When musician Rob Benton was a contestant on “America’s Got Talent” in 2010, Baywatch alum David Hasselhoff applauded his skills but dismissed the guitar virtuoso as a street performer. Ten years later, The Hoff’s assessment has turned prophecy. Benton’s sets at Lucy’s, Irish Oak Barrell and Hank’s, routinely devolve into impromptu street parties with locals and tourists alike spilling out of bars and off of porches to hear his distinct sound. “I’m playing on the street for everybody that’s walking by,” he said. “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”
Benton played his first show in Key West less than a year ago, when Chris Toler invited him on stage at Willie T’s. The crowd went wild, and Benton never looked back. He is transitioning from being a New Hampshire-based restaurateur to a permanent Keys resident and recently purchased the Big Coppitt compound of late local musician Yankee Jack. As fate would have it, Yankee Jack once played music alongside Benton’s paternal grandfather, Country Music Hall of Famer Phil Benton.
To quote Benton, he doesn’t play guitar, he “beats the shit out of it.” He taught himself chords as a kid courtesy of a battered acoustic he rescued from a Dumpster. At the time, the guitar was bigger than Benton. “I was small and I couldn’t hold it properly, so I would lay it across my lap like a piano and turn all the tuners, so that if I hit the guitar it would sound good,” he said. The unconventional education shines through when onstage: “I’ll flip the guitar on its side, because some chords are easier for me to play that way because that’s how I learned,” he said.
Benton’s percussive approach was inspired by an adolescence more rooted in rap than rock. “I was the token white kid growing up in a rough area. I would bang on the desk and the neighborhood kids would rap over it. The minute I discovered looping and learned that my guitar could also be my drum set, that was it,” said Benton, who cites Busta Rhymes and Wu Tang Clan as influences.
A Coast Guard veteran, Benton has a relentless work ethic, playing two shows a day, six days a week. It’s a rigorous schedule he adopted during his headlining tenure at Las Vegas’ Circus Circus Casino, the hallucinatory big top made famous by occasional Key Wester, Hunter S. Thompson.
“Coming to Key West, I wanted to play one place every night and one place every day. I hoped that I would become a tourist attraction,” he said. “I wanted people to bring me home with them and tell their friends.” Judging by the crowds, the word has spread and Benton has found a home at Duval staple Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar and the Caroline Street courtyard of Hank’s. Benton is poised to get even more visible in town; he and his brother recently purchased the Irish Oak Barrell.
Benton has built an ever-expanding fan base. He was nominated for a Bubba Award and found a partner in rhyme in Navy veteran and freestyle rapper K-Ru$h; they met the night of Benton’s first performance on the island. The two are also roommates and best friends. While Benton grew up listening to hip-hop, K-Ru$h, who hails from the blue grass of Kentucky, has always had an ear for country music and power pop. “It was meant for us to live the lives we lived and then come together and do this,” said K-Ru$h.
The duo has never rehearsed a single set. “We’ll do something spontaneously and then the crowd goes nuts over it and we’re like ‘all right we’re doing that from now on,’” said Benton. The improvisational nature of their performance suits Benton, a former firefighter and father of four who prides himself on putting on a show. “I’m an entertainer first and a musician second,” he said.
Full Name? Nickname? Robert Michael Benton. Family and close friends call me Bobby. I’ll answer to that before anything else, because I know it’s someone that has been in my life forever.
What is your astrological sign and do you fit the general description? I’m 100% a Leo. I’m cute and cuddly, but I’ll rip your face off. I have a huge lion painting in my bedroom that I look at every morning and it reminds me every day to be fierce.
Do you have a life creed or motto? “The show comes first.”
What or who inspired you to be a musician? Me. I grew up in really terrible circumstances, and I didn’t want to be a statistic. I discovered music and I’ve always been my biggest driving force. No one can motivate you better than you.
What’s on your bucket list? Next year’s Bubba Awards. I’m coming for you Caffeine Carl!
What is your idea of perfect happiness? There’s no such thing. Everyone’s life is like the weather; you’re either going into a storm or you’re coming out of one.
What is it that you most dislike? Laziness and lack of urgency. I have a very strong worth ethic, and I don’t like making people wait. I also hate drugs and alcohol, but we’re sitting in a bar right now. K-Ru$h: And I’m high!
Which TV, movie or superhero character is your alter ego? Dexter. He has a code that he lives by, and I’m the same. I’m a bit of an asshole, but I’m the nicest asshole you’ll ever meet. I’m friendly but if you cross me it’s not pretty. K-Ru$h: He’s Johnny Bravo, or maybe Mufasa.
What would your last meal be and who would cook it? Anthony Bourdain, anything he wants.
Name three things you could not live without: Music, love and health. Not in that order. What good is anything without anyone to share it with? What good is anything if you’re not healthy enough to enjoy it? And music is everything to me.
If invisible what would you do? Listen to other people’s conversations. There’s a saying, you gotta have all the right people in your boat and you have to make sure those people aren’t drilling holes. I would check in on a couple of things. Kru$h: Rob a bank! Nothing would stop me. If I’m invisible, I’m robbing a bank.
On what occasion do you lie? I’ve done my fair share of lying in my past, and it did nothing; you get caught up in it and you get caught because the truth will come out. I don’t lie now, but if I had to it would be to protect someone close to me.
If you could play any song to, or with, anyone, what and who would it be? I don’t want to be my idols. I want to be my own idol. I’d love to get back onstage one more time with someone that was like a little brother to me. His name was Bobby. We grew up together and the things I’m doing right now are things we were supposed to be doing together. Kru$h: Any song with Michael Jackson
What is your greatest extravagance? I bought two nice vehicles; a Lincoln MKS and a Cadillac Escalade EXT Platinum. It’s black on black and when K-Ru$h drives it, it’s black on black on black.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, who or what would it be? A young Walt Disney. Disneyworld is my favorite place on the planet. My favorite ride is Peter Pan’s Flight. It’s a kid’s ride, I don’t care. Judge me all you want, newspaper readers.
Lunch with one famous person, who would you choose, where would you go? The guys from Dave Matthews Band. I love Carter Beauford. I’d love to get dinner somewhere in Virginia where they’re from and just talk about music.
Finish these sentences…
My most marked characteristic is … My beard.
My autobiography would be titled … “Almost.” I’ve always done things that got really close to exploding and then deflated. It’s made me who I am.
I can never refuse … I have a bleeding heart for kids and animals.
When I go, I will go … Fulfilled. I don’t want to go tomorrow but if I do, I feel like I’ve done a really good job leaving a positive mark on everywhere I’ve been and making amends with people in the past.