With his love of Judaism and a singing voice that was most emotive when chanting in Hebrew,” Benny Bell could have become a rabbi or a cantor, as his father had hoped, writes his grandson, Verona resident Joel Samberg. “Or he could have owned a grocery store, which had been a family vocation. But mine was no ordinary grandfather.”
The cantorate’s loss, however, was novelty music’s gain. In a career that peaked when he neared the age of 70, Bell became known for writing and performing such risque ditties as “She Got Her Tidbit,” “Everybody Wants My Fanny,” and his biggest hit, “Shaving Cream.”
A one-time vaudevillian with a popular Yiddish and Hebrew repertoire, Bell devoted much of his 93 years to his own brand of musical comedy, as a sort of Irving Berlin of the double entendre.
“The lyrics left obscenity to the imagination,” writes Samberg, in a new biography of his grandfather, titled, inappropriately enough, Grandpa Had a Long One: Personal Notes on the Life, Career & Legacy of Benny Bell. “The potentially dirty words were replaced at the last moment with non-objectionable ones.”
“Our baby fell out of the window
We figured her head would be split
But good luck was with her that morning
She fell in a bucket of
Bell wrote “Shaving Cream” in 1946. But his career had a revival nearly three decades later, when a recording of the song was unearthed by Dr. Demento, a Minneapolis disc jockey whose radio show specialized in novelty songs.
Bruce “Cousin Brucie” Morrow, a popular New York disc jockey, gave “Shaving Cream” an added boost on network radio. Decades after its debut, “‘Shaving Cream’ really caught on,” said Samberg, and Bell developed a cult following among a younger generation.
While many of Bell’s lyrics thrived on double entendres, “they were very innocent and simple,” said his grandson in a phone interview. “I wouldn’t say he had a dirty mind, but somebody mentioned to him back in the 1940s that that kind of thing would take off pretty well in juke boxes. He had a knack for it, but it was not something he decided was going to be the centerpiece of his career.”
A one-time pushcart peddler on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Benjamin Samberg aspired to become a serious songwriter like his idol, Irving Berlin.
But from the time he began composing and performing in the 1920s under the name Benny Bell, he also had other jobs “just for the sake of being able to pay the rent and buy food and clothes for his family,” said Samberg. “But he took pride at being able to say he spent his entire life as a musician and a comedian.”
Much of his career was spent in the Catskills, where he performed at hotels and bungalow colonies. His grandchildren would visit every summer in the late 1960s and early 1970s, even as the Borscht Belt was starting to die.
“But that didn’t mean he folded up and went away. He always tried to grab onto whatever was happening in the industry. When music videos came along, he produced a few of those on his own and got them played on television during the early days of cable, mainly on public access stations,” said Samberg, himself a playwright and author of books of Jewish trivia.
‘Life of the party’
Samberg said his relationship with Bell was a close one.
“He and Grandma Molly came to our house on Long Island every other Sunday throughout my entire childhood. We visited them in Brooklyn on holidays and family get-togethers.”
Samberg remembers his grandfather “as the life of the party.”
“He would always have a story, or a song, or a funny comment, or a silly gag, or something going on that would entertain whoever was there,” said Samberg. “On the other hand, he was so often in his own world of planning and devising and creating that he could sit in a chair for an hour at a time, quiet and alone on the outside. But who the hell knew what was going on on the inside?”
Samberg said his grandfather had an “enormous” respect for the Jewish religion.
“You would not necessarily draw that conclusion if you were to follow him around from day to day, but he abided by all the customs of the Jewish holidays and he knew Jewish history,” he said. “The only time I saw him serious was when he was discussing something about Judaism.”
Bell made dozens of Yiddish-language records.
“The comedy songs really identify him as a performer, but the Jewish songs and the Yiddish material are what sustained him in the middle of his career. He did get a lot of airplay with them on Yiddish-language radio stations.”
It was quite a contrast to his appearance on a vaudeville nostalgia show on MTV in 1995, four years before his death. “He was working up until the end,” said Samberg.
What would Bell be doing if he were still alive?
“If he were around now, he would probably be trying to follow the current trend,” Samberg said. “He would probably also try to update some of his previous material and still dabble in his Yiddish material and write songs about major events. When disco came out, he sang disco.”
Might he work in the genres of hip-hop or heavy metal?
“He would probably try to do comic versions of whatever was hot right now. I can imagine him writing a song about global warming and making fun of it, but making a point about it as well. I think he was influenced a bit by style, a bit by substance, and a bit by whatever caught his fancy.”