Rob Smith Can’t Say No: Benny Bell

Written by Music, Rob Smith Can't Say No

Try as he might, Rob Smith Can’t Say No to recordings of mid-20th century Jewish-American comedian Benny Bell.

This week’s gaze into the abyss comes courtesy Reader Ray, a.k.a. “Robust,” an occasional ‘Dose commenter and Brian Wilson acolyte who dropped a nice stinky one in my lap a couple months ago when he suggested I check out the oeuvre of one Benny Bell.

I wanted to say no. Even though I know I can’t say no, I do have time constraints to consider, and listening to 200-plus Borscht Belt party records is a bit more than my schedule can bear at present. That said, there’s a goodly bit of “classic” Bell material available online, and I’m pretty sure I hit it all. And it hit back, like the remnants of a Taco Bell Bacon Cheesy Potato burrito.

Benny Bell, born Benjamin Zamberg in Manhattan in 1906, was a Jewish-American comedian and songwriter who gave up his pursuit of being a rabbi (more his parents’ wishes than his own) to try his hand in vaudeville. He turned his comedic aptitude to music, and in 1929 released his first record, “The Alimony Blues,” a humorous enough endeavor, about a chronic deadbeat ex-husband:

I don’t want to give my wife no dough
I don’t want to pay, pay, pay
No, there ain’t no fun to sit in jail
But I’d rather stay, stay, stay

Imagine what Ghostface Killah or Raekwon could do with that premise? Not even Ghost or Rae could make rotting in jail for not paying spousal support sound nearly as heroic as Bell, though.

Bell gained some renown with “Alimony,” and began releasing records on his own labels (Bell was indie before indie was indie). At first, most were straight-up ethnic comedy records—pieces intended for audiences young and old who enjoyed Jewish comedy. His most popular creations in this guise were his “Pincus the Peddler” records, the first of which told the sad tale of a hard-working street merchant who wuz done wrong by an ee-yee-vil woman. Pincus and his equally luckless father immigrate to the States, sneaking into Brooklyn, when he meets the object of his desire:

Oh but soon I met a woman,
A dirty rotten woman,
At first she made me happy then she made me blue,
Instead of gaining knowledge
By sending me to college
She sent me to the races and they cleaned me through.

Bitch sets him up, takes his money, cleans him out? Forget indie; Bell was a playa before playas were playas. But a man can only be expected to take so much, right? Bell noted, even then, there were occasions when a playa needs to take care of his business:

‘Twas at a game of rummy
She called me a dummy
I punched her in the mouth because that makes me mad,
She lifted her umbrella
So I kicked her down the cellar
And broke the nicest girdle that she ever had.

She went to Ellis Island
To send me back to my land
The things she told the people there was very bad,
I never thought they’d do it
And yet before I knew it
They packed my trunk and sent me back to Petrograd.

Oh, no, she didn’t! Sheee-yit! Benny Bell wasn’t a playa; Benny Bell was a gangsta.

Recognizing a hit when he heard one, Bell brought forth “Son of Pincus,” which extended the story and contained all the nasty things Pincus’ progeny intended to do to the woman who done his daddy wrong:

I’ll cut her hands to ribbons
And throw them to the dogs
I’ll grind her legs to chopped meat
And feed it to the hogs
But her ugly face I’ll keep home
Revenge is sweet, all right
I’ll slap it every morning
And pinch it every night

In the days before Wu-Tang or restraining orders, this was comedy gold, people. Bell followed “Son of Pincus” with “Pincus in the Mountains,” “Pincus Said Knock You Out,” and “Roxanne, Roxanne, Pincus, Pincus” before putting the violent saga to rest.

Musically, these records are pretty much what you’d think they’d be—lots of oompah-oompah and clarinet and muted trumpet, chunky piano, and ragtime rhythms. Vocally, there needn’t be much there, and there isn’t—just Bell’s Brooklyn accent, slipping occasionally into distinctive Yiddish or Hebrew cadences.

Somewhere along the way, Bell was informed there was money to be made in “party records”—discs of risqué material sold behind the counter at record stores and mom and pop shops of somewhat less than stellar repute. You could find otherwise clean artists “working blue” on these records, which were popular at bars and nightclubs and other locales where adults congregated. Bell went on to make tons of such discs, including the schnozz-as-penis double entendre classic “Noses Run in My Family,” which starts with a witty description of questionable protuberances:

My grandpa had a long one, it nearly touched his chin
My uncle has a small one, with hardly any skin
My daddy has a broad one, just like a rolling pin
But mine is big and round and fat
It looks more like a baseball bat
You never saw a nose like mine before.

Better yet was “I Used to Work in Chicago” (also known as “Jack of All Trades”), the sad tale of a man fired from several jobs for simply not understanding his customers. May I see an example, you ask? Soitenly:

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 a felt hat, we had them in the store,
Felt she wanted, felt she got
That’s why I’m not there anymore.

My favorite, though, is when he crosses the river back to the big city:

I used to work in Manhattan, in a department store,
I used to work in Manhattan, I did but I don’t anymore.
A lady came in for golf balls, we sold them in the store,
Balls she wanted
, [slide whistle] That’s why I’m not there anymore.

That’s right, the man who created a character who wished to dismember another character could not say “balls she got,” even when “working blue.”

Bell is best known for a 1946 party record called “Shaving Cream,” which centers on the avoidance of the word shit. Each verse contains a word meant to rhyme with shit, only to have Bell replace the word with the alliterative “Shhhhhaving cream.” It’s a concept familiar to most seven-year-olds, who can entertain one another for hours with playground rhymes like:

Miss Suzie had a steamboat
The steamboat had a bell
Miss Suzie went to heaven
The steamboat went to
Hello operator, give me number 9
If you disconnect me
I’ll kick your fat
Behind the ‘fridgerator …

Dee-dee-dee-dum-dee-dum, etc. If you’ve ever heard Bowser & Blue’s faux-Dylan laffer “Polka Dot Undies,” you get the joke. Bell’s take is, I admit, pretty funny—funny enough to rescue him from obscurity nearly 30 years after its first release, when Dr. Demento began spinning it regularly on his radio show.

Sound like fun? There are other choice cuts to check out. I suggest “Fancy Definitions” (amusing wordplay that still works as comedy, albeit in a Sunday paper/Parade magazine sort of way) and “Everybody Wants My Fanny” (Fanny as woman? Fanny as buttocks? The Bee Gees gratefully stayed away from such double entendre with “Fanny [Be Tender]”). There are also two major Bell archives online, one from our friends at the Internet Archive and one from the Judaica Sound Archives, which,  if not complete, is damn near close. A transcript of a Bell interview with Demento also rests comfortably on a server somewhere.

Many thanks to Reader Ray/Robust for the suggestion. Join me in a couple weeks, when I take a listen to some oddball covers of ’80s classics. And keep those suggestions comin’.