Roger Bennett, 1959-2007

As I write, the Singing News website appears to be overwhelmed with traffic given the announcement of Roger Bennett’s death (sogospelnews has an announcement here). I didn’t know him, only exchanged a few brief emails with him a couple of times, and have nothing by way of eulogy that won’t seem to be trying too hard to make myself a part of the grief that many others much closer to him than I have more right to. Instead, let me reprint the last thing I wrote about Bennett while he was alive, from October of last year.

I’ve moved recently, and so naturally this upends long-ago untouched piles of accumulated stuff that I forgot I even had. Like an old Cathedrals poster announcing their appearance in suburban St. Louis back in the mid-1990s. I think I’ve mentioned this poster before, but no matter. It hung in the lobby of the Baptist Bookstore (pre-Lifeway days) where I worked in my first years of college. The question wasn’t so much getting tickets to the concert (I dispatched with that straightaway). No, I spent most of the two months leading up to the event scheming about the exact way I would lay claim to this poster before the concert so I could get it autographed the night of by each of the members. I had not yet figured out that the rest of world, even much of the rest of the evangelical world, wasn’t half as crazy as I was for the Cats and southern gospel music, which meant I didn’t know enough to be embarrassed when the store manager looked at me like I was either stupid or pitiably addled to ask in the first place. “It’d just get thrown out.” I was just thrilled.

This was right after Roger Bennett had been first diagnosed with cancer and had come off the road to receive treatment, and I was devastated when I got to the church and realized my poster would lack his signature. It would take years, and my own experience with cancer, before I would come to realize how selfish and insensitive my disappointment was. But at the time, I confess to being fairly self-absorbed. I had all the instructional videos he had put out at that point and was deeply envious of that early solo album of his with him standing with a keyboard on the cover. I think I may have – yes, I’m pretty sure – practiced my own imitation of that pose with my Casio 3000.

At the time, of course, the conventional wisdom of fear was that Bennett wouldn’t survive what was clearly a scary situation. With time and the great grace of providence, he has survived … and survived and survived. In the car on the way home from dinner tonight I was listening to Live in Music City (still) and the “But God” cut came round on the player. I confess to rarely not listening to music analytically and critically. This is, for the most part, how I encounter the world and why and how I specifically enjoy gospel music – understanding and inhabiting its intricacies, listening to the sometimes lyrical, sometimes flatfooted interaction of lyrics and music and performance and style – the sum of its parts and all that. But tonight my mind wandered and I thought of Bennett and that by-now seemingly faraway time when his world was first upended. Not long after, he started appearing on stage vocally and has ever since. And though as a critic and observer and fan I find the result of his vocal work to be often ineffective, there is probably no way to measure how valuable and recuperative and essential that time and space and freedom on stage have been for Bennett, a born performer and gifted interpretive artist. I tend to be of the less-is-more school, which is why I wish performers would stick to their strengths and not invade their colleagues’ turf, but then that kind of strategic calculation is the first thing you toss out the window when cancer kicks the door in.

Too often, we listen through the lens of our personality and experience or expectations. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it does create unavoidable distortions. Our impulse is to reify the strength or courage or simple act of physical endurance it might be for a man to stand, to sing, to ply the art of his trade in certain catastrophic circumstances – grief, fear, failure, … cancer. It’s an honest reaction. Perhaps in thus honoring the effort we hope to believe that we too will have such strength to stand should such misfortune ever befall us. But whatever evidence this endurance may be of eternal truths – of God’s sovereignty or the perseverance of the saints or the triumph of the spirit – such feats ought equally to remind us – me, you, we, I – that faith still wears a deeply human face in ordinary life. We may understand it better by and by, but it sure doesn’t hurt that there’s a song to sing or play or listen to or hum in the darkness of the soul’s long night to help us cope in the meantime. I think I’ll go hang up that poster now. And hope for another day, another concert, another chance to get that last signature.

Postscript: Roger Bennett was gracious enough to sign my poster in November. May he rest in the peace of his soul’s reward.

Update: Two reflections on Roger Bennett’s death from songwriters whose posts might otherwise go unnoticed. First Belinda Smith, then Joel Lindsey. Also Chuck Peters has some archive footage from Bennett at a long ago NQC.

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  1. gc wrote:

    Roger Bennett was a class act. A professional that each sg artist should use as a model for stage prescence and graciousness. What a loss for sg music!

  2. RF wrote:

    This is a great loss to our genre. When I think of piano players in sg music, I always think of Hovie Lister, Wally Varner, Anthony Burger, and Roger Bennett. All of them are gone now. His death means that only two of the CAthedral Quartet we loved (the 80’s and 90’s versions) are gone, leaving only Scott Fowler and Ernie Haase.

    I had considered not buying the NQC compilation DVD this year because it is always the same old thing, but since I collect them, I went ahead and bought it out of habit. I’m so glad I did now. In the pianorama segment, we see Roger, ever the “fun guy” and at his best. I’ll cherish that DVD.

    Rest in peace Roger.

  3. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    Roger was not only a fine pianist, but also one of the best vocalists the Cathedrals ever had.

  4. NG wrote:

    The longest talk I ever had with an SGM artist (about 15 minutes) was with Roger in 2000. It was at poorly attended NQC event in Canada so there were not many folks at the tables. I told Roger that I had kidney cancer 11 years ago (1989) and had lost a kidney but was now fine.

    He said he really appreciated me telling him a postive story about a cancer survivor. Unfortunately, he said a lot of people told him they knew folks who had the type of cancer he had and they died quickly. One women complained to him it wasn’t fair that he had (at that time) lived five years with the disease when her son died after a few months.

    Throughout our talk, Roger was pleasant, funny and upbeat but I’ve never forgotten those stories about people who seemed to want to discourage him while he was in the midst in his courageous fight against the disease.

  5. Rod wrote:

    No words could describe the loss. My condolences to his family and L5. HE WAS CLASS. There’s IS something we agree on GC

  6. Mandy wrote:

    NG, I know exactly what you’re talking about. My father went through the same thing. There are people who line up to discourage cancer patients with their horror stories. This is so wrong. Roger was so brave. May God comfort his family during this time.

  7. Alan wrote:

    Your post, Avery, was a chance to give a rose while Roger was with us, and proves even more pignant on this sad day. Of all the things we will disagree on, despite the highly subjective nature of music, and amidst all of the personalities, styles, and relative talents of those we listen to, one indisputable fact will always remain…Roger Bennett was, and will always be remembered as, the classiest of classy men; a man who grew in adversity and brought us up with him. His last years gave evidence of the reality of Christianity, and of the enduring peace and grace of God. It is so fitting that his last years were spent with a group whose name begins with Legacy. The legacy he leaves will never be forgotten, and sadly, quite probably not often-enough emulated. Our prayers are with his family, and the men of L5. One day, of all men in sgm, I believe he will hear a resounding “Well Done”, from a smiling Savior that he loved and served.

  8. Trent wrote:

    One of Roger’s many strengths as a pianist was his ability to play the perfect fill or run in a song at the precise spot it needed to be placed in. Because of this intuition, he was one of the great quartet piano players of our day.

    However, many people overlook his greatest strength on stage, and that was as an emcee. Of course, he sat at the feet of arguably the greatest emcee of them all in George Younce during his years playing for the Cathedrals. But emcee work is not so much learned as God-inspired. It takes a great deal of thinking on your feet and surveying the mood of the crowd to be able to engage the congregation to the point where they are eating out of the palm of your hand. Both Younce & Bennett shared this ability. Roger had a God-given quick wit and that special connection with a crowd that few people possess. He will be missed.

  9. The Baritone wrote:

    I heard he died from viral meningitis, is that right? If so, I find it ironic that he died from something other than cancer.

  10. Steve wrote:

    He will be greatly missed. He was one of the icons i looked up to for piano playing. I never had the chance to see him in person, but i’ve always heard nothing but good about him. I know his legacy will live on with many friends, fans, and fellow piano players. My prayers are with his family and all those affected by his loss.

  11. Joe wrote:

    A short explanatory note to “the baritone”- but before doing so, a statement of full agreement with the positives above, especially those made by Alan- Roger’s greatest legacy was the obvious strength of his faith in Christ, and his full trust in his God. He showed us how to suffer with grace, and what the reality of salvation is all about.

    Baritone- there is a saying in medicine (I am a physician…) that cancer patients never die of cancer; they die of something associated with it. Be it pulmonary fibrosis from radiation, renal failure or cardiomyopathy from chemo, bone marrow suppression, infection from immunosuppression, a fatal embolism, etc., ALL of these end-stage scenarios are heightened and hastened by the things associated with the disease, and its’ sometimes terrible treatments.

    I had not heard the ‘viral meningitis’ diagnosis, but this is not surprising. With all Roger has endured, that he contracted a serious infection as this (if this is true) is hardly surprising, or ironic. Rather, that he went peacefully into the Lord’s presence from a comatose state, is a real blessing, and was part of the Lord’s great plan, apparently…

  12. Steve wrote:

    What a sad, sad day! Roger will be greatly missed…

  13. Paul Jackson wrote:

    With all due respect R.F….there are 2 even 3 Cathedrals of the 80’s version still with us and they all loved Roger and were no
    slouches as Cathedrals…being a long-time AR friend of Roger’s, I know how he loved these men as well and even now would not want them overlooked…they are:
    and Gerald.
    …great quartet men who shared in their great love for Roger, Glen and George.
    But I agree R.F. How we miss our old friends!

    Paul Jackson /The Prophets Qt.

  14. quartet-man wrote:

    Danny and Mark were my favorite version of the Cathedrals. Gerald did great stuff with them as did Roger. However, there are other versions that worked with Roger too. Kirk and Steve, and even Kurt Young. I am sure that Kurt didn’t work with them too long, but he was there.

  15. Trevor Haley wrote:

    To think in just a little over a year we have lost the two best known and loved pianists in Southern Gospel. First Anthony and now Roger. These were the two men who had the credentials and the talent to become the piano legends of their generation. The talent and showmanship they exhibited behind the keys is sorely lacking in this day of over reliance on soundtracks. Who could possibly fill their shoes at this point?
    What a tragic loss.

  16. jb wrote:

    The only thing I can say is “Wow, What a Joyous Celebration on the Other Side of Jordan”. Can’t you just see Anthony and Roger playing the piano for all the Angels, and I can hear George telling J.D., “move over and let a real bass singer sing”….They always loved to kid each other and have a good time. We have been fortuante in our life to call Roger and the others , friends. It is sad for us left here on earth, but, there is no doubt that Roger was and is…In His Grip….

  17. THOM wrote:

    “Strike up the Band”.

    Trevor - perhaps that was a rhetorical question, but let me give you a couple of names : Matthew Holt with The Perrys - and Scott McDowell with BFA - 2 of the young virtuosos currently in SG! Amazing musicians and true masters of the keyboard.

    I agree about the over reliance on tracks nowadays. Stacks and tracks. Not only that, but more often than not, the tracks are cranked up so loud as to totally drown out the piano anyway. Whatver fills and runs are being played can not be heard much of the time.

  18. The Baritone wrote:

    Thanks Joe, for the explanation.

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