You know his face (especially when it’s attached to a saxophone), but I’ll bet you don’t know his name or his story.
This, my friends, is Benjamin Purdy, and here is his story.
Before they ever set foot on a stage, some of the biggest names in entertainment spent their early years performing on the streets working for tips.
Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller was a juggler on the streets of Philadelphia after graduating high school. Eric Clapton sang and played guitar on the streets of England. And Cirque du Soleil was founded by a group of 20 acrobats, stilt walkers musicians and fire breathers in the mid-1980s in Quebec City.
For many “buskers,” as they’re also known, taking their talent to the streets is a way to practice their raft while making money. Or they see it as a potential for getting their big break (Tracy Chapman and Violent Femmes were suppodely discovered while busking). Of course, there’s the off-chance of becoming famous simply for being a street performer a la the Naked Cowboy, who sings and plays guitar while wearing nothing but some tighty whities and cowboy boots in Times Square. (FUN FACT: He ran for mayor of New York City in 2009.)
In Jacksonville, however, street performers have a very different motivation for what they do—fame and fortune, after all, are hard to come by.
Downtown habitues no doubt know Benjamin Purdy (or “Ben,” as he prefer to be called by the gentlemen) as the saxophonist who plays TV theme songs on random street corners, especially at The Jacksonville Landing and during Art Walk. He’s also a fixture on Jaguars game days performing on the east side of the stadium near the Mathews Bridge and can be spotted around Water and Hogan streets when there’s an event at the Times-Union Center.
Purdy took to the streets for the first time when he was a college student studing electronics. Because of his school schedule, he couldn’t get a “regular” job, so he decided to play the saxophone and see if he could make a few bucks for lunch money.
After graduation, he says, he couldn’t find a job in the electronics field and kept playing the sax. More than 15 years later, he’s still at it.
Since he has low overhead, Purdy, who rides a bike to all of his performances, says he doesn’t need to make a whole lot of money, so he’ll usually perform when he’s low on dough or just wants to get out of the house.
Sometimes, though, he says, he plays “if Jacksonville needs it.”
“Times are hard. People are doing the best they can to get by.” he says. “I want to see what I can do to make their lives better.” TV themes songs, in particular, seem to resonate with audiences, which is why he plays them the most (“I Dream of Jeannie” and “Sanford and Son” are his favorites, for the record). He also plays rock, jazz, love songs or “whatever the situation warrants.”
And if the street performing thing doesn’t work out for Purdy, he can always run for mayor.
This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Jacksonville Magazine. It has been updated and edited for space.