By Connie Zuñiga
On December 12 2015, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Benny Hollman lost his years-long struggle with cancer, surrounded by family at his home in Mira Mesa.
A little over a week before Benny’s passing, I was at my neighbor Ronnie Stewart’s house for dinner. Ronnie is a drummer who knew Benny from back in the day and at one time played in Benny’s orchestra.
As I walked in the door Ronnie was on the phone talking to Benny. I was surprised because I knew Benny was gravely ill. When Ronnie passed the phone to me, I heard an extremely frail voice; I knew I would never speak with Benny again.
We spoke for a minute and I apologized for not following through on getting with him to document the history of Logan Height’s Latino musicians from the 20s through the 40s. There is a rich history there that needs to be documented for the Logan Heights Historical Society. Benny had an incredible wealth of information about these local musicians.
A few years ago, I was contacted by Irene Marquez, a writer, who wanted to conduct interviews in Logan Heights for a book and asked for my help. (I always refer to the community where I was born and grew up as Logan Heights rather than Barrio Logan because my era and memories are about Logan Heights or the “Heights.”)
Irene wanted to publish a book of community interviews, so I asked people to participate who I felt were representative of the community. Some were people who had succeeded in business or had notable careers. Others were successful in less notable ways but all were involved in the community.
I asked Benny to participate. Although he had left the neighborhood as a young man, he never forgot his Logan Heights roots and gave back tenfold.
The book that resulted from these interviews is “Los Bilingual Writers Anthology.”
Another project that came to Logan Heights was Story Corp., a nation-wide interviewing project. The Library asked me to recruit interviewees. Again, I asked Benny to participate.
Bernardo Manuel Damian de Rodriguez Hollman, whose ancestry was Mexican-American, German, Spanish and Yaqui Indian, was born and raised in Logan Heights. He attended Lowell Elementary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Memorial Jr. High, San Diego High and San Diego City College where he studied composition and music theory.
When Benny was eleven years old his mother rented a saxophone for him and supported his interest in music in every way she could. Benny’s mother took him to the old Orpheum Theater where the Lionel Hampton Band was appearing on stage. He saw the Stan Kenton band at the Fox Theater. In time Benny saw them all— Woody Herman, Les Brown and his Band of Renown, Duke Ellington.
While at Memorial Jr. High, Mr. Ortiz, the Band Director, early on recognized Benny’s talent; he stood out from the other aspiring musicians. Soon Benny was in the orchestra, the jazz Band and the Latin band.
In the 1950s Rhythm and Blues, the forerunner to Rock& Roll, was very popular. While at San Diego High, Benny formed a R&B band, the Velvetones. Like most of the neighborhood garage bands, the Velvetones played for dances at Neighborhood House on National Avenue, Post 6 in Golden Hill, the Rec in Linda Vista and the Armory in National City.
As the bands started getting more and more gigs and better known, they engaged in “Battles of the Bands” at the War Memorial Building in Balboa Park and other locations. Benny’s Velvetones were a big part of this.
Benny served in the Army in the early 1960s. His first station was Fort Ord and then New York. He played in the Army Band which gave him great experience and where he made life-long acquaintances.
Benny’s career varied and was complex. He played the sax and flute, but also directed, composed, and arranged for his band and others. He performed in a variety of bands. He played with the highly acclaimed Bill Green Orchestra. He also played with the Johnny Adamo band, the house band at the Roving 20’s, a high- end night club in El Cajon. Many big names of the day appeared there.
One Saturday night Robert Romeo, Salvador “Queso” Torres and I went to the club because Benny was playing in the band. The act that night was Keely Smith, later the wife and singing partner of Louie Prima. At intermission Benny came over to talk to us. Through the years, wherever Benny played he always took the time to chat with anyone he saw from the old neighborhood.
Benny worked hard at his profession. He made it a point to learn from every musician he worked for. He liked to quote what he heard his father say when he was a boy: “Anything worthwhile is worth working for.” For Benny, no doubt this was music.
Benny’s orchestra played for every type of event in San Diego, small and big: weddings, conventions, hotels for dancing, Humphreys, The Belly-Up, backup for national acts like Smokey Robinson, Lou Rawls, the Temptations and the Four Tops.
When Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass were very popular, Benny formed a Latin jazz group called the Caliente Brass, but he was best known as the musical director and arranger for Frankie Laine, and the official Chargers Band.
Franke Laine was a top recording star with 21 Gold Records. He sang the theme song for the hit western TV series, “Rawhide,” where an unknown actor named Clint Eastwood was part of the cast.
Benny said his collaboration and close personal relationship with Frankie Laine was the most rewarding opportunity of his musical career. He started working with Laine in early 1990 and stayed with him until Laine’s death in February 2007.
The American Federation of Musician’s Special Recognition Award was presented to Laine and Benny in 1999 for their benefit concerts nation-wide for the federation’s emergency relief fund.
Benny and Jimmy Marino, a high school friend who was an experienced film, TV and music producer were committed to keeping Laine’s music playing. Together he and Marino and Mary Jo Coombs, Laine’s executive assistant, organized concerts, personal appearances and communication with Laine’s fans world-wide. CDs, DVDs and a documentary on Laine’s life, “An American,” were produced. A web site, frankielaine.com, was developed and maintained.
Benny’s Logan Height’s fans followed him over the years. We took in his summer concerts at the La Jolla Cove and the park in Coronado, the Eagles Hall in Hillcrest where many former Logan Heights residents were members, San Diego High class reunions.
Benny in turn played in the neighborhood whenever possible. I recall a wonderful Sunday afternoon concert sitting on the grass at the Villa Montezuma House Museum in Sherman Heights where Benny’s Caliente Brass played. Another memorable event where Benny participated was the Los Gallos Reunion at the old Chuey’s restaurant. The event was sold out. All the old neighborhood musicians came to jam.
Because of Benny’s efforts, literally hundreds of Logan Heights school children have been exposed to music. With a grant from the La Jolla Chamber Music Program, Benny initiated a music program at Sherman Elementary. If after a year the student was still taking lessons, he was able to keep his donated instrument. The students had the rare opportunity to study with Latino professional musicians at no cost to their family. Benny later started a similar program at King Chavez and was presently at Memorial Academy where he was once a student.
Rachael Ortiz, Executive Director of the Barrio Station, related to me her musical collaboration with Benny. As a teenager Rachael was a freelance singer who sang with many groups. She played the piano, and composed and wrote the lyrics to her songs. In 1957 Rachael and a group called the Chorals (Manuel Estrada, Beco Aguinaga, and Charlie Tinker) and Benny and the Velvetones drove up to LA to find a recording studio.
Dooto Records was owned by Dootie Williams. He recorded and produced records for the R&B groups the Meadowlarks and the Penguins who made a big hit with “Earth Angel.” Rachael played the piano and sang, backed up by the Chorals and the Velvetones. The “78” record that was recorded is framed and hangs on the wall in a special place in Rachael’s home.
Candy Silva was one of Benny’s singers. When Candy returned from Los Angeles in the 80s, she called Benny and asked that he consider her for future work. Candy transitioned to the Big Band sound. Candy was versatile; she could sing in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French. This proved valuable when she sang with Benny’s Caliente Brass. She sang with Benny for Frankie Laine’s wedding at the Hotel Del.
Candy likes to retell a story Benny told her. Whenever he played at a lavish fundraising event, invariably someone would approach the bandstand and ask where Mr. Hollman was. Benny always got a big laugh out of this. Apparently, they were not expecting a Latino-looking Mr. Hollman.
A few years ago Rachael Ortiz asked Benny to get the musicians together for a meeting. Rachael asked the musicians to consider playing for events at her on-site theater to raise money for the Barrio Station and the Logan Heights Historical Society Project. This was the birth of the “Neighborhood All Stars.”
When the new Logan Heights Library was being planned, we asked for a Community Room big enough to host musical events. Our 300-capacity Community Room, with the donated beautiful Aztec-themed bar from the old Aztec Brewery tasting room, is fantastic.
To celebrate our new Library and the Community Room, I asked the Neighborhood All Stars to play. I was able to get original posters from the 1950’s R&B dances, Benny’s Velvetones, Leroy Kenniston’s Gaynighters and others. It was a very successful event.
Benny’s work with the San Diego Chargers was legendary. He started with the Chargers in 1982. His Big Band Explosion had a huge following and was a mainstay at the Chargers home games. Initially, his band played on the field but later switched to the Plaza where he was a fan favorite.
Many of his Chargers fans have expressed their heart-felt thoughts on Facebook. At possibly the Chargers last game at the stadium, Benny’s band played a tribute to him which was projected on the field screen. It was a fitting tribute for his long career with the Chargers.
Benny was highly respected for his integrity and his ethics. He was a union man and never hired non-union members. He was a loyal member of the local union he joined in 1957, the Musicians Association of San Diego County. For a number of years, he was a dedicated business agent and contractor for the association.
Benny’s fellow musicians will always remember his kindness, his support, his genuine concern, both professionally and personally, for the welfare of those who played in his band. Benny was both a mentor and father figure to many young musicians. Over the years, band members left and were replaced by others but they were never forgotten. Benny always kept in touch.
I will personally miss our little chats: “Benny, who was that Hawaiian family trio who played in the lounges in Los Vegas in the 1950’s”? (Mary Kaye Trio). “Benny, who was the band that played for Louie Prima in Vegas”? (Sam Butera and the Witnesses). He was my musical encyclopedia before Google. And on it went over the years. Never once did he say, “Connie, I’m busy, I’ll call you back.” I was a friend from the old neighborhood and he made the time to talk.
And what I am really going to miss is that soft-spoken, melodious voice you heard on the telephone: “Benny here.”
RIP dear friend. We will miss you greatly but your musical legacy and the memories of your many kind deeds will always be with us.
NOTE: Benny’s Funeral Mass is January 8 2016, at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Logan Heights. The Rosary is at 9:30 AM, Mass at 10:00 AM. Reception to follow immediately after at the Portuguese Hall in Point Loma. Please check back for additional photographs.
Connie Zuñiga is a retired General Dynamics employee, community activist and Vice President of the Friends of the Logan Heights Library.