Benny Bell (born Benjamin Samberg or Benjamin Zamberg, March 21, 1906 ? July 6, 1999) was a Jewish American singer-songwriter who reached popularity in the 1940s, with a comeback in the 1970s. He is particularly remembered for his risqu? but cheerfully optimistic songs.
Benny Bell was born to an immigrant Jewish family in New York City. His father wanted him to be a rabbi, but after trying various odd jobs including self-employed street peddler, he decided to pursue a career in vaudeville and music, sometimes under the names Benny Bimbo and Paul Wynn. His first record, "The Alimony Blues" (backed with "Fast Asleep on a Mountain"), for Plaza Records on December 16, 1929 was a comical song about preferring to spend time in jail rather than pay alimony. He went on to write approximately 400 songs according to a liner note, although this may be an exaggeration, as a supposedly complete set of his work on eight CDs contains less than 200 songs.
In addition to songs with English lyrics, he also wrote and recorded in Yiddish and Hebrew, sometimes mixing two or even three languages in one song (i.e. "Bar Mitzvah Boy" which uses all three). According to liner notes on his albums, these multiple-language songs are intended to be understood by listeners who speak any one of the languages used.
Bell founded his own record company under a variety of names: Bell Enterprises, Madison Records, Zion Records, and Kosher Comedy Records, to release his own material. He also wrote and recorded commercial jingles for radio. His jingle for Lemke's cockroach powder, sung in a mixture of Yiddish and English, has been released on record.
Bell enjoyed writing risqu? lyrics, and in 1939 he was advised that he could make so-called party records with "blue" lyrics, primarily for use in juke boxes in cocktail bars. He entered into this endeavour using his self-established record company, while continuing to make ethnic and mainstream comedy records. In an interview on the Dr. Demento radio program, Bell stated that he kept his straight and blue careers separate for many years, the latter being a secret to most of his fans and associates. His eventual fame would come mostly from his risqu? material. His first juke box release was a hot jazz arrangement of a traditional risqu? drinking song, "Sweet Violets", but his first big success in this field was an original song, "Take a Ship for Yourself".
In 1946 he released his two best known songs: "Pincus the Peddler" which drew from his personal experience in the trade, and the notorious "Shaving Cream". "Pincus the Peddler" became Bell's signature tune, despite the title character's disreputable violent tendencies, and it concludes with his deportation to Petrograd (the older name for Leningrad, known today as Saint Petersburg, Russia). "Shaving Cream" uses a technique in which each verse suggests a rhyme with an obscene word, but replaces the word with the title, which is alliterative with the obscene word. The same concept was used in "Sweet Violets" and many other songs that he recorded.
Other songs written by Bell include "Without Pants", "My Grandfather Had a Long One", "The Girl From Chicago", "The Ballad of Ikey and Mikey", "My Condominium", "I'm Gonna Give My Girl a Goose for Thanksgiving", "There Ain't No Santa Claus", and "Everybody Wants My Fanny".
He continued recording and releasing records into the 1980s, but he remained little-known beyond New York City until the 1970s when "Shaving Cream" was played regularly on the Dr. Demento radio program, leading to its re-issue as a single in 1975 on the Vanguard Records label, along with a similarly titled album. Around this time, Bell was still writing new songs about current topics such as disco music and the Watergate scandal.
Bell continued self-releasing vinyl albums into the 1980s, and they often resemble 1950s releases, featuring somewhat plain covers with the same graphics (an array of laughing heads) re-used for decades, or with no art except a plain cover with hole to view the label. He continued to issue 10-inch albums long after that format was considered obsolete. Some albums have new spoken jokes edited into breaks in older songs as "asides", a technique Bell had been using since the 1950s, and some songs contain comic interruptions made over several decades.
Kosher Comedy (Kosher Comedy Records, 1956)
Kosher Comedy (Zion Records 126, 1956, not the same album as above)
Kosher Comedy (Madison Records 120, 1960, not the same album as either of the above)
Jewish Comedy (1st Issue) (Bell Enterprises, 10-inch album)
Jewish Comedy (2nd Issue) (Bell Enterprises, 10-inch album, essentially a "volume 2")
Jewish American Novelty Tunes (Bell Enterprises, 1958)
Pincus the Peddler (Zion Records 234, 1959, re-issue of above, as Benny Bell and the Agony Trio)
To the Bride: "G'zint mit Parnussa" (Zion Records 252, as Benny Bell and the Brownsville Klezmers)
Laugh Along With Pincus (Madison Records 523, re-issued in 1972)
The Opera Star (Comic Opera) (Bell Enterprises 900, 10-inch album)
Be a Comedian (1958, re-issued as Bell Enterprises BB-801, 1961, 10-inch instructional album)
Shaving Cream (Vanguard Records VSD-79357, 1975)
Showtime (Bell Enterprises 303, 1977, jokes by Slim Jim and songs by Benny Bell)
The Hilarious Musical Comedy of Benny Bell (volumes 1 to 8, Benny Bell Records, on CD)
Benny Bell is Back (Walter Epstein Productions, 1990s CD)
Roland L. Smith, Goldmine Comedy Record Price Guide. Krause Publications, 1996.
Ronald L. Smith, Comedy Stars at 78 RPM: Biographies and discographies of 89 American and British recording artists, 1896-1946. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1998.
The Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Third edition. Edited by Colin Larkin. London: MUZE, 1998. Grove's Dictionaries, New York, 1998.
List of 1970s one-hit wonders in the United States
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