Bye-Bye Benny and Bojangles
Not every American has the privilege of being honored after his or her death by the Embassy of the United States of America…but Benny Luke Jr. was. You may not ever have heard of him, but we’re sure you will remember him.
This past Thursday evening, in the George Marshall Center at the Hôtel de Talleyrand, thanks to an initiative taken by Congresswoman Corrine Brown, friends of the late Benny Luke gathered to commemorate not his death (January 13, 2013), but his life, and his African-American cultural contributions to France and to the Paris American community as part of the celebration of Black History Month.
The Talleyrand on rue Saint-Florentin (number 2) is what we all know as the U.S. Embassy and Consulate — the building we visit when we want to renew our passports or have our documents notarized (among many other services). The building is one of Paris’ most illustrious “hôtels particuliers,” built between 1767 and 1769 for Louis Phélypeaux, Comte de Saint-Florentin, Marquis then Duc de La Vrillière, one of the most influential figures of the reign of Louis XV. During Nazi occupation of Paris, it housed the headquarters of the German Naval Forces and it was here, during the Battle of Paris, on August 25, 1944, the troops of General Leclerc arrested the staff officers of the German Navy. The U.S. acquired it in 1950 and today, with quite a lot of history on its books, the rooms of the grand appartement, known as the George C. Marshall Center, serve as a venue for official conferences, meetings and receptions — such as this tribute to Benny Luke.
Benny was no ordinary fellow. I first met him when he was working at Chez Haynes, introduced to me by Chicagoan Sharon Leslie Morgan. Chez Haynes was at one time the oldest American restaurant in Paris, opened in 1949 at number 3 rue Clauzel in the 9th arrondissement, run by Leroy Haynes and then later by his widow, Maria. It was well-known for its soulfood and soul music. Frequented by the local African-American community and visiting musicians, singers, dancers, Hollywood actors, it was a home and hangout for Americans and aficionados for about 60 years.
Then, Sharon Morgan landed in Paris in the year 1999 with a dream and a lot of bright ideas. We met the very day she arrived in the City of Light by one of those synchronistic coincidences that bring people together for no apparent reason, but have meaningful conclusions. We became fast friends.
Her first endeavor was to create a Sunday afternoon event at Chez Haynes called “Soul on Sunday” where she rented the kitchen and restaurant from Maria, cooked her own soulfood menu and brought in live talent to perform jazz, R&B, soul and gospel. It was an immediate success with Benny Luke at her side and me as a regular patron.
Not long after, on New Year’s Eve December 31, 2000, realizing the potential for such an enterprise, she took the plunge into her own restaurant at number 47 rue Rodier in the 9th arrondissement, appropriately named “Bojangles.”
It was a rainy New Year’s Eve with only a handful of Sharon and Benny’s friends, but it was memorable and the beginning of a new epoch for the African-American community in Paris. With Benny at the bar with his big smile and welcoming flair, Bojangles took over as the new home-away-from home, making even ‘honkies’ like me part of the ‘family.’
For two years, I’d show up almost every Friday for Sharon’s homemade Louisiana gumbo (that she first tested in my very own kitchen) and the crispy fried chicken wings, and take in the incredibly talented musicians and singers that regularly performed there, while Benny kept everyone’s glass filled and spirits high.
Sadly, the restaurant’s demise was a result of the building residents who fought against the music…and won. The restaurant closed in 2003 and Sharon went back to Chicago where she resides today and serves as vice president of Burrell Communications, the pioneer black-owned advertising agency in the U.S.
Benny Luke was the man at the front — the guy everyone knew for all of his past lives and performances. In his younger years, after having served in the U.S. Navy, he had danced at the Lido here in Paris and performed with Josephine Baker at the Bobino Music Hall. His most famous role was that of “Jacob,” in the comedy “La Cage aux Folles” — unforgettable as the colorful and flamboyant housekeeper.
The evening at the Talleyrand was like stepping back into the days at Bojangles with many familiar faces from the past including some of the musicians and singers who had performed at Bojangles. Benny was honored multi-fold — a video of an interview of him taken just before his death played, while guests were being interviewed to add to the documentary.
Mark A. Taplin, the Chargé d’Affaires of the Embassy opened the program. Several of his closest friends and family made brief presentations, like sweet eulogies to express their loving memories. Champagne was poured, hors d’oeuvres were passed around. Before we ‘retired’ to where the band was playing, the entire gathering of people sang in unison “Lift Every Voice and Sing” sometimes referred to as “The Black National Anthem” a song written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson 1900:
Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.
Then, all hell broke loose!…the Sulaiman Hakim (sax) band (with Eddie Allen (drums), Raymond Domube (bass), Minh Plam (piano) and Rashul Siddik (trumpet), surged with energy…and the vocalists — Ursuline Kairson, Joniece Jamison-Eessie, Radiah Frye, Ange Fandoh, Yvonne Jones, and Linda Lee Hopkins — came out to belt out some of our favorite songs. With that, the dancing started and no one could resist moving and shaking their bodies to soul-filled rhythms! It almost became a contest of who could sing or dance with more resound!
Benny would have been awfully proud. We were proud for him. Our memories will live on through the Web posting by the U.S. Embassy at france.usembassy.gov/ and for ongoing pleasures, you can stay in touch via the open Facebook group called Bojangles Paris Online.
A special thanks goes to Stephany Neal, organizer of the event and to all my African-American friends who make this ‘honky’ feel right at home among them. Benny and Bojangles, you are sorely missed.
A la prochaine…
Director of The Adrian Leeds Group, LLC
P.S. Sharon Morgan is seeking a literary agent to find a publisher for her next book, PARIS IN A POT, a memoire (with recipes) about Bojangles. If you know of one, please contact Sharon directly at [email protected].
P.P.S There is only one share left at Le Palace des Vosges, the outstanding fractional ownership property at the best address in Paris, Place des Vosges — and once it’s gone, it’s gone! Don’t be disappointed…the final share is only 147,900. For more information visit Le Palace des Vosges or email [email protected]