Inspired by music, alumnus raises funds to help fight Parkinson's disease

June 2009

It’s a rarity, finding an individual who encountered such fateful events and struggles as did Bob Benjamin ’80.

It began in 1978, when Benjamin saw Bruce Springsteen perform at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre, the opening night of his long-awaited Darkness on the Edge of Town tour.

By chance, Benjamin met Springsteen in a hotel coffee shop the afternoon of the show. Springsteen, along with saxophonist Clarence Clemons and other members of the E Street Band, proceeded to pick Benjamin's brain about merchandising for the new tour. After walking the band through downtown Buffalo and sitting front row center at the Shea’s concert, Benjamin formed a friendship with Springsteen–a working bond that has lasted to this day.

In 1996 Benjamin was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Unable to sit passively, the music lover transformed his own 40th birthday party into a concert event to raise money for Parkinson’s. Two years later, in 2000, the bash was revived at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ. Featuring a 90-minute set with surprise guest Bruce Springsteen, the show raised more than $20,000 for the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.

What began as Benjamin’s 40th birthday party has evolved into the Light of Day Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. It produces annual fund-raising concert events in multiple countries, traditionally around Benjamin’s birthday. The stage has been graced by such talent as Joe Grushecky, Joe D’Urso, Dawne Allyne (Benjamin manages all three), Lucinda Williams, Jakob Dylan, Pete Yorn, Southside Johnny, Michael J. Fox, and Buffalo native Willie Nile, BA ’71. Of the last nine concerts, Springsteen has appeared at six.

Light of Day has since raised more than $1 million for the fight against Parkinson’s. Apart from the concerts, a major source of funding is the album, Light of Day: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen, which Benjamin produced in 2003; it has sold more than 30,000 copies.

Glory days

At UB, Benjamin lived in the Governors Residence Halls. He fondly recalls the Blizzard of ’77, when he and his friends snuck in sand bags and heat lamps to throw an indoor beach party during UB's historic week-long closing.

The New Rochelle native worked at the record co-op in the basement of Norton Hall, the former Student Union, where UB students could buy and trade records at cost. He worked there while the organization was under fire from Buffalo’s big music retailer, Cavages, which apparently didn't enjoy competing with a collegiate record store funded in part by New York state tax dollars.

After graduating, Benjamin went to work for New York City’s infamous Crazy Eddie consumer electronics company before moving to Billboard magazine as a chart researcher. Since then, Benjamin has been doing marketing and consulting for artists and record labels with his own company, Bob Benjamin Management.

The first record Benjamin worked on was John Prine’s Missing Years (1991), which sold over 300,000 copies on Prine’s independent label. Another outstanding achievement was when Benjamin locked down a worldwide record deal and the first European tour dates for Joe Grushecky in support of Grushecky’s Springsteen-produced album, American Babylon (1995).

Back at UB, Benjamin cut the ice as an intramural hockey player. He came to UB because he had two options: UB or SUNY Albany. He enjoyed the Sabres at the time as well as the idea of a larger city, so Buffalo was the clear choice. Benjamin credits UB's accounting classes for helping him in his managing business and the vigorous planning of the Light of Day concerts.

“I think everything I’ve done in my life–playing hockey, going to UB–helped build the confidence to do it all,” says Benjamin, who barely slowed his work rate in the years following his diagnosis. He describes feeling happiness after receiving the firm diagnosis, because there was finally some closure to what was causing him months of mysterious symptoms, and there was medicine that could help.

The cutting edge

Benjamin has needed to slow down significantly since January 2005 when a near-disastrous setback took place. The rock and roll manager collapsed on the kitchen floor of his Highland Park (N.J.) apartment on a Friday where he remained rigid, unable to reach his medicine, until a visitor found him the following Monday. He was hospitalized for four weeks and needed extensive rehab therapy.

When interviewing Benjamin, he makes note that the Parkinson’s affects his voice, particularly its volume. His voice comes through the phone receiver fatigued and air-ridden, but traces of sadness flee from uplifting positivity. Attached to the voice is a soul that through a livelihood of feat and fight has remained to pack inspirational sunlight, the kind that chokes you up because it’s so human.

“Rock music is inspiring,” says Benjamin. “The same way Bruce had to fight to win over the crowd at the Bonnaroo [Festival he recently played]; the same way I felt the first time I heard him sing on Born to Run–it’s inspiring.”

In this rousing light, Benjamin is a personification of rock music. When his symptoms worsened in the summer of 2006, he made a decision to treat his Parkinson's with a cutting edge surgical procedure known as Deep Brain Stimulation, “where they put leads in your brain, and run wires down your neck that attach to battery pack controllers in your chest,” he says. And he testifies that the procedure has helped him quite a bit.

He is the recipient of the Alan Bonander Humanitarian Award, for “exemplary contribution to the Parkinson’s community” (unitywalk.org), presented to him at the Parkinson’s Unity Walk in Central Park in 2006. It was a two-mile walk Benjamin completed just two months after being released from the hospital.

Benjamin’s 10th Anniversary Light of Day concert celebrations are set for fall 2009 in Asbury Park, Niagara Falls and Toronto, Ontario, and a number of European cities.

For more on Bob and the Light of Day Foundation, visit lightofday.org.

Written by Matthew Zajac