Hey all, Ernie here with a fresh piece from David Buck, who isn’t really a holiday guy, but can find something to appreciate about the guy who created one of the most iconic novelty holiday songs of all time.
Today in Tedium: Have you ever accidentally played back a 33⅓ RPM record back at 45 RPM and just cracked up at now crazy the singer sounds? Of course you have! Tape effects and other forms of audio manipulation have been part of the creative process since the early days of recording, later being used by such rock luminaries as Todd Rundgren and Frank Zappa. In the 1950s, however, a certain group of singing chipmunks hit it big with a certain Christmas song we’ve all heard at least once. This song would lead to a long, popular and amazing run of media based on these three chipmunks, all because of one guy. Today’s Tedium is about a guy named Ross Bagdasarian—whom you may know better as an angry voice belonging to David Seville. Aaaaaaaalvinnn! — David @ Tedium
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The year “The Chipmunk Song” peaked at #1 on the Billboard Charts. Following its release on Nov. 11 of that year, the song stayed on the charts for 13 weeks, remaining #1 for four of them. It also won three Grammys and was adapted into a short for The Alvin Show a few years later. This wasn’t the first time it would hit the charts, either. In 2007—the year the live-action version of Alvin & the Chipmunks was released—the earworm of a tune hit the charts again, almost half a century later. Performing as both David Seville and all three of the Chipmunks, Ross Bagdasarian began a musical journey that would last in one form or another for generations to come. Oh, and good luck getting the song out of your head!
The witch doctor taught him what to do
In 1957, Ross Bagdasarian had an idea. He’d had some bit parts in various films—a piano player in Rear Window, an officer in Viva Zapata, among others—but was struggling to make any waves in the world of songwriting. The story goes that Bagdasarian was down to his last $200 when he took a chance on purchasing a fancy tape recorder—one that could change the speed of the recording—for his songs. Playing around with the settings, he stumbled upon a technique that would change his life—something we here at Tedium like to call “The Bagdasarian Effect.”
The technique is simple—Bagdasarian recorded his own voice at half speed, then played it back normally. He didn’t just double the tape speed, he went the other direction! This technique was utilized on Bagdasarian’s “The Witch Doctor” along with another pre-Chipmunks recording, “Bird on my Head.”
Per a 1986 profile on The Dr. Demento Show, Bagdasarian chose the stage name David Seville based off of time he spent serving in the military in Spain. Though using the gimmick of speeding up one’s vocals wasn’t entirely original, he made it work. Dr. Demento puts it best when he says during that same profile that “It [playing back one’s voice at double speed] wasn’t entirely original, but it had never been used as effectively as on [the] hot single from 1958, ‘The Witch Doctor.’”
Later, Bagdasarian combined his studio magic from previous records into a new idea, cooking up the idea of Alvin & the Chipmunks. Next thing everyone knew, Alvin, Simon and Theodore (who owe their namesakes to three Liberty Records executives that Bagdasarian knew) were born and the rest is Christmas history.
“Alvin...ALVIN! Your wig is falling off…”
— A line from a rather amazing performance of “Twist & Shout” from the LP, The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles Hits. The album is a collection of Beatles songs performed in their unique, inimitable style and is one of several such LPs released between 1959 and 1968, during the time of the original Chipmunks recordings. Did we mention the Beatles/Chipmunks record won a Grammy?
David Seville, on the record
The runaway success of “The Chipmunk Song” seemed a golden opportunity for making more Chipmunks records. Several follow-up singles were released, exploring the trials and tribulations of David Seville as he attempts to raise his chipmunk children.
”Alvin’s Harmonica” arrived as a direct follow-up to the original “Chipmunk Song,” doing little to vary the style of the Chipmunks’ singing. The song did well on the Billboard charts—peaking at #3 in 1959—but was the last real chart success for Alvin and the Chipmunks. Perhaps because it sounds similar to its predecessor and doesn’t tread new territory, the song is destined to be one of the lesser known tunes from Alvin’s glory days. However, it did translate well to the small screen in the short-lived The Alvin Show and was not the last of the Chipmunks’ original songs.
In ”Alvin for President,” what begins as a basic melody with banal lyrics erupts into a full fledged campaign speech by none other than Alvin, seeking the office of the President. It’s hilariously irreverent and sort of lampoons an early 60s election, per the Dr. Demento profile. “Alvin’s Orchestra” sees Dave experiencing frustration and money woes over the expensive orchestra that the Chipmunks are misusing in probably one of the funniest, oft-overlooked Chipmunks songs.
”Japanese Banana” was an oddity in the Chipmunks ouvre, featuring a samisan player and some rather strange lyrics about cherries, rice and … well, bananas. It’s funny, but lacks the charm of previous Chipmunk originals. Then, there’s the magnificent “Alvin’s All-star Chipmunk Band,” consisting of a chorus of chipmunks singing a fun instrumental piece, resembling many of the Big Band era theme-songs popular around the time.
Later, albums began popping up, beginning with 1959’s Let’s all sing with the Chipmunks and followed by Sing Again with The Chipmunks and Around the World with The Chipmunks in 1960, The Alvin Show (1961), The Chipmunk Songbook (1962), two volumes of Christmas with The Chipmunks (1962 & 1963), The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles Hits (1964), The Chipmunks Sing with Children (1965), Chipmunks à Go-Go (1965), and 1969’s The Chipmunks Go to the Movies.
Though based around a gimmick, the songs themselves are of a high quality for the most part, something that Bagdasarian was adamant about. Per the April, 1963 issue of Billboard Magazine, Bagdasarian refused to allow shoddy merchandise—including his songs—to bear the faces of Alvin, Simon and Theodore.
Later albums like Chipmunk Punk (1980) and Urban Chipmunk (1981)—along with the 80s/90s cartoon version of the trio many of us probably grew up with—would come well after the original heyday of Alvin & the Chipmunks, but not before at least one television show made an effort to take Bagdasarian’s cartoon children into a visual medium.
The number of episodes in the original The Alvin Show cartoon from 1961. The show was a short-lived, animated version of exactly what we heard on the records. David Seville—the guardian of the three chipmunk children—writes and records songs while the Alvin, Simon and Theodore get into various shenanigans. Originally running on CBS from Oct. 1961 to Sep. 1962, the show was a prime time cartoon, slotted at 7:30 P.M. on Wednesday nights. With a smooth animation style, plenty of music, several segments and a family message, it seems like a fun show. Unfortunately, it was up against Wagon Train—one of the most popular westerns on television at the time—and it didn’t survive its first season. The Chipmunks wouldn’t return to television until 21 years later, in 1983.
Tedium’s four favorite David Seville songs that technically aren’t performed by tiny woodland creatures …
Full disclosure: there aren’t many David Seville songs that do not feature the Chipmunks in some way. However, there are quite a few places where the man behind our little rodent friends was responsible for some pretty amazing tunes. Here are a few of our favorites.
1. “Bird on my Head.” “I’m just sittin’ in a vacant lot, with a bird sittin’ on my head…” the song begins, followed by the lament of a “wicked, wicked, cruel cruel world.” The song is goofy, but poignant. Similar to “The Witch Doctor,” the bird in the song title is represented by the sped-up vocal while David Seville sings the main story.
2. “Witch Doctor.” Written by Thomas Kerry and performed by Ross as David Seville, this catchy tune is where everything began. The nonsense refrain of “Ooh Eeh Ooh Ah Ah Ting Tang Walla Walla Bing Bang” may sound crazy, but it was enough to rescue the struggling Liberty Records from an impending bankruptcy, in addition to leading Bagdasarian on the path to creating the ultra-successful Chipmunks.
3. “Come on-a my House.” A popular song, most notably performed by Rosemary Clooney in 1951, “Come on-a my House” was written by Ross Bagdasarian and author William Saroyan—who also happened to be Bagdasarian’s cousin—in 1939, though it wasn’t recorded for a full decade after. A version of the song exists where Bagdasarian sings lead, and it’s been covered too many times to successfully list. Above, you’ll find a fantastic cover version by the one and only Surf Punks, a band that carries the fun of the song quite aptly.
4. “The Trouble with Harry.” Released as single under the artist name Alfi & Harry, this song is a ton of jazz piano riffing by the titular Harry, underscored by an angry club owner yelling at him to play the right song. Bagdasarian shows off his voiceover chops—another primary aspect of the Chipmunks’ original songs—in this hilarious music skit.
“It was a one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people eater … what a sight to see!”
— Sheb Wooley, from his novelty hit “The Purple People Eater.” Though the song utilizes the same sped-up vocal technique as Bagdasarian’s work, it was actually written and performed by country singer Ben Colder under the name Sheb Wooley. The song is wedged firmly between Bagdasarian’s “Witch Doctor” and the mega hit “The Chipmunk Song” in 1958. What a year for wacky tape speeds!
Going nuts: The Chipmunks’ many imitators and parodies
Aside from a our purple people-eating friend up there, the Chipmunks were widely imitated, paid tribute and parodied.
Perhaps the best and most interesting parody of the Chipmunks were the jazz infused Nutty Squirrels. Releasing a singled entitle “Uh-Oh Parts 1 & 2,” in 1959, this group was essentially a jazz/swing version of The Chipmunks with an emphasis on scat singing.
Their eponymous album is a treasure trove of jazzy fun and worth a listen or three. Second only to the Nutty Squirrels are Shirley & Squirrelly, with their high-pitched hijinks lampooning the CB Radio craze of the 70s with “Hey Shirley, (this is Squirrelly)” from 1976.
Finally, it is perhaps worth mentioning Jonathan Coulton’s Thing-a-Week classic “Podsafe Christmas Song,” featuring sped up vocals of Adam Curry, CC Chapman, and Len and Nora from Jawbone, Jonathan’s instructions a la David Seville and plenty of singing in a loose parody/tribute of the Chipmunks classic, yearning for a Christmas song that’s safe to play on a podcast.
On a side note, I believe Coulton’s “Chiron Beta Prime” qualifies.
“Hey, what are you mice doing here? Mice? Who are you calling Mice? We’re Chipmunks!”
— An exchange between the always incorrigible Alvin and Canned Heat singer Bob Hine prior to the start of Canned Heat’s cover version of “The Chipmunk Song” from 1968. As label mates at Liberty Records, they apparently decided to collaborate on a bluesy, boogie-woogie, rocking interpretation of the 1958 classic. Of course, that didn’t mean it would see the light of day. Aside from a few airings on The Dr. Demento Show over the years, the song wasn’t really released until 2005.
Unfortunately, Ross Bagdasarian died suddenly in 1972 at the age of 52, effectively bringing an end to the original era of Alvin & the Chipmunks. His son, Ross Bagdasarian Jr., resurrected the Chipmunks in a big way with 1980’s Chipmunk Punk, eventually turning the franchise into a pop culture juggernaut.
Since taking over the franchise after his father’s passing, Bagdasarian Jr. saw to the continuation of the Chipmunks brand with merchandise, a second TV show, live action films, a cornucopia of albums spanning several genres and much, much more. The Chipmunks always seem to adapt and evolve with the times. That would probably explain why a Chipmunks version of “Uptown Funk” exists. But at the end of the day, the Chipmunks are still a musical group and more importantly, best known for a Christmas song.
Music is a strange thing, especially in the context of the holidays. Comedy and novelty holiday songs once stood as a part of the mainstream holiday celebration. Each year, Dr. Demento—the famous radio personality (now online) and purveyor of the “best comedy and novelty songs of all time” responsible for The Dr. Demento Show—dedicates at least three of his December shows to funny holiday and Christmas music. The funny thing is despite my love of the show, I almost always skip these. I’m just not into holiday music and I don’t really want a hula hoop.
Perhaps I’ll give it a shot this year though, starting with the music of David Seville.