Kerr was born in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia and spent fifteen years in the Royal Canadian Air Force before settling in Toronto. In the 1960s, Kerr frequently played guitar in folk clubs in Toronto's Yorkville district working alongside groups such as Steppenwolf, the Mynah Birds, Rick James, Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell, and wrote songs for the then unknown Neil Young.
In 1969, he had a life changing experience when he gave up his three pack a day smoking habit and started taking a daily cayenne pepper cocktail. He credited the concoction with turning his health around and saving his life.
For a time, he was an executive at the Toronto Harbour Commission. A fervent anti-smoking crusader, he quit in a rage in 1981 when a co-worker blew smoke in his face. He wrote a song, "Fire on One End, a Fool on the Other", about the incident. This inspired him to run from Toronto to Los Angeles to promote a smoking ban in offices. The run took him six months. He was also in the 1982 Trees music video "Shock of the New", appearing as a guy with an oxygen mask and a shirt promoting clean air in offices.
Kerr supported himself as a busker for the remainder of his life, singing with a karaoke machine in front of the Hudson's Bay department store at the corner of Yonge and Bloor streets. He was often voted "favourite street performer" in Now Magazine's annual Toronto survey, and it is rumoured that Kerr was once offered a recording contract with Sub Pop Records. He continued to appear frequently on radio and television as an advocate for the health benefits of cayenne pepper, and was the author of The Cayenne Pepper Cocktail Does it All.
As well, he was a perennial fringe candidate who ran in every Toronto mayoral election from 1985 until 2003, the last municipal election held before his death. In 1997, he placed fourth behind Mel Lastman, Barbara Hall and Don Andrews. In the 2000 election, he ran on a platform of waterfront renewal, backed by the self-penned campaign song "Fringe Candidate".
Ben Kerr died on June 17, 2005 at his home on Jones Avenue in Toronto, at the age of 75. In 2007, Toronto City Council approved a motion to name a laneway near the corner of Danforth and Jones in Kerr's honour. Ben Kerr Lane was officially named on May 25, 2008.
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