Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Beyond the Chipmunks: The Secret Music of David Seville

Good old Dave Seville: an underrated musical talent.

"Aaaaaalllllviiiiiiiiin!!!" - DAVID SEVILLE

Depending on your age, you might associate that immortal utterance with any one of three possible David Sevilles.

Let's see now. The original Mr. Seville was songwriter and occasional actor Ross Bagdasarian (1919-1972), who took his stage name from Seville, Spain, where he was stationed while in the Army. After struggling for years to make it in the music business, Seville finally hit the big time in 1958 with a novelty hit called "Witch Doctor" whose famous chorus ("Ooh-ee-ooh-ah-ah!") utilized the sped-up voice gimmick which would become his trademark. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bagdasarian recorded a string of albums and singles as Alvin and the Chipmunks, playing the short-tempered "David Seville" character as well as providing the voices for all three Chipmunks. Banking on the popularity of those records, the original 'munks has their own prime time animated show called The Alvin Show.

In the 1980s, long after his dad had passed away, Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. redubbed himself "David Seville, Jr." and revived the Chipmunks franchise, first through albums like Chipmunk Punk and Urban Chipmunk and then with an all-new Chipmunks Saturday morning cartoon show, which in turn spawned an animated feature film and several straight-to-video sequels. More recently (2007-2009), of course, the singing rodents have starred in two big-budget, live-action/CGI movies with Jason Lee as David Seville. These were enormous box office successes and spawned hit soundtrack albums, too, so the franchise appears to have a bright future.

As a child of the 1980s, I suppose I should be loyal to that second incarnation of the Chipmunks, i.e. the Saturday morning one with the Chipettes and the kinder, gentler Dave. But for me, the only true incarnation of the group was the original one from the 1950s. When I was very young, my mother gave me and my sister her old Chipmunks records, which we played over and over again on our trusty Fisher Price record player.

 In the early days, the Chipmunks didn't just do squeaky-voiced cover versions of Top 40 hits. They actually recorded a whole range of material, much of it original. More importantly, the character of David Seville was much darker and angrier in those days. Whereas the 1980s Dave wore pastel sweaters and was prone to saying things like, "Gosh, I'm really disappointed in you boys," the 1950s Dave was a seething hothead with a potential violent streak. You got the feeling he might seriously harm Alvin someday, which certainly lent the records a sense of urgency. When it came time to cast the Chipmunks movie, my choice for David Seville was not the affable Jason Lee (My Name is Earl) but instead the edgy, unpredictable Edward Norton (Fight Club):

To me, the original David Seville has never really gotten the respect he deserves for his music. The original Chipmunks records were always exceptionally well-produced and lovingly arranged. (Did you know that the 'munks were among the first acts to record in stereo? It's true!) Besides the songs you probably already know ("The Chipmunk Song," "Alvin's Harmonica"), there are any number of hidden gems in the group's back catalog, from oddities like "Japanese Banana" to a rousing "rock and roll" rendition of "Whistle While You Work." And let's not forget the group's self-deprecating 1968 remake of its signature hit with Canned Heat.

But perhaps even better than those are David Seville's non-Chipmunks songs. Oh yes, reader, they exist. Do they ever! The Chipmunks' original 45 RPM singles, you see, contained B-sides that were credited to The Music of David Seville. These were usually upbeat pop-jazz instrumentals, and it was here that David Seville really got to let loose and have fun, banging away on a tinny upright piano to a throbbing, insistent drumbeat. Never one to be egotistical, Bagdasarian gave these songs very humble titles to let you know that he didn't consider himself a musical genius. But that doesn't stop these songs from being a complete blast. Here, have a listen!

"Almost Good"
(b-side of "The Chipmunk Song")


(b-side of "Alvin's Harmonica")

"Flip Side"
(b-side of "Ragtime Cowboy Joe")

In a just world, "Flip Side" would have been sampled on a half dozen hip-hop records by now instead of languishing in obscurity. Maybe this blog post will turn the tide. Who knows? But these tunes are just the beginning of the story. Dig around a little on YouTube, and you'll find all kinds of David Seville arcana, from a song called "Copyright 1960" (that's the title!) to a Beatles parody called "Yeah, Yeah" by The Bedbugs.

And of course, no discussion of Ross Bagdasarian's non-Chipmunks music would be complete without mention of "Come On-A My House." Ross wrote this bizarre uptempo novelty tune in the early 1950s with his cousin, respected dramatist William Saroyan! (Again, crazy but true!) Rosemary Clooney had a smash hit with the song in 1951, and I'll leave you with that. In this clip, Dave himself gives Rosemary instructions on how to sing it.