For African American National Biography, ed. by Henry Louis Gates published by Oxford University Press, 2007*.
Benjamin, Bennie (4 Nov. 1907–2 May 1989), musician and songwriter, was born Claude A. Benjamin in Christiansted, St. Croix, Virgin Islands (then Danish West Indies), the son of Joseph Benjamin and Euphrasia Seteon [Shöin]. He wed Martha Flores (25 Sept. 1911–25 July 1983) on 25 Sept. 1944, remaining married until her death.
Benjamin’s early life was difficult as his father died when Bennie was an infant and changes in the shipping industry, hurricanes, and WWI pushed the economy of the Virgin Islands into decline. After graduating from Virgin Islands High School in 1925, he abandoned early hopes of becoming a minister for lack of tuition to enter seminary and studied to be a tailor and cabinetmaker. In 1927 (ten years after the U.S. purchase of the islands from Denmark had made emigration to the mainland easy), he moved to New York City in search of opportunity.
Benjamin had taught himself banjo as a youth, but now added guitar to his skills at Hy Smith’s School of Music. After six months of training, he began performing in dance orchestras, enjoying a five-year stint with Napoleon’s Orchestra at the Savoy Ballroom, touring with the vaudeville act Olson and Johnson, and playing at the Cotton Club. He developed a distinctive solo style that interspersed chords in his melodic lines. Despite these gigs, he worked odd jobs to stay afloat financially and struggled to make a living.
About this time, he tried songwriting in the mainstream Tin Pan Alley idiom, but found no success for a decade of effort—shopping what would become his first hit around to publishers for several years to no avail. Benjamin joined with Sol Marcus in 1938 and along with Eddie Seiler and Eddie Durham revised his long suffering tune to create the smash hit “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” in 1941. Introduced by the African American group Harlan Leonard and his Kansas City Rockers, the song next hit #4 on the pop charts as performed by the Ink Spots and rose to #1 when Horace Heidt’s version captured the mood of the country after the Pearl Harbor attack. It won a 1941 Billboard Magazine “Top Songwriter’s Award” for its creators. Seiler, Marcus, and Benjamin hit #1 again soon after with “When the Lights Go on Again (All over the World),” as performed by Vaughn Monroe, which used the imagery of World War II blackouts to express the hope for peace (1942).
Benjamin enlisted in the United States Army as an “Entertainment Specialist” on 5 Sept. 1942 and was stationed at Mitchel Field in New York. During three years of service he played guitar and produced camp shows (writing songs, casting talent, directing, etc.). He was honorably discharged on 21 Sept. 1945.
Returning to civilian life, he joined with George David Weiss to form the most successful partnership of his career. This team produced twenty hit songs in ten years, including “Oh What it Seemed to Be” (1945; 1946, #1 Pop with Frankie Carle and #1 Pop with Frank Sinatra), “Rumors Are Flying” (1946, #1 Pop, popularized by Carle and Les Paul), and “Wheel of Fortune” (1952, #1 Pop), a hit recording by Kay Starr. “Wheel of Fortune” sold over one million copies of sheet music and gave its name to a 1952–53 television show. Other hits by the pair included “Strictly Instrumental” (1942), “I Want to Thank Your Folks” (1946, #21, Perry Como), “Surrender” (1946, #2, Perry Como, later Elvis Presley, 1961), “I Don’t See Me in Your Eyes Anymore” (1949, #6), “Can Anyone Explain” (1950, #5, Ames Brothers), “Can Anyone Explain? (No, No, No)” (1950, #7, Ames Brothers), “Echoes” (1950, #18, Jo Stafford and Gordon MacRae), “Jet” (1951, #20, Nat King Cole), “These Things I Offer You” (1951, Sarah Vaughan), and “Cross Over the Bridge” (1954, #2, Patti Page). The pair was named the top songwriting team of 1946 by Billboard Magazine and Disney commissioned them to pen the title songs for the movies Fun and Fancy Free (1947) and Melody Time (1948).
Benjamin reportedly had a hand in more than a hundred songs that registered on the Billboard charts. He approached his work as a professional art, observing that “Songwriting is a craft, an art, a gift like a vocation to medicine or law or any other profession” (Virgin Islands Daily News, 29 April 1968). His songs have little direct reference to African American idioms, but are rather in the popular mainstream styles of the day. His lyrics focus on the subject of love with an undercurrent of innocent sensuality. Like other Tin Pan Alley, dramatic emphasis has shifted to the chorus, with a brief introduction to set the stage. Unobtrusive rhyme and clever word choice enchant the listener, while his tuneful melodies are easily sung by amateurs, but have a subtlety that engages professional interpreters. Rhythmic variations keep the melody sounding fresh as it spins out with gentle syncopations and triplet inflections. Wide intervallic leaps are used with deliberate expressive intent, especially at the song’s climax. In sum, Benjamin’s songs are masterful realizations of the popular idiom.
Benjamin founded his own publishing company around 1950, and after his 1955 split with Weiss, again teamed with Sol Marcus. This pair worked on such songs as “Fabulous Character” (1955, Sarah Vaughan), “I Am Blessed” (Nina Simone), “Our Love (Will See Us Through)” (Nina Simone), “Lonely Man (1960, Elvis Presley), and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (1965, #15, The Animals).”
Evoking classic themes of love and capturing the energy of their time, Benjamin’s songs often appear in movie soundtracks. For example, his song “Anyone (Could Fall in Love with You)” was sung by Elvis Presley in the 1964 movie Kissin’ Cousins. That three and four decades later, films continue to include his songs, especially “Wheel of Fortune” (Household Saints 1993; L.A. Confidential 1997), “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (Layer Cake 2004; The Banger Sisters 2002), and “I don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” (Iris 2001; Ask the Dusk 2006), reveals their continuing ability to reach audiences.
By 1965 his company was known as Benjamin Publishing and by 1968 Benjamin was sole owner of Bennie Benjamin Music. He was a member of ASCAP, the National Academy of Popular Music, as well as the Songwriters Guild of America. He was on the Council of the American Guild of Authors and Composers. As he became more affluent, Benjamin invested to support the Virgin Islands, buying real estate and becoming the largest stockholder in the West Indies Bank and Trust.
In 1979, he won an ASCAP Award for “I’ll Never Be Free,” and that same year was honored at the dedication of the Reichhold Center for the Arts on St. Thomas (2 Feb. 1917). Five years later he was inducted into the 15th Songwriters Hall of Fame (15 April 1984).
As he became successful, Benjamin sponsored benefits for chapters of the March of Dimes, the Red Cross, and various leagues and associations such as the Queensboro Tuberculosis and Health Association. In 1963, New York Congressman Adam C. Powell persuaded President John F. Kennedy to appoint Benjamin as member of the Board of Directors of the Virgin Island Corporation. In the 1980s, he founded The Bennie and Martha Benjamin Foundation, which continues to support medical training and clinics in the Virgin Islands. In 1992 the foundation began awarding annual scholarships to students pursuing careers in health care who committed to working in the islands. Benjamin died after a long illness in New York City at the age of 81.
Bennie Benjamin’s personal papers (5 boxes) are held in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York Public Library, New York City).
Langston Hughes, “Bennie Benjamin,” in Famous Negro Music Makers (New York: Dodd, Mead. 1955).
By Mark Clague, Associate Professor of Musicology and Director of Entrepreneurship and Career Services, University of Michigan, School of Music, Theatre and Dance
* The African American National Biography (AANB) is a joint project of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University and Oxford University Press. Edited by Professors Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, this landmark undertaking resulted in an eight-volume print edition containing over 4,000 individual biographies, indices, and supplementary matter. The AANB, published in February 2008, includes many entries by noted scholars, among them Sojourner Truth by Nell Irvin Painter; W. E. B. Du Bois by Thomas Holt; Rosa Parks by Darlene Clark Hine; Miles Davis by John Szwed; Muhammad Ali by Gerald Early; and President Barack Obama by Randall Kennedy. In 2008 the AANB was selected as a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title, was named a Library Journal Best Reference work, and awarded Booklist Editors’ Choice.