Benjamin Samberg (aka Benny Bell) was born in 1906 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Like his idol, Al Jolson, Ben’s Russian-born, Jewish immigrant father was a cantor who dreamed of having his son following his footsteps.
Despite being deeply drawn to his faith, it was the lure of show business which beckoned to him. He began his show-business career as a song-writer of ballads, but it was his humorous new lyrics to the old standard, “Sweet Violets.” that brought him success. It wasn’t long before he was performing on the Vaudeville stage as Benny Bimbo.
Considering himself as much an entertainer as a songwriter, Ben managed to book himself on radio programs and in Vaudeville talent contests. As a young man in his early twenties he was writing songs for Herman Rose, Ted Collins and other popular entertainers of the day. After being disappointed when several of the recordings of his songs were not released he took a new direction.
Starting his own record company in the 1930’s, he became a pioneer in the field of Yiddish comedy phonograph recordings. By the 1940s he had created more than 50 phonograph recordings. A true impresario, he was involved in every aspect of production, artistic creation, and performance. His created the very popular “Pincus the Peddler” in 1946. This act which featured American songs with a Yiddish flavor was a big hit among Jewish immigrants and their English-speaking children.
As the first half of the 20th century passed, so did interest in Yiddish comedy. The 1950s brought difficult times for the comedian. He was forced to accept menial jobs like busboy and bank messenger. But the world of entertainment had not heard the last of Benny Bell.
In the 1970s, a syndicated LA disc jockey began using Benny Bell’s song “Shaving Cream” as the theme song for his radio show. This sparked immediate interest in Bell’s earlier recordings. “Shaving Cream” was eventually reissued, becoming a national Top 40 hit on the Billboard chart and selling almost a million copies. The renewed popularity breathed life into his live act which he performed into his 90’s.
Thanks to Chuck Samberg (son) and Joel Samberg (grandson and biographer) for information contained in this biography.
View 4 minute biographical video, Benny Bell, by Joel Samberg.
Music courtesy of Chuck Samberg and Joel Samberg.