Ben Tells A Good Story

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Ben Harrison – tells a good story

Ben Harrison started taking music lessons at 14 years old from Chester Rupe who is now in the Texas Music Hall of Fame, in Corpus Christie, Texas. He wanted to be the new Elvis from the get go. Ben has a 1957 Gibson acoustic guitar, bought new, all original, that he still uses today.

Ben and his wife, Helen, lived in California when they decided to move to Costa Rico and build a sailboat. Their journey to Key West traveled from California through Mexico, to Roatan, Honduras, and sailing his custom-made sailboat throughout the Caribbean. There was no television anywhere, and other than reading or playing checkers, music was the only entertainment available. His first song, “Jojo”, was written about a local in Roatan, orphaned at the age of 9, who worked shrimp boats, played music, and was quite a colorful character.

They sailed into Key West Bight in 1979 where Ben immediately got a job playing music at Two Friends Bar on Front Street. The sailboat slip rent was $75 a month, including water and electric, and Ben made $100 a night playing music so the math really worked well in 1979. In 1986, Ben bought a house on White Street that became their current residence and the Harrison Gallery. For their first 20 years in Key West, Ben played music 5-6 nights a week, and Helen sold her art works.

The Two Friends Bar was a hangout for all the treasure salvers that worked for Mel Fisher before they discovered the mother lode. Ben was inspired to write the “Treasure Salvers Song”. The history of Key West has always influenced Ben’s music. One of his first works, “The Ballad of Maria Elena Hoyos”, was the now famous story of Count Carl Tanzler von Cosel and his bizarre love for a young female patient. It quickly became one of his most requested songs and later a sold-out musical play.

Many of Ben’s songs are about real Key West characters such as former fire chief/convicted smuggler, Bum Farto, the 1980s DC-3 Key West commuter airline Air Sunshine that was notoriously late (song title: Air Sometimes), pin-up model/1st grade teacher, Betty Page, and many more. His music fits this quirky community.

The Bull & Whistle quickly became Ben’s favorite and long term gig. It was his show and he was the focal point of the room doing his songs, not a lot of covers. He enjoyed entertaining with his style of entertainment. He did catchy songs like “Equal Cussing Rights for Children” and “The Conch Train Song”. There is an art to keeping an audience and Ben was a master.

He regularly performs an original song, “Sloppy Joe’s 1984”, about people on a list of those banned from Sloppy Joe’s in 1984. The list was discovered by Barry Cuda after it was posted by the management upstairs. It was such a strikingly funny list of names that Cuda determined it had to be made into a song. He gave the list to Ben Harrison and Shel Silverstein who actually drew some make believe sketches of the characters for a photo shoot outside Sloppy Joe’s. The characters had names like “Lisa Marie (who wants to kill Tom)”, “Ernesto the dealer”, “Brownie (girl with the star tattooed on her forehead)”, One-Eyed Jane”, “Ramone the surf punk”, “Sinbad”, “Barley the dog”, “Paco and his pals”.  Ben’s song is a cool story about a quirky Key West bunch during some interesting times.

Ben is currently a member of the Board of Directors for the Bahama Village Music Program, helping to teach children music, ages 6-17. These days Ben has started to do more writing and fewer music gigs. He’s written several books, one being “Sailing Down the Mountain”, the saga of his and Helen’s travels from California through the Caribbean when young and impetuous.

He has also written several musicals, the first was “Undying Love” about the Count von Cosel and Elena. He collaborated with John Wells on “Key West, A Musical Tour About Town”. Some other musicals were “The Poultry Operetta” and “Clouds Over the Sunshine Inn”.  Ben’s latest play, “El Isleño 1921” – the Untold Key West Story, is a little-known but important part of our history. The Roaring Twenties was just beginning, Flagler’s Railroad had arrived in 1912, Prohibition booze was flowing and then on Christmas morning it all changed… The play will be presented at the Fringe Theater from February 15-25, a story of Key West love, crime, and resilience – it’s a musical, of course. It has become very obvious to most in Key West that Ben Harrison tells a good story.


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