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October 10, 2015

After suffering a shoulder injury in a traffic accident in September two years ago, I have been limited in some usual activities. Lifting anything that required both arms was difficult. Have you ever tried to change an overhead light bulb using just one hand?  Some of the things that bring joy to my life were difficult.  For example, during our family vacation at the coast I was unable to surf fish or to use a cast net to catch bait. Closer to home, working in the garden was more difficult. Maybe the thing I missed most was being able to lift a grandchild. I could not pick up our grandchildren without first sitting down to pull them up to my knee using only my right arm.

Following shoulder surgery in early May of this year, I was still unable to use my left arm for several weeks. The surgery was helpful, but I cannot shovel mulch in the garden. Nor can I bend down to pick up a grandchild without first finding a chair. But I can strum my guitar and that is, for me, a part of the healing process.

When I was in the ninth grade my left knee became my Achilles heel. I tore the cartilage playing junior varsity basketball.  My aspirations to play college basketball were shattered, adding insult to injury.

In those days arthroscopic surgery was not an option. I spent weeks walking on crutches and periodically having the knee drained. Instead of staying after school for basketball practice, I had to go home and sit around doing schoolwork. I was miserable.

About a week into my convalescence, my dad did a remarkable thing. He brought home a secondhand Stella guitar. Handing it to me, he said, “As long as you are so unhappy, you might as well learn to play the blues.”

The guitar was an unexpected, but welcome, gift.

With my knee propped up on a pillow, ice bag strapped on with an Ace bandage, I started trying to learn to play a few chords.

A few days later Dad came home with a Chet Atkins record. He said, “Here’s a fellow from East Tennessee who taught himself to play. I thought this might encourage you.”

Dad was right. I was inspired. The steel strings on the guitar cut deep into my finger tips.  I developed blisters. They eventually became calluses.  I spent hours strumming that old Stella, long since gone.

Now, I enjoy playing and singing with our children and our grandchildren.  I will be forever grateful to my dad for that first guitar. It was an instrument of healing.

My dad wondered if I needed lessons. He said I should contact Jerome Fowler, a resident of Clifton Mill #2. Mr. Fowler became my teacher. He was one of the most unique people I have ever known.  He had been the Minister of Music at a Methodist Church. He not only worked in the mill, he also served as the band director at the mill. His language was salty. His teeth were usually in a glass on top of the piano. He smoked cigars.

When Mr. Fowler was a boy he fell out of a tree. The accident left him with a broken arm that healed improperly. He could not even hold a guitar. But he understood the instrument as if he had invented it. He could hold a mandolin, which he played while I played the guitar. He stopped often to press my fingers into the right places on the fret board. He used the Gibson Guitar Course, teaching scales and runs, bar chords and harmonics.

I have thought of Jerome Fowler frequently as I recovered from my surgery. I am thankful for Mr. Fowler and realized, again, the healing potential of the guitar.

Joe Bennett died on Saturday night June 27, 2015. Joe was what Chet Atkins would call a Certified Guitar Player. He and three buddies started a band, The Sparkletones, in 1956 at Cowpens High School. Joe Bennett, originally from Glendale and Cannon’s Campground, had also taken guitar lessons from Jerome Fowler.

In January 1957, Bob Cox, a talent scout for the Columbia Broadcasting System, held auditions at the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium. The Sparkletones took first prize at the event. Convinced they would be a success, Cox quit CBS to manage the group and flew them out to New York City to sign with Paramount.

At their first recording session they sang “Black Slacks.” Released as a single soon after, “Black Slacks” became a hit and built up national recognition. The Sparkletones toured the nation doing numerous concerts and performing on “The Nat King Cole Show,” “American Bandstand,” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.”  “Black Slacks” remained on the record charts for over four months, peaking at number17 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart late in 1957.

Joe and I got together occasionally before he became ill. I took a few lessons from him to renew some of my guitar skills. We would sometimes eat breakfast together at Dolline’s and talk about what life has been like for both of us. We were two old codgers enjoying each other’s company. We both enjoyed the guitar.

Joe served in the Air Force in Vietnam. He was an air traffic controller. Maybe his most important job was to play his guitar at the Non-Commissioned Officers Club. The commander was trying to keep the soldiers on base instead of having them go into Saigon where they could get into trouble.

Joe said, “Every day, somebody there got a Dear John letter. I played every broken-hearted song there is to play. I bet I played ‘Your Cheating Heart’ five hundred times.”

Joe shared a remarkable story. Years ago, the Sparkletones were playing a concert in Hartford, Connecticut. In those heady days they were opening for the likes of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. On this occasion they opened for Little Richard. The place was packed out.

Just before the show, two kids from Brooklyn, Tom and Jerry, were to make their first appearance ever. The promoter had asked them to sing one song. Joe explained that the two young men were scared to death.

Joe said to the young musicians, “You guys need to know that this is probably your best chance. You have a great audience here. They have come to hear good music. The promoter thinks you have the talent to do this. Just go out there and give it your best shot.”

With that word of encouragement from Joe, the two singers, Tom and Jerry, were a knockout! People loved them. Later, they changed their names to Simon and Garfunkel.

Several years ago, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel did a reunion concert in Central Park before thousands of people. About halfway through that concert, Paul Simon said to Art Garfunkel, “Why don’t we play ‘Black Slacks’?” They broke into the old song. Joe said, “We have gotten more royalties off of their recording of that song than we ever made off of our recordings.”

I’ll tell you again, in the hands of a person like Joe Bennett, Paul Simon, Chet Atkins and many others, the guitar can be an instrument of healing. So Simon and Garfunkel found a way to express their gratitude to Joe and the Sparkletones. As his illness encroached, that was a healing memory for Joe Bennett.

The Bible tells us that when King Saul was despondent, his court officials would send for David, the sweet singer of Israel. “David would take up his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.” (I Samuel 16:23)

When I hear Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel, B. B. King, Eric Clapton, and a host of others play the guitar I find it to be healing for my spirit.

David didn’t have a guitar, he had a harp. I hope that when Joe Bennett got to the pearly gates, he was not issued a harp. My guess is that someone handed him a well-tuned six-string guitar. That must surely be part of the music of heaven.

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