So I was listening to an old song that I’m sure most of us remember — “Sweet Georgia Brown” — and I discovered something interesting. The song, which you might remember as the signature tune of the Harlem Globetrotters, has been performed by just about everybody since it was written almost a century ago. And that brings us to the interesting part. I saw that it was composed by a guy named Ben Bernie, and when I first read that I thought, hmmm — wasn’t he an old-time comedian?
Turns out I had that wrong, maybe confusing him with Ben Blue. It seems that Ben Bernie, a New Jersey native whose real name was Bernard Anzelevitz, was a star in the early jazz era, a bandleader whose orchestra was a regular fixture at New York’s Hotel Roosevelt. He also hosted a popular radio show and sold lots of records to music fans of the era.
But it also turns out that he didn’t exactly write the song. It all happened back in the mid-1920s, when songwriter Maceo Pinkard asked the already popular bandleader to introduce his new song. It was such a big hit — the top-selling record for five weeks — that Pinkard also gave Bernie co-writing credit. (There was also a version with lyrics furnished by Kenneth Casey).
Ben Bernie would continue to enjoy great success well into the 1930s, not only on the radio but even showing up in a few movies. However, the ascension of modern swing bands would eventually put his kind of music into the rear-view mirror. Still, he continued to be popular with many fans, and was still active when he died in 1943 at just 52.