What's The Story Behind Herman The Singing Plumber?
When Beth Klehr hired 74-year-old plumber Herman Bennett some years ago, she hoped to get her leaky pipes fixed. What she didn’t expect was that her plumber would also bring her a taste of “Old Austin.”
With his slight frame, wire-rimmed glasses and long gray braid down his back, Herman was not Beth's ”image of a plumber.” While he worked under her kitchen sink, Herman shared some personal stories — things like how he’d done the plumbing for the Ritz on Sixth Street before it opened and that he used to run with Janis Joplin.
Beth was intrigued.
“I’ve only met him once,” she says, “but he’s totally engaging. Very kind, interesting, has been around for a long time and can tell some great stories.”
Though she’s been here for over 30 years, Beth says she felt like she’d missed out on experiencing Austin’s legendary past. But when she met Herman, “it was kind of a realization that [Old Austin] is still right here, and it's sitting in my kitchen.”
Herman left an impression on Beth. He also left her some CDs of his music. Herman isn’t just a plumber; he’s Herman the Singing Plumber. That’s what he goes by — though he doesn’t actually sing while he works.
Beth realized many of her neighbors in Travis Heights were also Herman fans. So she nominated him for KUT’s “Hi, Who Are You?” project.
How did he end up in Austin, she wondered, and “What is that magnetism about Herman?”
We decided to find out.
Something To Fall Back On
“I am Herman Bennett,” Herman says, getting up from his chair to gently shoo a cat off the kitchen table. The living room of his Clarksville home is filled floor to ceiling with shelves of CDs and books.
“I am a person here in Austin,” he says. “I've been here since 1974.”
Herman grew up in Port Arthur. His dad owned a plumbing shop. His mom worked as a secretary.
Herman’s music career began in middle school choir. Turned out, he really liked to sing, and he was good at it. In high school, he joined a friend’s rhythm and blues band called The Rockin’ Knights. He tried to learn the baritone sax, but it didn’t take. His friend convinced him to be their lead singer instead.
"My dad said, ‘Society could be here without doctors or lawyers, but not without plumbers.’ So, I got my license."Herman Bennett
Herman went to the local commuter college and got a degree in psychology. He kept singing with local bands. And yes, he knew Beaumont’s most famous musician.
“Well, my sister was Janis Joplin's best friend, and Janis taught me how to cuss. Bless her heart,” he laughs. “F- - - - - - great.”
In 1974, Herman was ready to get out of Port Arthur and start his music career.
“I moved to Austin to play in a band, because everybody was going to California or Austin,” he says, “and I thought, well, Austin is closer.”
But he had a backup plan.
“My dad said, ‘Society could be here without doctors or lawyers, but not without plumbers.’ So, I got my license. … [It] was something I could fall back on when Ed Sullivan said no.”
Herman’s most well-known song, “P to G: the Plumbing Song,” is, as he describes it on YouTube, a “semi-autobiographical revisionist history story of generational plumbing.”
The chorus goes:
And he said plumbing
That’s what’s coming
Everybody’s pipes, they got to be a-running
If you look, I think you’ll see
The way things ought to be
You ought to be a plumber just like me
Over the years, when Herman wasn’t plumbing, he was a singer and washboard player in a few bands: The Basic Things, Lowdown, and Uncle Uh Uh and the Uh Huhs — everything from R&B to jug band, hard rock, blues, jazz, and swing. Eventually, he and his friends formed a band called Ain’t Misbehavin’.
A Cosmic Coincidence
Here’s where Herman’s story about plumbing and music takes a turn, and becomes a love story.
One night, Herman was playing a show at Waterloo Ice House, when a woman named Rebecca Smith came in with a mutual friend. She told Herman later that she saw him singing and thought: “One of these days, I'm gonna marry that guy.”
Rebecca married someone else.
But years later, Herman got a letter from her. “I'm getting a divorce,” she wrote, “and I'd like to see you.”
They finally reconnected at a mutual friend’s home.
“And that was just that magic moment,” Herman says. “The hug that she gave me when I left our friend's house — I will never, ever forget it. That's the cosmic coincidence that explodes into something that's gonna be very important in your life.”
Herman and Rebecca got married in 1988. A month later, their daughter was born. Herman enjoyed being a dad and a stepdad to Rebecca’s two sons. They had a good life together. And though Herman struggled with addiction, Rebecca kept him grounded.
In 1992, Rebecca was diagnosed with breast cancer. Three years later, Herman was sitting at her hospital bedside, and her eyes started fluttering.
“I said, ‘Are you OK?’ And she looked into my eyes, which was a struggle at that point for her, and she said, ‘Hakuna Matata,’ which we used to sing with the kids when they were going through the Lion King thing. And I said, ‘What?’ And she said, ‘Hakuna Matata,’ because she was going to have no more worries. Then she closed her eyes, and I heard her breathe her last breath.”
Herman says Rebecca changed his life in so many ways.
“Although she never said, ‘Go to work, stop doing drugs,’ any of that stuff, she made me be a better person without asking me to be a better person,” he says.
After Rebecca’s death, Herman felt lost. Focusing on his kids and playing music kept his head together, but he was lonely. He tried a few relationships; he even had a brief marriage. But none of them lasted. He reluctantly gave up on having a long-term partner.
'You Did Good, Sweetie'
In 2008, Herman did a plumbing job for a young couple. They got to talking and discovered that the wife knew an old Beaumont friend of Herman’s. Herman hadn't been in touch with Marsha Fehl since 1976. Over the years, he had unsuccessfully tried to find her online. The client connected them, and after a flurry of emails and phone calls, romance blossomed.
“Marsha and I’ve been together 11 years now,” he says. “My longest relationship ever. And so she gets it about Becca.”
One night, Herman had a dream that he and Marsha were at a party, and Rebecca was on the periphery of a wall of people.
“And she walks over with her arms folded, walks up to me and Marsha, and looks Marsha up and down, looks at me. ‘Is this Marsha?’ And I said, ‘Yes, it is.’ And she said, ‘You did good, sweetie,’” he says. “And I thought, ‘Man. Thank you.’”
Herman told Marsha the dream, unsure of how she’d respond.
“And without saying a word, she turned over and puts her arm across my chest and said, ‘I want to say one thing. If I could have been friends with Becca and known you, that would have been my preference. But you are everything you are because of Becca. I get that. I owe Becca for you.’ She’s a keeper.”
'We Are Family'
At 74, Herman performs only once a year: at Octoberama, an annual fundraiser for Mathews Elementary, where Rebecca had been an attendance secretary.
At the most recent festival, students and parents wander from booth to booth in the schoolyard, eating popcorn and chatting with friends. Over a loudspeaker, the MC announces, “Welcome to Octoberama … 2019!”
On a stage area, in front of a big tent with rows of metal folding chairs, Herman and his band play family favorites like “Puff, the Magic Dragon” and his ever-popular plumbing song. Herman’s daughter, now in her 30s, is in the audience, singing along.
They wind down their set with the chorus of the same song they began with, a cover of one of Herman’s favorite songs, his friend Joel Johnson’s “The Family Song”:
We are family
Blood lines don’t trace our destiny
We are family
The MC takes the mic. “Ladies and gentlemen, round of applause for Herman Bennett and the Power of Family Band. They are Clarksville’s favorite band!”
Herman has played at Octoberama for almost 30 years. Does he do it for Becca? He smiles, lost in memories for a moment.
“I feel like, if Becca's watching, she'd be disappointed if I didn't.”