Alvin and The Chipmunks Revisited
Go to a show or festival these days that feature folk or Americana music and it seems that you can always find a group of people off in the corner who are enjoying a lively discussion about one of the most underrated groups of our generation. A band easily waved off for their lightweight and childlike humour, and a band that was simply an animated fabrication of a man named Russ Bagdasarian Jr. And while those of you might argue that it was David Seville that brought these characters to life, the two men are one and the same.
Before you run off thinking that this is another of one my attempts at humour or sarcasm, let me educate you a bit on the backdrop of the times…and how we got to this place. And yes…maybe it’s a stretch that many folkies or Americana fans might give the Chipmunks musc much of a thought other than dragging their grandkids to see the latest movies, but I would argue that they are an American institution with a cultural significance to this American root music community. After all, has this band ever done anything that would jeopardize their credibility and is not their music and performance etched into out collective memories to the point where it becomes an unspoken yardstick of both popularity, quality and creation?
Here’s some background:
-Russ Bagdasarian performed in the Broadway cast of The Time of Your Life, written by his famous cousin, William Saroyan.
– His first musical success was the song he wrote with Saroyan, “Come On-A My House” recorded by Rosemary Clooney in 1951.
-Picking up minor acting parts, he was in Hitchcocks’ Rear Window. He also had parts in The Greatest Show On Earth, Stalag 17, Viva Zappata! and Three Violent People to name a few.
-In 1956, Bagdasarian had a moderate hit recorded under the alias “Alfi and Harry” with a novelty record “The Trouble With Harry” , the same title as Alfred Hitchcock’s comedy-thriller that year.
From Wikipedia: Down to his last $200, he spent $190 on a V-M tape recorder that would let him vary the tape speed. As “David Seville”, Bagdasarian had a number-one hit in the summer of 1958 with “Witch Doctor” which was his first experiment with speeding an audio track to get a distinctive, squeaky, high-pitched voice. He followed this with “The Bird On My Head”, which barely made the Top 40. Then for the 1958 Christmas season came “The Christmas Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” with The Chipmunks, for which he won two Grammy Awards in 1959: Best Comedy Recording and Best Recording For Children.
Bagdasarian named the three Chipmunk characters after record executives: Simon Waronker, Ted (Theodore Keep) and Alvin Bennett. (Simon’s son went on to be a successful produce and become the longtime president of Warner Bros. Records; and his grandson played drums with REM’s latter lineup).
More Wikipedia: Most consumer tape recorders of the day had changeable speeds, but usually only in simple multiples, doubling or halving the speed, creating sounds an octave apart. Changing speeds of voices in these limited multiples creates extremely high or low pitches that sound too extreme for most purposes. For his professional releases, Bagdasarian’s main recording innovation was to use tape machines that could vary speeds in between these extreme octaves, creating more understandable and thus emotionally accessible voices that worked well for both singing and spoken dialogue.
The first Chipmunk record, “The Chipmunk Song”, had Bagdasarian doing all the voices. (The spoken coda, when played slowly, reveals Bagdasarian enacting the roles of Theodore, Simon, and Alvin.) Thereafter, most of his Chipmunk records used female voice artists, recorded only about 1/4 slower than the normal playback speed. (Play one of his 45 records at 33 RPM and the original female voices emerge.).
After the success of “The Chipmunk Song”, a series of follow-up hit singles were quickly released, also on Liberty Records. “Alvin’s Harmonica” was the second, “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” the third and “Alvin’s Orchestra” the fourth, with B-sides (like “Mediocre” and “Almost Good”) sometimes featuring non-chipmunk semi-comedic concepts. Albums also continued this trend, the first album being released on red vinyl, successfully continuing well into the 60s with an album of the Chipmunks singing various early hits of the Beatles in 1964. [In the eighties, punk and new wave anthologies were released. Ed.]
Bagdasarian was found dead on January 16, 1972, eleven days before his 53rd birthday. All Chipmunk activity ceased until 1979, when Ross Jr began releasing Chipmunks recordings. He also became the voice for “David Seville and the Chipmunks”, except for those performed by Ross Jr.’s wife, Janice Karman (such as Theodore and all of The Chipettes). Ross Jr. said he was surprised to find himself following in his father’s footsteps. “I revered my dad, but I didn’t want to do what he had done. That was his creation. Had he remained alive, I never would have done this. But when he passed away suddenly, it was a way of keeping my dad alive, and keeping what he created alive.”