Novelty Songs: Benny Bell, Dr. Demento and The Art of Laughter

dementoLast week I was sitting in a chilly room with about a dozen guitar pickers and as is the protocol for this particular song circle, each person took their turn at presenting a tune and leading the group through it. There were traditional songs, some blues and the now-standard Sixties folk-rock repertoire. Really…just shoot me if I have to play “The Circle Game” one more time. But when the fellow sitting next to me said he wanted us to do “Shaving Cream”, I almost fell off my stool.

A novelty song!

Benny Bell was an American singer-songwriter born at the turn of the last century, and he got his start in vaudeville singing in English, Yiddish and Hebrew. An early adopter of the DYI ideal, he founded his own record company and he sang and wrote in many styles: ethnic music, hot jazz arrangements with risque lyrics for juke box operators only, radio jingles (including the one for Lemke’s cockroach powder) and mainstream comedy records. In 1946 he released what would be his three best-selling songs, and for the next three decades he was a minor player in the New York Borscht Belt circuit of Jewish singers and comedians who performed in the popular Catskill Mountain resorts.

In 1970 a young ethnomusicologist from Minnesota by the name of Barry Hansen took his love for comedy, novelty and simply weird music to the airwaves in Los Angeles, and within a few years the radio persona of Dr. Demento was in syndication on FM stations throughout the United States, usually late on Sunday nights. The list of artists that he brought to the attention of his audience is pretty amazing in it’s depth and it still lives on through his compilation albums released on Rhino Records. When he began to regularly play ‘Shaving Cream’ in 1975, Vanguard Records rushed to release it and was an out and out smash. I found this video posted by a fan, and it seems to hit the high points.

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines the novelty song as such: ‘A popular song that is either written and performed as a novelty or that becomes a novelty when removed from its original context. Regardless of which of these two categories applies, the assumption is that the song is popular because of its novelty, because it sounds different from everything else being played on the radio or jukebox. It follows that novelty hits are unique; the second time around, the sound is no longer novel.”

Leave it to the British to make things clear as mud. I’ll describe it simply as a funny song; the style comes out of Tin Pan Alley, was popular in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and can be satiric, political, nonsensical, a parody and just plain weird. This one here qualifies for the latter.

Putting aside Allan Sherman’s My Son The Folk Singer album for the moment, when I think about roots music and novelty songs, “Alice’s Restaurant” is one of the first that come to mind. And maybe Arlo’s “Motorcycle Song” as well. But then I recalled Larry Groce, now of Mountain Stage fame, and the classic “Junk Food Junkie”.

You’ve got to mention Joe Dolce in this context. The Ohio-born singer-songwriter-poet -actor emigrated to Australia in 1978 and two years later recorded “Shaddup You Face” which became a multi-million-selling worldwide hit. He seemed to ride the ‘one hit wonder’ life for a few years and then settled into a more serious music career along with his wife Lin Van Heck. In the past decade he has become a well-published poet and essayist, winning awards along the way. I forgot how good this song was until I found it for this piece.

Somebody has said that there is hardly anything that John Prine has recorded that won’t either bring you to your knees in hysterical laughter or make you cry. I’ll close this out with one of my favorite Prine tunes. Should the spirit move you, feel free to add to the thread anything else that comes to your mind. Novelty music might not be the most important footnote to American culture, but I think it’s an interesting one and maybe it’s still out there, waiting to be found. The doctor will see you now.