Monday, December 17, 2007

The Bio of Seville

My reference to "Witch Doctor" in the previous post resulted in a reader asserting that his copy of that single credits the Chipmunks with performing on it. So in order to clear up that confusion, and while I gather my thoughts about the death of Dan Fogelberg, I'd like to take a look back at the career of David Seville, with and without the Chipmunks, to clarify what exactly went on back then.

Seville (whose government name was Ross Bagdasarian) had had some success as an actor and songwriter before the Chipmunk era began. He was the cousin of the playwright William Saroyan, and appeared in the Broadway version of Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life." (He also had a bit part as a piano player in Rear Window.) While the show was on tour in 1939, Seville (then just 20 years old) and Saroyan wrote a song together called "Come On-a My House," which turned into a huge hit for Rosemary Clooney in 1951.

Seville was messing around with a tape recorder in 1958 when he came up with the technique of singing very slowly, then playing the tape back at hyperspeed to create a vocal that was extremely high-pitched but proceeded at a normal pace. This was how he created "Witch Doctor," which, remember, featured Seville's normal voice on the verses but had the squeaky-voiced witch doctor sing the chorus. It was credited solely to David Seville; there was no mention of a chipmunk anywhere.

But "Witch Doctor" was huge, going to Number One (it even went to Number One on the R&B charts) in the spring of 1958 (in the new movie, Seville's house number - prominently displayed in several shots - is 1958), so Seville came up with the concept of the Chipmunks, cut their famous Christmas song, and they were off to the races. (Simon, by the way, was named after the father of future record-company honcho Lenny Waronker.) The Chipmunks phenomenon has lasted, as we've seen, unto this very day.

In 1960, when Seville was making the Chipmunks' second album, Sing Again With the Chipmunks, he re-recorded "Witch Doctor," this time crediting it to Alvin and the Chipmunks. This version of "Witch Doctor" was released as a single - probably the same single the commenter later owned - but it failed to reach the Top Forty. (I haven't been able to find out if it charted at all.) The Chipminks did have five other Top Forty singles after "The Chipmunks Song," including "The Alvin Twist," and their signature record also squeaked into the Top Forty two more times.

Ross Bagdasarian died in 1972, at the age of 53, but his son carried on the Chipmunks tradition as they successfully moved into Saturday morning cartoonland. Bagdasarian Jr. doesn't have anything to do with the new Chipmunks film, though, other than presumably pocketing a ton of the old do-re-mi.


Anonymous said...

Well, clearly, you've shown me to be incorrect, thereby destroying many other nice memories of my childhood, which I now realize was a grim and even dangerous time, what with Dad's "special morning drinks" and Mom's syringes (which, until you messed with my David Seville recollection, I had recalled as adorable Hummel figurines).

It's a long sentence, but not a run-on.

T. Nawrocki said...

Thus, it's a perfect addition to OPC. Salut!