One of the most iconic, intriguing, and flavorful novelty songs in novelty song history celebrates a milestone this year. “Pincus the Peddler,” the tale of a hopeful, hapless peddler on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was written and recorded in 1945 by the legendary Benny Bell, and once it was played by Martin Block on his famous “Make Believe Ballroom” radio show, it instantly became a mega jukebox hit all over New York City. How it came about was equally intriguing.
When Benny was a youngster, he loved the down-but-never-out characters he used to see plying their trade below his bedroom window. The first songs Benny wrote that were professionally recorded were “The Bowery Bums,” “The Bum’s Rush,” and “Once a Bum, Always a Bum.” By the early 1940s he already had a few hits, but in 1945, when he was 29, Benny’s luck ran out, so he joined his brother-in-law as one of the street merchants he found so colorful. Fellow merchants began to call him Pincus the Peddler. At the suggestion of a friend, he combined that alliterative name with a story he made up, set it to evocative music—and the result was “Pincus the Peddler.”
This is the 70th year in which fans are able to listen to Pincus’s bittersweet story-song on records, CD, or online.
Benny Bell, who had his greatest popularity between the mid-1930s and early 1950s, was also known for such novelty classics as “Shaving Cream,” “Everybody Wants My Fanny,” “My Janitor’s Can,” “Go to Work, You Jerk,” “A Goose for My Girl” and others.Bell died in 1999 at the age of 93, but his musical legacy has been preserved in a series of compilation CDs available at CDBaby.com, such as “Benny Bell: A to P” and “Benny Bell: P to Almost Z.” Even today, almost 80 years after “Take a Ship,” his first novelty hit, thousands of people coast to coast still search for rare Benny Bell 78, 45 and 33 rpm albums and singles. There have been several Benny Bell fan clubs through the years, and many music and record industry professionals continue to call for additional retrospectives of his work. Benny Bell was one of the funniest, busiest, most resilient performers ever to come out of vaudeville and the Borscht Belt.
Born in 1906 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Bell’s story in some ways parallels that of the young Al Jolson. His Russian immigrant father was a cantor who would have liked for his son to follow in his footsteps. Benny was, indeed, deeply drawn to his faith, but too deeply drawn to music and humor to consider that a viable path.
In 1922, at the age of 16, he wrote new lyrics to the old standard, “Sweet Violets,” which then became a modest success. Throughout the next few years he was able to interest artists such as Eddie Cantor and Harry Von Tilzer in listening to his songs. He appeared on radio and entered many contests, winning fans along the way. By his early twenties, his songs were accepted for recording by Herman Rose, Ted Collins and others—although many were never released. So Benny began recording on his own.
Like his idol, Irving Berlin, Bell also wrote several elegant ballads, including “If You Promise to Be Mine,” poignant war-time tunes, such as “Ship Ahoy, Sailor Boy” (recorded by Rose Marie, famous for her role as Sally on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”) and quirky romances such as “Brooklyn Bridge.”
In addition to the official compilation CDs, there is also my book, called “Grandpa Had a Long One: Personal Notes on the Life, Career & Legacy of Benny Bell,” available from the publisher, BearManor Media, and from other online sites. Benny Bell is also be discussed in the upcoming feature film documentary about novelty disk jockey Dr. Demento, ”Under the Smogberry Trees.” Demento helped resurrect Bell’s career in 1974 when he started playing “Shaving Cream” on his syndicated radio show, and the two became friends.