Photo illustration by Sofia Fabiano and Jihyun Moon
Aug 4, 2021
Remembering the novelty song king of Brooklyn
On the 100th anniversary of the year Benny Bell wrote his first song, his grandson explores a legacy full of ... shaaaaving cream!
Without Benny Bell, we might never have known how effective it can be to mask a certain four-letter excremental expletive in a song—by substituting it with “shaving cream.”
And without Brooklyn, we may never have known Benny Bell.
Bell—a singer and songwriter of ribald novelty hits who had a good run in the 1940s and an improbable comeback in the 1970s—landed in Brooklyn after a colorful Bowery childhood. He never left. Brooklyn just worked for him. It gave him material, the working space he needed at the prices he could afford, and the imprimatur of a New York City business address without the arrogance of Madison Avenue.
It would be here that, starting in 1921, Bell began churning out upwards of 600 comic songs (mostly in English, some in Hebrew and Yiddish, some in all three), jingles and jokes. It was here that he’d launch record companies under various names, including Bell Enterprises and Madison Records. And it was here that he lived the long life of a first-generation American entrepreneur and entertainer, grinding it out with chutzpah and humor.
Very humble beginnings
Bell was born Benjamin Samberg in 1906 to a Russian immigrant father, a cantor who would have liked for his son to follow in his footsteps. Bell, it should be noted, my late grandfather. Though he was deeply drawn to his faith, chanting about someone’s devotion was far less satisfying to him than singing about someone’s fanny. According to one of his diaries, this year marks the 100-year anniversary that Benjamin Samberg decided to become a professional singer and songwriter under the moniker Benny Bell.
Many of Bell’s earliest songs, mostly about the “bums” he watched from his Lower East Side bedroom window growing up, were licensed by notable recording artists of the day, but most were never recorded or released. So he began to record them on his own, in a basement studio he built in Cypress Hills, where he lived with his wife, Molly. It was downstairs at that apartment building on Elton Street where Bell recorded more than 120 albums, singles and 78s. But because he claimed to have been cheated by many of the people with whom he dealt, he would decide to go it entirely alone and became his own producer, business manager, and publicist. He even designed the album covers and delivered records to stores from the back of his own car.
Unfortunately, that entrepreneurial decision had dire consequences: His career never truly took off, and he was almost always broke.
In 1937, an RCA executive suggested that he concentrate on making records for the jukebox trade. Since teens and adults hung out without parental supervision at soda shops, bars and saloons where the machines were popular, Bell took his advice. He decided to write and release songs that were slightly risqué. Many of them became Brooklyn favorites, such as “Everybody Wants My Fanny,” “Take a Ship,” “She Got Her Tidbit,” “Home Again (Without Pants)” and “My Janitor’s Can.”
One of his more enduring songs, “Pincus the Peddler,” had an interesting local genesis—and would ultimately bring my parents together. For a short time, Bell joined his brother-in-law as a pushcart peddler in Williamsburg as a way to make money while trying to make it in the music business. Benny disguised himself as one of the immigrant “bums” he used to observe, so fellow merchants took to calling him Pincus. He combined that nickname with his Lower East Side memories, and composed a story-song called “Pincus the Peddler,” which he recorded in 1945.
I’m Pincus the peddler, a broken-hearted peddler
The most unlucky fella that was ever born
My mama, in Slobodka, was drinking too much vodka
And left me stranded on a Sunday morn…
I didn’t want to struggle so I planned a way to smuggle
My papa and myself into the U.S.A.
We knew just how to do it, and so before we knew it
We landed in Canarsie on a stormy day.
In the song, Pincus, who is no angel, meets a woman who gambles away all his money. In frustration, he hits her (“and broke the nicest girdle that she ever had”), after which the authorities send him back to Russia. It became a well-known record throughout the city, selling in excess of 100,000 copies. When my mother was 16, she and her friends listened to “Pincus the Peddler” over and over again in a Bensonhurst soda shop. Five years later, when she began dating Bell’s oldest son, she thought he must be rich because that record was so popular. My mom’s poor parents were very happy. But, as she soon found out, Bell wasn’t rich at all.
She married my dad anyway.
The infamous “Shaving Cream,” a teasing rhyme song, was written and recorded the year after “Pincus the Peddler” and was even more successful:
Our baby fell out of the window,
You’d think that her head would be split..
But good luck was with her that morning,
She fell in a barrel of …
Shaving cream, be nice and clean,
Shave every day and you’ll always look keen.”
But Benny’s one-man operation still didn’t have what it took to parlay the song’s popularity into real money. He needed an agent, a business manager, a financial advisor and an assistant. With such help, “Pincus the Peddler” and “Shaving Cream” may have been followed by another half-dozen or so hit songs.
In the wilderness
After those two successes, when it became clear that another was unlikely, Bell spent quite a bit of effort during the 1950s and ‘60s suing other companies. One was Simon & Schuster, which in the 1950s owned a record company subsidiary called Bell Records—the same name as his own recording company. In 1960 he threatened legal action against a new label called Madison Records, which was the name of his own music publishing arm. He won the first lawsuit and settled out of the court on the second.
Meanwhile, he began writing novelty books (including a tribute to the Fab Four called “Beatle-Phobia”) and an odd series of short TV skits, with names like “Nothing is Impossible,” “Life of the Party,” and “Slow Horses and Fast Women.” Mostly, they were vaudevillian introductions to his own songs. Even though there were still remnants of vaudeville on TV, Bell was unable to interest any network or television producer in his ideas.
He wrote and printed comic greeting cards that he tried to sell to five-and-ten-cent stores. He offered his services as a sheet music writer for anyone who had an idea for a song but didn’t know how to put notes down on paper. He placed fake newspaper ads to try to create a comic buzz around an old song. (One said: “Notice to the man who stole my blue convertible. You may keep the car. I will not report it stolen if you will return the ten gallons of gasoline from the tank. Signed, Benny Bell, composer and singer of Pincus the Peddler.”)
And he never gave up the dream of performing his past hits on network television. Exactly 60 years ago, in 1961, he auditioned for “The Tonight Show” when Jack Paar was the host. A young Dick Cavett was the assistant who conducted the audition—and turned him down. He did make it onto “The Joe Franklin Show.” In its 40-year run on several New York stations, Franklin’s show welcomed thousands of guests, including Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra. Bell was in good company. In addition to singing some songs, he trotted out a few novelty inventions, including sunglasses with windshield wipers, and hot pants that steamed up whenever a pretty girl passed by.
It was also in the ’60s when Bell and Molly moved to a new place on East 16th Street in Sheepshead Bay. As a child, I loved visiting their tiny apartment because it reminded me of a movie set. Or a prop room. There were countless stacks of sheet music and piles of TV Guides; ukuleles and harmonicas hidden in couches; reel-to-reel tape recorders and microphone stands stored in the bathtub; rubber bands stuffed into little boxes that were falling apart and were held together with rubber bands … On the “Pincus the Peddler” album cover, Pincus is saying, “You Name It, I Got It.” He could have been singing about his own apartment.
The Demento effect
In 1966 Bell wrote a love song for Brooklyn, prompted by a newscaster who said: “Somebody should put up a prize for the first popular song about Brooklyn and Queens.” Within a few hours, Benny wrote “Brooklyn Bridge,” a simple tune:
Brooklyn Bridge, I’m thankful as can be,
You found my girl for me.
The world is now sublime, and everything is fine.
Oh Brooklyn Bridge, my honey ran away,
But now she’s back to stay, because of you.
Within days, dozens of music stores in the city, mostly Brooklyn, pleaded for copies. The song “Winchester Cathedral” had been a number one hit on the charts for the British group the New Vaudeville Band a few weeks before. Bell’s song was embraced as Brooklyn’s appropriate response. It sold well. A Brooklyn teenager was even inspired to start a Benny Bell fan club.
But as was his custom, my grandfather handled all the marketing and distribution on his own. He may have had a fan club, but he still had no business sense.
In 1974, though, he had a last flash of good luck when novelty deejay Dr. Demento played “Shaving Cream” on his radio show, and then other radio stations picked it up. The Vanguard label would re-release the song and, improbably, it peaked at No. 30 on the Billboard top 40 chart in May of 1975—just below David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” Bell cut an album (not on his own label, for once), went on concert tours, and appeared on television. He had finally gotten the national recognition he’d been yearning for since Elton Street.
My grandfather’s career may have started exactly a hundred years ago, but it took him 25 years to achieve any sort of recognition at all. Then, for the final 25 years of his long run, he mostly rode on a wave of “Shaving Cream.” He passed away in 1999 at the age of 92.
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