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Benny Bell: A Musical Comic Legend Revisited

9:34 am Friday, June 19, 2009
by samuel raphael franco

We’re going to start this blog post with a guess the next word game. You hint is that the word starts with sh:

            “I have a sad story to tell you

            It may hurt you’re feelings one bit

            When I went to the bathroom

            I stepped in a pile of _____.

If you guessed the shaving cream you’re absolutely right, and probably a liar. If you guessed anything else, your mother clearly never washed your mouth out with soap.

Benny Bell's Infectious Hit, Shaving Cream:

If business isn't risque business, then it wasn't Benny Bell's business. Benny Bell was born Benjamin Zamberg in 1906 on the Upper East Side of New York. He got his start in show business as a teenager, writing lyrics for music and vice versa. Eschewing his father’s wish for him to become a Rabbi, Benny Bell first found employment as a street peddler. The only way Benny Bell was able to get by through the breakneck grind of the world's most cynical city, was his to take pot shots at it.

After realizing that he could not keep up with the exhausting life of a New York street peddler, Benny made a switch to the entertainment business. His first break was a vaudeville gig under the stage name Benny Bimbo, with the character Pincus the Peddler. Pincus the peddler said everything smarmy Benny Bell couldn't say on the street at work, and helped Benny Bell get his foot in the door in the entertainment business. After a few years on the circuit, he made another switch in careers to record production, where he would have his greatest success. Bell ran multiple record labels, including Zion Records, Kosher Comedy, and Bell Enterprises. 

While he was never one of the foremost faces in Jewish comedy or the borscht belt circuit, Benny Bell was a pioneer. He was one of the first to record in orchestral comedy and double entendre records. Stylistically, he combined traditional orchestration with bizarre situations, near perverse lyrics that approached the line of poor taste, but never crossed it. His songs were sung in a combination of English, Hebrew, and Yiddish. There are Klezmer and Big Band influences on the instrumentation, and his lyrics are delivered in a thick New York Jewish accent. Some of his songs were based around silly narratives, however his most successful shtick was to get laughs by through double-entendres building to an expectation of profanity, and then subverting the expectation with an inoffensive substitute or sound-alike.

Intellectually speaking, Bell’s strategy fits in perfectly with Immanuel Kant’s idea that, “Laughter is an effect that arises if a tense expectation is transformed into nothing.”

Bell’s style is immediately evident from his song titles:

Take a ship for Yourself, Go to Work You Jerk, Everybody Wants my Fanny, Noses Run in My Family, and Why Buy a Cow When Milk is Cheap.

His early recordings have a strong Yiddish and Kezmer influence. His song 'It's a Boy,' as an extended joke on a Briss, with the classic line, "I've never seen such a tough looking mohel in all my life."

Bell’s talent as a musical composer was on par as his talent with jokes. He scored and composed all of his music for a live orchestra, with the lyrics as whimsical they are musically pleasing. Mechanically, his lyrics are written in consistently perfect meter, and the stresses on the vowel sounds in his jokes allow for pleasurable tones. His orchestration punctuates the jokes perfectly, adding to the effect. His choruses and refrains are memorable, repeatable and catchy. The strangely homoerotic song, ‘My Fanny,’ is a great example of his skill and style:

Listen how everybody wants Benny Bell's Fanny!:

Everyone is out to get my Fanny

Everybody wants to see my Fanny

Everybody likes to hold my Fanny

But she loves no one but me

Everybody wants to seize my Fanny

Everybody likes to squeeze my Fanny

They do everything to please my Fanny

Still she loves no one but me

 Oh, don't touch my Fanny

Please don't ever try

My little Fanny

Is reserved for just one guy

Benny Bell’s career arc was just as strange as his music. He was never a superstar, especially outside of the Jewish community, but he was able to survive in the industry for a number of years. With the rise of television and decline of vaudeville during the 1950s and 1960s, Benny Bell faded into complete obscurity. However, he was too great a talent to be condemned to this fate forever, and his career went through a major renaissance when famed syndicated radio DJ Dr. Demento discovered a copy of his song “Shaving Cream” in 1975. It instant hit, and was one of the most requested songs of the year nationwide, and reached the billboard charts for the first time, a whole twenty-nine years after it's initial release. With this newfound fame, Benny Bell's music was re-released on the album ‘Shaving Cream’ by Vanguard records.

Benny Bell's catalogue is extensive. It is rumored that he wrote or recorded over 400 songs, although there are slight under 200 in existence right now. Benny Bell also took to recording classic musical comic standards. His version of ‘Jack of All Trades’ or ‘I Used to Work in Chicago,’ tells a story of a man who seems to have worked in every department store in every city, managing to get fired for every possible infidelity. His recording of this classic has become the gold standard, and can be heard bellowing out in bars, schoolbuses, and other safe havens for the immature worldwide:

Benny Bell's version of Jack of All Trades:

I used to work in Waukegan, in a department store,

I used to work in Waukegan, I did but I don't anymore

A lady came in for a pinch of salt, we had some in the store

A pinch she wanted, a pinch she got

That's why I'm not there anymore!

I used to work in New Jersey in a department store

I used to work in New Jersey, I did but I don’t anymore

A lady came in for some felt, we had some in the store

Felt she wanted, felt she got

That’s why I’m not there anymore! 

Thanks goodness employers back then didn’t call around for references!

Benny Bell was dedicated to comedy until the very end. At ninety years of age, he was still writing and performing live. Benny Bell died at the age of 93 in 1999, and this year marks the tenth anniversary of his death. He left behind at least 200 hundred comedic songs, an impressive comic legacy. For better or worse, he paved the way for musical comedians of all type including Wierd Al Yankovic and Stephen Lynch.

Benny Bell's recordings are a valuable historical resource for those interested in the New York Jewish immigration experience. A Collection of Benny Bell’s works, including the hit Shaving Cream, are now in the public domain. You can access these timeless recordings on the internet archive.

If this isn't enough, the Judaica Sound Archives have a near complete collection of his early LPS available on the web. These include his first character Pincus the Peddler, and some of his Yiddish Language Recordings.
Pincus the Peddler
If you don’t like it, stick your head in a barrel of shaving cream.
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Tags: Benny Bell, Comedy, Borscht Belt, Music, LPs, Jewish Humor, New York, Shaving Cream, Entertainment, Immigration, Klezmer

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Posted by Jon Hedges
10/02/2009  at  12:21 PM
Benny Bell book

There is a fantastic new book about Benny Bell called “Grandpa Had a Long One: Personal Notes on the Life, Career & Legacy of Benny Bell,” written by his grandson, journalist Joel Samberg. Check out the book’s website at http://www.bennybellbook.webs.com. There’s also a YouTube video about the book that you can find simply by typing Benny Bell Book into the search bar. The book reminds me of “Tuesdays with Morrie” because of its structure and warmth. But as Benny Bell fans know, Ben was far nuttier and quirkier (and more mysterious) than Morrie!

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