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October 11, 2009 12:30 AM   Subscribe

The Origin of The Chipmunks. "Ross Bagdasarian Sr. (who went by the stage name "David Seville") was an actor who appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window and on Broadway in William Saroyan's Time of Your Life. He wrote novelty dialect songs, including Rosemary Clooney's huge hit "Come On-A My House", and released a few records but his successes never seemed to result in very much money in his pocket. He bought a tape recorder with his last $200 and played around with shifting the speeds, coming up with a novelty song titled "Witch Doctor". He got the single released and two weeks later, he found himself appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show performing the song. The success of "Witch Doctor" gave him the idea of creating characters with sped up voices, so he quickly knocked out a Christmas demo titled "The Chipmunk Song" and took it to record executives Simon "Sy" Waronker, Theodore "Ted" Keep and Alvin "Al" Bennett at Liberty Records."

Chipmunks through the years:

1960s: The Alvin Show (including "The Witch Doctor" with the boys)
1980s: Alvin and the Chipmunks TV show, The Chipmunk Adventure (with the all-time sneeringest villains Claudia and Klaus)
2000s: Alvin and the Chipmunks live action/CGI movie
posted by ocherdraco (39 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Neglected some links: Come On-A My House sung by Bagdasarian (and by Rosemary Clooney).
posted by ocherdraco at 12:34 AM on October 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


And once again, Clyde Crashcup (the only non-Chipmunk feature in the 1960's Alvin Show) is forgotten. Of course, the fact that he was the genius inventor of things that had already been invented (including the Telephone, the Bed, Baseball, Birthday Parties, Electricity, the Shoe and even the Wife) makes him the precursor to today's patent poachers...
posted by evilmidnightbomberwhatbombsatmidnight at 1:29 AM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Every once in a while, when I'm out drinking with friends who are familiar with avant-garde and experimental music, I try to push a fake history of the Chipmunks. In this alternate history, Bagdasarian was inspired by the work of the Musique Concrète composers to create his tape-manipulated children's songs. Alvin, in fact, was named in honor of his friend and colleague, Alvin Lucier.

They buy it every time. If only "I Am Sitting in a Room" had been recorded ten years earlier than it actually was recorded, they might continue to buy it once they got home, sobered up, and checked Wikipedia.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:16 AM on October 11, 2009 [8 favorites]


And once again, Clyde Crashcup (the only non-Chipmunk feature in the 1960's Alvin Show) is forgotten.

Ahem...

In his youth, Bagdasarian would take road trips across country with his cousin William Saroyan, singing songs and coming up with wild stories the whole way. One eccentric character they came up with on one of these trips was Clyde Crashcup, an inventor who only invented things that had already been invented. Salkin expanded on the premise and created a regular feature for it on the show...

and

The voice cast included Bagdasarian as David Seville and the Chipmunks and Shepherd Menken as Clyde Crashcup.


As someone who is about the same age as the Chipmunks I thought it was interesting how they evolved from more realistic drawings on the first records to the caricatures we are all familiar with. Also I just now realized they hit the scene about the time my parents got married and I need to have a talk with my mother about the inspiration for my name.
posted by TedW at 2:38 AM on October 11, 2009 [5 favorites]


Patton Oswald on playing the Chipmunk record at slow speed, revealing a bunch of monotone guys singing a bad song and a demon from hell ...
posted by outlier at 3:26 AM on October 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


The Bagdasarian & Saroyan "Come on-a My House" with the intro verse is a revelation. I suppose it was Mitch Miller's stroke of brilliance, though, to do the piano part with a harpsichord that made the Rosemary Clooney version a hit. Miller was a great producer whose deep and abiding hatred of rock 'n' roll was well-justified, considering how thoroughly it obliterated the rich world of mainstream pop he did so well. Wonderful post, ocherdraco.
posted by Faze at 3:30 AM on October 11, 2009


In the 1987 movie "The Chipmunk Adventure," there is a scene where the house keeper is singing "Come on-a My House" while cooking. Must have been a subtle reference to their creator.
posted by Brodiggitty at 4:59 AM on October 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Wasn't there "prior art" with Purple People Eater?
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:27 AM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


That YouTube clip of the 1980s Chipmunk movie instantly flooded me with nostalgia. My little sister and I watched it on VHS thousands of times. I didn't know that I remembered the opening score, but as soon as those bouncy strings started up, I was humming along like I had never given up my unhealthy obsession.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 6:20 AM on October 11, 2009


it was Mitch Miller's stroke of brilliance, though, to do the piano part with a harpsichord that made the Rosemary Clooney version a hit.

I'm not sure it's the harpsichord that made the Clooney version a hit. The first version is just a cute little Italian-accent novelty tune, but Clooney's is dripping with sex. She might as well be singing I'm gonna give-a you blow jobs.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 6:23 AM on October 11, 2009 [5 favorites]


From this post of mine a few years ago: You can hear the slowed down versions of the Chipmunks songs here.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 6:25 AM on October 11, 2009 [4 favorites]


I like The Chipmunks, but I love jazz, and so I prefer The Nutty Squirrels.
posted by box at 6:54 AM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Brodiggitty I was just thinking the same thing. Miss Miller even looks a little like Clooney. I love those "ah-ha!" moments. :)
posted by czechmate at 7:06 AM on October 11, 2009


He wrote novelty dialect songs...

A niche I never thought of there being enough demand for someone to actually specialize in.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 7:19 AM on October 11, 2009


I own "the Chipmonks Sing the Beatles" on vinyl, and until it broke, a cassette of them doing songs like "Eye of the Tiger."

i don't know why I am compelled to share that with the inter tubes, but I am.
posted by cccorlew at 7:23 AM on October 11, 2009


He wrote novelty dialect songs...

A niche I never thought of there being enough demand for someone to actually specialize in.


They were definitely on the way out by the time Bagdasarian came on the scene, but a few decades earlier, novelty dialect songs were a huge part of pop music. From a great article about "Yiddish" songs:

Tin Pan Alley’s overwhelming obsession was ethnic pastiche, a reflection of public fascination with (and anxiety about) the millions of foreign immigrants and southern black migrants who had streamed into American cities around the turn of the century. There were the ubiquitous coon songs (“All Coons Look Alike to Me,” “The Phrenologist Coon”), Italian songs (“Wop! Wop! Wop!”), Irish songs (“H-A-Double R-I-G-A-N”), Indian songs (“My Little Hindoo Belle”) and endless admixtures and miscegenation fantasies, songs like “When Tony Macaroni Marries Chinky Chanky Lee.” One of the great audio documents from the period is a 1913 Al Jolson recording of “The Spaniard That Blighted My Life,” a plaint about a “sly Spaniard” who has seduced the narrator’s girlfriend. Jolson, a Jew, would perform it on the vaudeville stage in blackface, singing in an upper-crust English accent over ersatz-Spanish music spiced with guitars and castanets — melting-pot pop at its most baroque.
posted by neroli at 8:01 AM on October 11, 2009 [6 favorites]


Parodied here in Chubby Checker's 1959 recording, The Class (at 1:45, but don't miss the Elvis impersonator earlier in the song).
posted by The White Hat at 8:34 AM on October 11, 2009


I had a little three speed turntable as a kid. (The kind in a heavy wooden case, covered with vinyl and chrome.) I also had the Chipmunk Song as a 45(RPM). I don't remember, but my mother took great pleasure in telling others about my playing the record (for days at a time) and boosting the speed to 78 so they would sind "really fast".
Get off my lawn.
Yeah, you just wait. It's no fun getting old. There goes my lumbago.

posted by Drasher at 9:04 AM on October 11, 2009


Lest us not forget Chipmunk Punk, the New Wave album from 1980 (and my favorite album in my 1st grade classroom).

Side one

1. "Let's Go" (R. Ocasek) – 3:35
2. "Good Girls Don't" (D. Feiger) – 3:13
3. "How Do I Make You...?" (B. Steinberg) – 2:23
4. "Refugee" (T. Petty/M. Campbell) – 3:07
5. "Frustrated" (D. Fieger/B. Averre) – 2:54
* contains an unlisted excerpt from "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" (M. Jagger/K. Richards).

[edit] Side two

1. "Call Me" (D. Harry/G. Moroder) – 3:11
2. "You May Be Right" (W. M. Joel) – 4:03
3. "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" (F. Mercury) – 2:39

* —this track was extended to – 2:47 on the CD

4. "My Sharona" (D. Fieger/B. Averre) – 4:03
posted by k8t at 9:05 AM on October 11, 2009


Also, go Armenians. ;)
posted by k8t at 9:06 AM on October 11, 2009


Great post! I'm always curious to hear the story of how animation icons go from an idea to a design everyone's familiar with. The "realistic" depictions of Alvin, Simon & Theodore on those first record covers are especially interesting.

I was too young to have remembered this, but I have it on good authority from my mother that my brothers and I once wore out a tape of The Christmas Song by insisting she replay it over and over.
posted by EatTheWeak at 9:13 AM on October 11, 2009


My main interaction with The Chipmunks was their classic 80s album Urban Chipmunk, which utterly destroyed "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up..." for me during the impressionable years of my youth. (music blog link) I even had the poster, which was a take-off on the poster included in the Urban Cowboy soundtrack album, on my door for some time.

also, previously mentioned Voice Farm does a cover of Come On A My House.
posted by hippybear at 10:18 AM on October 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also, go Armenians. ;)
At the end of each Alvin show, the letters spelling "Bagdasarian" dropped down one at a time in the production tag. I finally asked my Dad one day when I was a kid "what does 'bag-dass-a-ree-in' mean?" He told me that that was David Seville's real last name. I was probably only in kindergarten at the time, and didn't understand what he meant by "real name." His name was David Seville, of course! Dad must've been mistaken.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:20 AM on October 11, 2009


If anyone's got a copy of that original Come-On-A my house record (Coral 60544), I will pay you for a copy of the B-side. My mom's record broke 5 years ago during a move and she's been searching for it ever since.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:31 AM on October 11, 2009


Fuck Ross Bagdasarian Sr. then.
posted by Scoo at 10:33 AM on October 11, 2009


Don't forget this homage to the chipmunks, Indian Chipmunks.
posted by gudrun at 11:17 AM on October 11, 2009


My first exposure to the Chipmunks was the Saturday morning cartoon from the early 80s, which sucked. It was really, phenomenally bad. And then, 25 years later, someone got the brilliant idea to make it even worse by creating 3D CGI chipmunks, singing contemporary pop songs. Not even Jason Lee was able to rescue this film.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:13 PM on October 11, 2009


Those Chipmunks were no Pinky and Perky
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:47 PM on October 11, 2009


Marisa: Agreed in general, although there was something fascinating about how it tried to connect the fundamental weirdness of the Chipmunk milieu.

The original cartoons didn't think much about the setting beyond being an animated version of the novelty song. The backstory of Dave Seville and the Chipmunks is left, appropriately, in the listener's mind. That backstory being "Wait, this grown man is hanging around with chipmunks? Who seem to be like his children? And has organized them into a singing group? In what way is this normal?" Although Alvin, Simon and Theodore may cause their share of mischief, really the strangest of the group, by far, has to be Dave.

The 80s cartoon show took the subtext and made it text, giving the chipmunks a room and making them out to be like kids. It glossed over the darker side of the situation, but still played upon it somewhat when the Chipettes came into view, who had a less friendly manager/parent.

There is an episode of Bakshi's New Adventures of Mighty Mouse that plays off all this strangeness. Pretty funny.
posted by JHarris at 2:01 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Man. I watched The Chipmunk Adventure movie more times than was probably healthy for a small child. And I still think it's awesome.

However, I am downright disturbed by the idea of setting a clip montage to Kelly Clarkson's "Breakaway." What the hell, people?
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 2:36 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Some youtubestalgia for k8t and the kurious:
Side One
1. "Let's Go" (R. Ocasek) – 3:35
2. "Good Girls Don't" (D. Feiger) – 3:13
3. "How Do I Make You...?" (B. Steinberg) – 2:23
4. "Refugee" (T. Petty/M. Campbell) – 3:07
5. "Frustrated" (D. Fieger/B. Averre) – 2:54
* contains an unlisted excerpt from "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" (M. Jagger/K. Richards).
Side two
1. "Call Me" (D. Harry/G. Moroder) – 3:11
2. "You May Be Right" (W. M. Joel) – 4:03
3. "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" (F. Mercury) – 2:39

* —this track was extended to – 2:47 on the CD

4. "My Sharona" (D. Fieger/B. Averre) – 4:03
Audio quality is a little... rough.
posted by Decimask at 6:27 PM on October 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also, I was really hoping Let's Go would be a Ramones cover. Alas.
posted by Decimask at 6:36 PM on October 11, 2009


Not to mention Mitch Miller being one of the premier oboists of the century.
posted by carping demon at 9:22 PM on October 11, 2009


Patton Oswald on playing the Chipmunk record at slow speed, revealing a bunch of monotone guys singing a bad song and a demon from hell ...

This is literally how I found out that at least one of the Chipmunks was actually Dave. Awesome.
posted by dirigibleman at 10:02 PM on October 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


This may well be my only chance to do this on MeFi:

Ooh eeh, ooh ahah, ting tang wallawallabingbang!
posted by tommasz at 8:59 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ursula 1000, Come On-A My House

(The video sucks--it's not even a video, really, but the tune is a hoot, and Horace isn't wrong about the sexy hey-hey.)
posted by Skot at 9:31 AM on October 12, 2009


Was curious about the old time ethnic pastiche songs mentioned in neroli's comment. Googled a few to hear what they sounded like:

Hindoo Man

Mr Wu is a Window Cleaner Now

May Irwin's "Bully Song" from "The Widow Jones" (with some educational reading in the right index box). More about "Parlor Songs", Coon Songs, Racial Stereotypes in American Popular Song.

The Spaniard That Blighted My Life
posted by nickyskye at 9:51 AM on October 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


Personal anecdote: The cousin of Ross Bagdasarian was an author, named William Saroyan, both Armenians living in the Los Angeles area in the 1950's. William Saroyan married a friend of my mother's, Carol Saroyan (later Carol Matthau), who was my godmother.

In the mid and late 1950's my parents lived in South Africa and in the tribal lands of what was then called Bechuanaland (now Botswana), where my dad was doing geological work. On a trip from South Africa to visit my grandmother in LA in 1958, my mother brought a "witch doctor bag", a Zulu shaman's medicine pouch she bought on her travels full of odd things, like a hollow brass penis cover (?). My parents hung out with Ross Bagdasarian at that time in LA and I remember playing with his sons. I wonder now if Ross Bagdasarian wrote the Witch Doctor song partly inspired by that Zulu shaman's pouch.
posted by nickyskye at 11:09 AM on October 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


I don't recall where I heard a "natural speed" version of the Chipmunks doing "Hula Hoop" but it kind of scarred me. There was something sad sounding about the three guys very slowly and succinctly singing the lyrics, visions of grown men hacking out a living in this fashion. Also, Dave bellowing "Alvin" at reduced speed was somewhat horrific.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 11:34 AM on October 12, 2009


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