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Benny Bell (born Benjamin Samberg or Benjamin Zamberg, March 21, 1906 – July 6, 1999) was an American singer-songwriter who reached popularity in the 1940s, with a comeback in the 1970s. He is particularly remembered for his risqué 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 600 songs, most of which are documented in his many notebooks, ledgers and copyright papers, all of which he had given to his grandson, journalist Joel Samberg, between 1994 and 1998, whom he had designated as the one to protect and continue his legacy as a songwriter and performer.
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 (e.g. "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 risqué 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 risqué material. His first juke box release was a hot jazz arrangement of a traditional risqué 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 three highest-selling songs: "Take a Ship for Yourself," "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 (now Saint Petersburg, Russia). Each verse in "Shaving Cream" ends with a mind rhyme of shit, the initial sh- segueing into the refrain, "Shaving Cream, be nice and clean..." The same technique 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. The single peaked at #30 on the Billboard Hot 100. 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.
A book called "Grandpa Had a Long One: Personal Notes on the Life, Career and Legacy of Benny Bell," which is a combination biography and memoir written by his grandson, Joel Samberg, was published by BearManor Media and released in 2009. It is available from the publisher and from Amazon.com. Joel Samberg, who collaborated with his grandfather on a few recordings and videos in the 1970s and 1980s, also recorded several new versions of "Shaving Cream" after Benny Bell's death, using his grandfather's music with updated lyrics. These include "Presidential Shaving Cream," which skewered the presidential and vice presidential candidates in 2008, and "Holiday Shaving Cream," which paints potent pictures of Christmas and Chanuakah traditions. Both can be found on YouTube.
In 1995 Bell suffered a fall and was admitted to Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, New York. While recuperating Bell met Fred Schuepfer, his roommate, who with his friends 20 years previously had listened to and enjoyed many of Bell's songs on the Dr. Demento Show. Bell entertained Schuepfer by singing several of the songs and he recounted many anecdotes about the New York music scene of the 1940s, including meetings with Irving Berlin.
Bell died in New York in July 1999, at the age of 93.
- 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 with different cover 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: Another Close Shave (Benny Bell, 2005)
- Joel Samberg, "Grandpa Had a Long One: Personal Notes on the Life, Career and Legacy of Benny Bell," BearManor Media, 2009
- 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.
- Biography at Florida Atlantic University
- Thedeadrockstarsclub.com - accessed July 2010
- Spoken introduction by Benny Bell on The Hilarious Musical Comedy of Benny Bell
- Hospital records, Good Samaritan Hospital and Fred Schuepfer
- "Allmusic ((( Benny Bell: Another Close Shave > Overview )))".
- Benny Bell at Allmusic website
- Judaica Sound Archives at Florida Atlantic University, with online recordings courtesy of Bell's estate