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 risque 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 (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. 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.
Bell died in New York in July 1999, at the age of 93.