Spartanburg Guitar Hero Joe Bennett Reunites with Mickey Hart of Grateful Dead Fame

Spartanburg native and original Sparkletones front man Joe Bennett has been battling some life-threatening health problems in the past year.

Bennett's ailments include Parkinson's disease and Parkinson's-related dementia stemming from his exposure to Agent Orange while serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, and he and his family have been trying to secure full Veterans Administration benefits to help cover the costs of his medical treatment.

Through all of his struggles, however, Bennett has not lost his love for music. And that passion led to the immensely skilled guitarist and highly respected music educator getting to reunite last week with a buddy from his military days.

Bennett caught up with Mickey Hart of Grateful Dead fame when the legendary percussionist performed last Wednesday at the Halton Theater in Charlotte, N.C.

During the mid-1960s, then-Air Force servicemen Bennett and Hart played together in a band called Joe and the Jaguars.

Bennett took part in what was presumably one of the highlights of the Mickey Hart Band's concert last week in Charlotte, joining the group on guitar for a rendition of the Sparkletones' 1957 rockabilly hit, "Black Slacks."

"Mickey Hart is my best and dearest friend," Bennett said in an e-mail. "We've been friends for about 46 years. It was an honor to be a guest on the Mickey Hart show in the beautiful Halton Theater and perform 'Black Slacks' with the great Mickey Hart and his phenomenal band.

"It was true music therapy for me. I could feel the healing power of music throughout my soul."

Bennett's home health care includes physical therapy and occupational therapy, according to his wife, Doris. She said that Bennett practices his guitar daily for music therapy, which is a result of his having watched the 2011 film, "The Music Never Stopped." Hart was instrumental in the production of the movie, which deals with the therapeutic power of music.

"After watching it, Joe was motivated to get on a daily routine of playing his guitar and listening to his own music, as well as his favorite artists, especially Mickey Hart," Doris said.

Doris said that Bennett hung out with Hart before last Wednesday's show and that the two musicians "talked about their Air Force days in Spain, how music technology has really advanced since their performing and recording days in Spain, the importance of music therapy, what music means to them personally, what great and wonderful fans they have (and) how very important their families are to them."

Jim Brown, who many might know for his work as stage manager at John Featherston's Music Camp, escorted Joe and Doris Bennett to Charlotte for what was initially going to be just a pre-show meeting with Hart.

Brown said it was obvious Bennett wanted to stay for the show. Brown, however, needed to return to Spartanburg early.

"Mickey actually rented a limo from Charlotte and hired someone to drive Joe and Doris back to Spartanburg," Brown said. "If that doesn't show you the regard that Mickey has for Joe, I don't know what will."

Because of Hart's generosity, concertgoer David Drum got to witness an on-stage moment he'll never forget. Drum, a Spartanburg native with a prior connection to Bennett, was at the show as part of a cancer charity called drumSTRONG.

"Being a Deadhead and having a connection with Mickey already had me stoked for the show," said Drum, who now lives in Charlotte. "Unexpectedly, Mickey brought Joe on stage, introducing him as an old friend and an early influence in his music career. I had no idea that there was a tie between Joe Bennett and Mickey Hart.

"Joe played and sang a smoking 'Black Slacks' with the Mickey Hart Band. The audience went wild. There were chants of 'Joe' coming from all around me during the standing ovation."

Drum said that, for the rest of the night, he couldn't help but think of the mentoring role Bennett played in his own musical evolution.

"My mind kept wandering back to the many practice sessions with Joe and (my) band Morpheus," Drum said. "We played on a Pauline goat farm. It was a haul for Joe to come out.

"He taught us technique and stage presence. He always wanted me to push the tempo, as I drag a bit. He was patient, intuitive and very funny. One night when we nailed an arrangement, Joe said, 'now that was jam down and jelly tight.' When I speak with some of my old band mates, we always use that quote."

Drum added that Bennett once spent an entire Saturday at Arthur Smith's studio in Charlotte, helping Morpheus record a demo tape for publicity purposes.

"Joe was a giving man with a passion for music and for nurturing other's interest in it," Drum said. "He mentored many other bands. It was after (Wednesday's) show that I learned of Joe and Mickey being in the Jaguars together, Joe's health issues and the difficulty getting resources that he is owed as a veteran and grandfather of rock 'n' roll.

"I'm hoping, like Mickey Hart, many of Joe's students will rally around him at this time of need."

It's worth noting that the Mickey Hart Band gave a performance last Saturday in Kempton, Pa., in which some of the proceeds were to be used to assist Bennett with his medical expenses.

According to a news release on the Rex Foundation website, Hart "also wants to raise awareness about both the challenges Vietnam veterans like Joe are facing, as well as the power of music therapy to help people with health issues like Joe's."

The Rex Foundation was established in 1983 as a non-profit charitable organization by members of the Grateful Dead.

By – Dan Armonaitis

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