bennett and The Sparkletones once recorded a song called “Boys Do Cry.”

They sure do. And so do men and women of all ages, as evidenced by the tremendous outpouring of emotion expressed over the loss of a Spartanburg music icon.

Bennett, who co-wrote the early rock 'n' roll classic, “Black Slacks,” which, in the autumn of 1957, propelled him and three fellow Spartanburg County teenagers into national stardom, died Saturday, July 4th at night at the Rainey Hospice House in Anderson. He was 75.

Bennett had been suffering from complications related to Parkinson's disease and Lewy body dementia, stemming from exposure to Agent Orange while serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War.

Led by Bennett, the eldest of the group, on guitar, The Sparkletones included Wayne Arthur on bass, Howard “Sparky” Childress on guitar and Jimmy Denton on drums. The band is enshrined in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

“He was a dear friend. He was like a brother to me, and it hurts,” Childress said. “We'll miss him bad.”

A Spartanburg native, Bennett grew up in the Cannon's Campground community and, like all of his bandmates in The Sparkletones, attended Cowpens High School. Growing up, he immersed himself in music, taking private guitar lessons from the late Jerome Fowler, a Clifton-based music instructor who had previously taught the legendary Hank Garland.

As a child, Bennett started a band called The Jamborettes, which later morphed into The Sparkletones.

The Sparkletones' meteoric rise to fame began in January 1957 when a CBS talent scout named Bob Cox came through Spartanburg to audition young performers for the television network. A talent competition was held at the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium, and The Sparkletones took first prize, which was an appearance on the “Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour.”

Cox was so impressed with the four teenage musicians that he resigned his position at CBS to become their manager. Soon, Bennett and his bandmates, who had never been out of their home state before, were on a plane to New York and signed to the ABC-Paramount record label.

“Black Slacks,” which was recorded in New York and issued under the name Joe Bennett and The Sparkletones, was the group's first and biggest hit. It climbed as high as No. 17 on the Billboard singles chart in Oct. 1957, sandwiched between such classics as “Jailhouse Rock” by Elvis Presley, “Keep A Knockin'” by Little Richard, “You're My One and Only Love” by Ricky Nelson and “Bye, Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers.

“We wrote ('Black Slacks') on his mother's front porch there at Cannon's Campground,” said Denton, who shares the songwriting credit with Bennett. “It was just kind of a fluke. We didn't set out to write a song that day, but things like that just happen sometimes.”

“He said this and I said that, and one thing led to another, and that's how the song came about.”

The song is noted for its sputtering 'bbbbbb' intro, which Denton said was added by producer Don Costa after he heard Childress make the noise while coming in from the cold. “He said, 'Hey, can y'all do that in harmony?'” Denton recalled.

Buoyed by the success of “Black Slacks,” The Sparkletones appeared on such national television programs as “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Nat King Cole Show” and “American Bandstand,” and also had the opportunity to hobnob with Elvis Presley in Las Vegas.

“If it hadn't been for Joe, there would have been no Sparkletones, to tell you the truth,” Denton said. “He was the ramrod of the outfit, you might say. He'll definitely be dearly missed.”

Bennett, who had been battling health issues for the past few years, last performed with The Sparkletones in 2011 when the group appeared at Viva Las Vegas, an internationally recognized convention that's billed as “the biggest rockabilly party in the world.” The Sparkletones also did reunion shows in England in the early- to mid-2000s.

“To stand on stage when we were old like we were and see these younger folks out there (in the audience), standing there and singing songs with us that we did back in 1957, '58, '59, it was just awesome,” Arthur said. “Joe played a big part in that. He was a real personable guy and he knew the business well. He was the one who kept in touch with promoters and made things like that happen.”

Following the fame they achieved in 1957, The Sparkletones had minor success for the next couple of years but soon disbanded and Bennett joined the U.S. Air Force.

While serving in Spain during the 1960s, Bennett befriended percussionist Mickey Hart, who later became internationally renowned as a founding member of The Grateful Dead. The two musicians played together in a short-lived band called Joe and the Jaguars.

In May 2013, Hart invited an ailing Bennett on stage to perform “Black Slacks” during a concert by the Mickey Hart Band at the Halton Theater in Charlotte, N.C. They met again a few months later at a concert Hart gave in Asheville, N.C.

“Joe Bennett was a virtuoso guitar player, an early pioneer, and visionary during the formative years of rock and roll,” Hart said in a statement provided by his manager. “Joe was a kind man and a good friend since 1962 when we played together in the band, Joe and the Jaguars. He nurtured and supported me musically for many years.”

Bennett also influenced a young Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, who, under the name Tom & Jerry, originally recorded music that was similar in spirit to The Sparkletones. As Simon & Garfunkel, they sang a snippet of “Black Slacks” during a 1969 performance at New York's Carnegie Hall, which was first released on the legendary folk-pop duo's 1997 box set, “Old Friends.”

Last June, Bennett attended Garfunkel's solo concert at the Chapman Cultural Center. Bennett was invited backstage following the performance, where Garfunkel greeted him and chatted for a few minutes about the influence “Black Slacks” had on him and Simon.

Despite such an impressive resume, many remember Bennett even more fondly for the inspiration he provided as a longtime music educator.

“He loved what he did, which was play guitar and sing and make things sound great, but when he saw other people doing it well, especially young people, I think it gave him about a thousand times more energy,” said Spartanburg resident Leslie “Fergie” Horvath, who took guitar lessons from Bennett as a youth in the early 1970s and whose husband, Gary, did the same as an adult in the 1990s.

Spartanburg resident Rusty Milner also studied guitar as teenager in the early '70s under Bennett's tutelage. He went on to become a member of the Marshall Tucker Band from 1984 to 2002 and now has a recording studio in Inman and is a guitar instructor.

“He was just a great guy, always cheerful,” Milner said. “He had a way of making students feel good about themselves and making them excited about their instrument.

“And that was on top of the fact that he was just an A-1 musician from the very beginning. He knew music and he understood it upside down.”
Bennett moved away from Spartanburg for many years but returned to the area in the early 1990s following a stint in Alaska, where he worked as an air traffic controller for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Upon his return, Bennett began teaching another generation of pickers. Among them, Spartanburg-based musician Daniel Casasanta, who was in his early teens when he started taking bass guitar lessons from Bennett in the late '90s.

“Joe had a special way that he connected with his students and he put them at ease,” Casasanta said. “I remember he would whistle along to the music when he was teaching, and, for me, that was a very comforting thing.”

When Spartanburg resident Joe Boscia moved with his family from Rochester, N.Y., in 2001, he purchased a Fender guitar and amplifier in an effort to expand his musical horizons. Upon the recommendation of others, he signed up for guitar lessons from Bennett and was later followed by his son, Joseph.

Boscia said it took some time before he realized his instructor's history with The Sparkletones. “Joe Bennett was just a gentleman rocker. He was really humble.”

But after learning of that history, Boscia couldn't help but place a bid on Bennet's 1957 Fender Stratocaster that his family recently put up for auction on EBay.

“I was the highest bidder, and it's my intention to keep that guitar in Spartanburg,” Boscia said. “It's part of Spartanburg history, and I wanted to make sure it remains in our community forever.”

In 2013, The Sparkletones were inducted onto the Spartanburg Music Trail, which features signposts throughout downtown that honor Hub City natives who have made a national or international impact in the world of music. The Sparkletones' sign is located near the corner of Liberty and Saint John streets across from the Chapman Cultural Center.

Following the ceremony, which also included the induction of Spartanburg native and Nashville, Tenn.-based singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman, Bennett told the Herald-Journal, “It's a wonderful feeling to be able to walk down the street and have people know who you are. … To have a day like this, as a group, is pretty awesome, and I'm awestruck by it all.”

Bennett is survived by wife Doris and five biological children and a stepson: Joseph Michael Bennett of San Antonio; Richard James Bennett of Groesbeck, Texas; Scarlette Bennett Tapp of Landrum; Chad McSwain of Campobello; Joseph Lee Bennett of Eagle Mountain, Utah; and Lindsay Bennett-Fluckiger of Spartanburg.

In a statement on behalf of her family, Bennett-Fluckiger wrote, “I would like to extend our sincere gratitude for the many kind words, prayers and memories that have been shared on social media in memory of my beloved father. He was a man of great faith and longed to see his savior's face.

“He served at church, at home and beyond our community here in Spartanburg. As evidenced on the Facebook group, 'Joe Bennett Taught Me Guitar,' he was instrumental in molding the lives of many musicians across the world.”