Despite the recent upgrades to downtown Glendale, ranging from the flashy, checkered Bloomingdale’s to the newly renovated Victoria’s Secret and the Americana, Brand Boulevard still has some old charms and quirks.
Red Benson, 65, a Vietnam veteran with an affinity for folk music and guitars, can be seen performing most Friday or Saturday nights on Brand Boulevard, woven himself into the fabric of the city for the past 15 years. With his cowboy hat in place, microphone at the ready, and an American flag nearby, Benson’s voice and sense of peace attracts a steady stream of listeners.
After singing the opening lyrics of “Sound of Silence,” on a recent Saturday night, he briefly stops to chat with passerby listeners, some who stop to shake his hand while others inquire about his hat. Many more, though, walk past, sneaking sideways glances or looking back.
Despite the night’s chill, Benson said he planned to play until 11 p.m. Prior to becoming a full-time musician, Benson held different jobs, working as a car salesman, a bus driver, and a real estate agent. He declined to say how much he brings in as a street performer.
“I was trying to do it [real estate] because my dad was successful in it,” Benson said. “It wasn’t until I started doing this that I really started enjoying my life. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.”
Though he went back to selling cars in 1998, he simultaneously began performing but eventually quit his job as a salesman to pursue music full time in 2001.
Benson’s son, Raymond, 24, says that his father is “a whole new man now” and is passionate about what he does.
“He’s happy to wake up every morning to do it,” he said.
Benson’s love for music dates back to his youth, starting with toy guitars and graduating to a real one during Christmas 1959. Though he began lessons the following year, he said he quickly learned to hate “the discipline of practicing.”
Benson said he stopped playing until he went to camp in Sequoia in 1962 and listened to a fellow camper’s Peter, Paul and Mary albums, a trio most famous for “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
Once he got home, Benson had his mom buy the same two records he listened to during camp and spent the entire summer relearning how to play.
Although Benson sings in Santa Monica during the week, he prefers the solitude of Glendale, where there are not as many performers. He said he plans to continue singing and playing for as long as he is able to. He says the secret to being happy is following one’s passion, whether one is a musician, paints houses, or cleans swimming pools.
“Music helps me get through life,” he said. “I’m one of the happiest people you’ll ever meet...Follow your passion. Don’t worry about the money because the money will follow.”
Agnessa Kasumyan is a freelance writer.