Bob Benjamin was another music-struck student at the University at Buffalo, using his entrepreneurial spirit to run a buy/sell/trade record co-op in a UB basement. After a chance meeting with Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons, Benjamin offered advice on marketing the E Street Band’s merchandise, and began a lifelong friendship with the Boss and his E Street bandmembers.
After college, Benjamin went on to work in the music industry, first at Billboard, then in marketing, consulting for artists and record companies—a career likely conceived when he took Springsteen and friends on that impromptu tour of Buffalo, in 1978. Just as he was hitting his stride, however, Benjamin was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, in 1996.
Benjamin transformed his own 40th birthday party into a fundraiser for Parkinson’s. The following year, it evolved—bigger and brasher, into the Light of Day concert held at the famed Stone Pony club in Asbury Park, the home stage of many important rockers, including Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny. Since then, the event has grown each year, and now the Light of Day Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, produces annual fund-raising concert events in multiple cities and countries, including, for the third year, in Australia.
The Light of Day Winterfest 2017: The Beat Goes On, is set for Jan. 6 through 16. including what is now an Asbury Park five-day event, put on at the Stone Pony, the larger Paramount Theater and elsewhere in Asbury Park, on days close to Benjamin’s birthday, plus New York (Jan. 11), Philadelphia (Jan. 7), and other NJ locales, 30 venues in all. Last year the event raised $525,000. The stages have been graced by such talent as Joe Grushecky, Joe D’Urso, Dawne Allyne (Benjamin manages all three), Lucinda Williams, Bruce Springsteen (who recently revealed that his father suffered from Parkinson’s), Jakob Dylan, Pete Yorn, Southside Johnny and Michael J. Fox, as well as fellow UB grad Willie Nile.
Joe Grushecky helped build the ground floor of the Light of Day. Bob Benjamin was managing Grushecky when Benjamin was diagnosed and had his 40th birthday get-together. The first year it was just a small group of friends, but the following year Benjamin said, “Let’s do something a little bit bigger, and have a concert.” Headlining the Stone Pony as Joe Grushecky and the Iron City Houserockers and working quite a bit with Springsteen in those days, Grushecky gave Bruce a call. “I asked him if he could come play with us and support the cause, and he was kind enough to do that,” Grushecky said. “And I’ve been hitting up everybody ever since.”
“Hitting up everybody ever since” is not entirely accurate. “In the old days I would have to ask people, but now you have to keep people away—it’s taken on a life of its own,” Grushecky admitted. He hasn’t missed one year himself, usually doing two days of the now five-day Asbury Park portion of Winterfest. “It’s a family thing,” the Pittsburgh-based Special Ed teacher said. “My son has been involved, my family helps out, and we go to New Jersey and are there from Friday through Sunday every year.” He usually does two gigs, but this year he’s in for three.
Richard Barone, frontman for the Bongos, was a radio DJ at seven, sang with Pete Seeger and co-produced Seeger’s last record, mounts shows at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, records and teaches at NYU’s Tisch Center. He’s a busy guy. But for ten years, Barone has reserved weeks in January for the Light of Day. “It’s part of my holiday celebration time—part of my New Year’s is the Light of Day.”
“I think that’s how Light of Day was built,” he said. “It’s a very communal organization. If you look at the rosters, you’ll see recurring members of the family, and I think I was invited to be part of that family.” Barone compares the Light of Day to Woodstock: people of a certain age and a certain mentality, coming together. “Light of Day is in that spirit. The music becomes part of the experience. The celebrity-driven thing with Bruce and others, that’s one part of it, but the other part is that people want to get together to celebrate life, and do something to help others. I think that is the underlying meaning of Light of Day.”
Richard Barone doesn’t really know Bob Benjamin (they’ve met), but Garland Jeffreys does, and for Jeffreys, the Light of Day is a very personal thing. “I’ve known Bob for years, and he’s been incredible. He doesn’t stand by and wait for things to happen, he does whatever you can do.” Benjamin would hook Jeffreys up with CBS TV “to talk about the foundation, as well as Parkinson’s Disease and our family members with Parkinson’s.”
“I’m very in touch with all the people in the Asbury Park area, Bruce and those guys, they’ve been my friends for many years,” he said. Bit by bit, step by step, Jeffreys—whose own mother-in-law has Parkinson’s—is trying to do whatever can be done. “We’re not doctors, but we can raise money, and over the years we’ve been able to support and funnel money toward the illness and the organization. People are suffering, Bob being one of these people.”
Vincent Pastore has made a career of portraying Italian American mafiosi in works such as Goodfellas, Carlito’s Way and HBO’s The Sopranos, in which he played Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero. He was introduced to Light of Day and Bob Benjamin by Tony Amato (“We call him ‘Boccigalupe,’” Pastore told Elmore), who asked Pastore to host the Sunday show at the Stone Pony with Gary U.S. Bonds.
“Bobby’s close to me. Since way back, we connected,” Pastore said. “Bobby grew up in New Rochelle, which is my hometown. I lost my mother, Natalie, she died from Parkinson’s. Now you know why we do what we do.”
Pastore, whose own speech suggests the characters he portrays, talked about the many artists who offer to perform: “Tony Pallagrosi (Light of Day Executive Director) and Joe D’Urso, they put the shows together. If they asked you, Boom! If you don’t get asked, doesn’t mean they’re bad guys. It got so they’ve got people coming down from Canada—Canada!—who want to be on that stage.”
The actor, a musician himself in the Gangster Squad band (“It’s like, “Now we’re senior citizens, let’s go and have some fun!”), also hosts The Wiseguy Show, produced for Sirius Radio by his friend, his Sopranos co-star and E Street Band member, Steven Van Zandt. Pastore usually MCs in Asbury Park, but also travels to Niagara Falls, Hamilton, Toronto and Kingston, Canada for the Light of Day. “Whatever they ask me to do, I do,” he said.
“I’ve been up to Canada maybe five times since I’ve been involved, and you meet these Canadians that come out, and they’re not looking for Bruce, they know Bruce ain’t going up there. They want to hear some good rock ‘n’ roll, they want to get involved with the cause, and they’re very supportive. One of the things I do when I hop on stage at Asbury, if I MC, I always say, ‘I want to thank our Canadian friends out there,’ and there’s a big roar, because they come down to Asbury for the week; they migrate down to the Paramount.”
As MC, Pastore understands the cachet of staying on the side stage during the performance.
“Some of these people want to stay on stage and hang out like groupies, and they can’t let that happen,” he explained. “What they started doing, is on one side of the stage, stage right, they put chairs, and they charge a lot of money to sit there. In between songs all the musicians and people involved with the organization are all standing on the other side, so just to be able to stand on stage left—which they haven’t kicked me off of yet—is an honor.”
Pastore described the event as becoming “a pilgrimage,” and said people who wonder if Springsteen will perform are missing the point.
“That’s not what it’s all about,” Pastore flatly stated. “If he shows, he shows. What it is about is earning money to put into the Foundation and to fight Parkinson’s. If Bruce shows up, great, you have a great show, but if he doesn’t show up, guess what? You still have a great show. You have a great week. The focus should be on Parkinson’s and the Light of Day. You’ve got all these great guys—Willie Nile, La Bamba, d’Urso, Garland Jeffreys, Steve Forbert, Gary U.S. Bonds, Darlene Love, Southside Johnny—they all show up, year after year after year. And you got your local acts—they can’t wait for it to come, can’t wait to go and do work at the Pony and at the Wonder Bar and at McLoone’s.”
Pastore summed up best what everyone expressed: “This all goes back to why we do it. We do it because we all love Bobby, we do it because we love the cause. We do it because we’re all rock ‘n’ rollers, and if you can’t make a noise with rock ‘n’ roll music, something’s wrong. We’re not out there doing poetry. We’re out there to rock.”
To rock, and to raise money for the Light of Day, and they do a hell of a job at both. And that’s pure poetry.