- Photo by Chris Young
- Price Bennett working on Smithfield Street earlier this month.
If you work Downtown, shop in the Strip District or party on the South Side, chances are you've walked to the beat of Price Bennett's drum. Since last summer, the North Side musician has provided the soundtrack to Pittsburgh's sidewalks, matching his percussive rhythms to the pace of pedestrians' footsteps.
A welder by trade -- the former Ironworkers' Union member has helped weld PNC Park and Heinz Field -- Bennett quit welding on Aug. 10 (his birthday) so that he could spend an entire year beating his African-style drum on Pittsburgh's streets.
Now that his year-long commitment is over, Bennett is getting ready to return to work. City Paper caught up with Bennett on Sept. 1 to talk about his experience as a street musician. Sitting on the steps of Smithfield United Church of Christ, he discussed how busking made him a better musician … and what it was like to watch the world from the sidewalk.
Why quit your job to make a year-long commitment to busk full time?
To make my hands hard like this. [Bennett holds out his hands, which are solid as stone and thick with calluses]. That's what I wanted. What you're looking at is the end result of my commitment. If you want to play percussion at a higher level and be competitive, your hands have to be hard as nails. It was a painful journey.
What else did you take away from your experience as a street musician?
I saw the world from the sidewalk. I didn't realize how angry people were. Nobody seems happy now. You can see the frustration. There is no hope in tomorrow. People don't feel like help is on the way. Sometimes people feel like the rest of their life is going to be like today.
People don't hold hands no more. People don't hug. Anything over one minute is too long as far as talking to a stranger. And the cell-phone use, I really notice that. I've had a lady walk into my drum walking and texting. … Everybody walks around like robots.
But you must have seen exceptions to that, right?
Oh yeah, my love cup is filled up to the top. I get a lot of thank yous, a lot of appreciation from Pittsburgh.
How would you describe your drumming sound?
I don't want to categorize it. It sounds like rock, it sounds like R&B, it sounds like reggae and it sounds like funk. It has all of those elements.
What were some of your musical inspirations?
A lot of Santana, a lot of Parliament; just all of them '70s groups. Because then, there wasn't any percussion in music, except for Santana and some of the jazz artists. But a lot of the funk music, there wasn't any percussion, so it left a lot of space for me to create percussions.
What inspires the various beats you play on the street?
A lot of my beats go off of how I feel at that moment. Or I'll lock into somebody that's walking and try to catch their footsteps, try to catch that pattern. I try to play one rhythm for five to eight minutes because if I kept changing, when you walk by you wouldn't be able to lock into that [beat].
How lucrative has busking been for you?
Downtown started off at about $125 a day, then it dropped to $90 a day, then it dropped again. And it just keeps dropping. You're not just going to keep giving the same guy money every day. But when I first started doing this, it wasn't for the money. I was just doing it because I wanted to.
What's the biggest tip you ever received?
One hundred dollars. I got that four times. The first time, I probably got it at the 45-minute mark [into the day]. So I was like, "OK, let's go home." Then I was like, "No, you have to keep playing. If I stop, now I'm committed to the $100 bill." … You don't make a commitment and stop it midway. No matter how rough it goes, there is no sense in making a commitment if you're going to cut it off midstream.
What's your favorite part about busking?
The thank yous. You can't put a price tag on that. That's the maximum pay to me.
What's your craziest busking experience?
On Carson Street, a car pulls up. The driver hits the [trunk-release button], a guy jumps out of the trunk, runs over, bangs my drum, gives me a high five, runs back into the trunk, closes it down and they pull off. It was crazy.