Ross Bagdasarian, Sr.
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|Ross Bagdasarian, Sr.|
|Born||Rostom Sipan Bagdasarian
January 27, 1919
|Died||January 16, 1972
Beverly Hills, California,
Cause of death
|Other names||David Seville|
|Occupation||Actor, singer, songwriter, record producer|
|Family||Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. (son)|
Rostom Sipan "Ross" Bagdasarian (January 27, 1919 – January 16, 1972) was an American pianist, singer, songwriter, actor and record producer of Armenian descent. He was better known by the stage name David Seville. Bagdasarian was the creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Life and career
Bagdasarian was born in Fresno, California, the youngest child of Dick and Virginia (Saroyan) Bagdasarian, Armenian immigrants from the Ottoman Empire. He enlisted in the United States Army one month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and served until the end of World War II.
Bagdasarian performed in the Broadway cast of The Time of Your Life, written by his famous cousin, William Saroyan. Bagdasarian's first musical success was the song he wrote with Saroyan, "Come on-a My House", recorded by Rosemary Clooney in 1951. The lyrics are based on dialogue from Saroyan's novel The Human Comedy. They wrote the song on the post-Broadway tour bus of The Time of Your Life in 1939, and recorded it under their own names as a duet (Saroyan speaking the narrative, Bagdasarian delivering the lyrics in dialect) for Coral Records. ("Come on-a My House" inspired an answer record, "Where's-a Your House?" by Robert Q. Lewis.)
Bagdasarian played minor roles in films, the best known of which is his appearance in Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 murder mystery Rear Window. Bagdasarian portrays a piano-playing songwriter who composes, plays, and sings the song "Lisa". His character lives in an apartment opposite the protagonist's; in keeping with the screenplay's theme of social voyeurism, his dialogue is never clearly heard, and he appears only in long shots, sometimes seen through a window. He stands next to Hitchcock in his signature cameo appearance. Bagdasarian had small parts in The Greatest Show on Earth, Viva Zapata!, Destination Gobi, Stalag 17, Alaska Seas, The Proud and Profane, Three Violent People, Hot Blood, The Deep Six, and The Devil's Hairpin.
In 1956, Bagdasarian had a moderate hit as "Alfi and Harry" with a novelty record "The Trouble with Harry", the same title as Alfred Hitchcock's comedy-thriller that year. He wrote The Ballad of Colin Black, a tie-in song to The Proud and Profane. According to Ross Bagdasarian, Jr., his father was down to his last $200 when 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 Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" with The Chipmunks, for which he won two Grammy Awards in 1959: Best Comedy Performance and Best Recording for Children. Bagdasarian named the three Chipmunk characters after record executives: Simon Waronker, Ted Keep (Theodore), and Alvin Bennett.
Most consumer tape recorders of the day had changeable speeds, but usually only in simple binary 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. (Walt Disney used half-speed recording for his Chip 'n Dale cartoon characters, making the extremely fast dialogue difficult to understand. As a result, dialog recorded at that speed had to consist of very short phrases.) 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.) Despite claims that Bagdasarian employed female background singers and used less speed manipulation on later recordings, examination of recordings as late as the Canned Heat "Chipmunk Song" spoof in 1968 proves he was still performing the voices himself. Playing a 45 rpm record at 33 1/3 as some have recommended does not sufficiently lower the pitch; it must be played at one-half normal speed, either by transferring to tape or playing a 33 1/3 LP at the 16 2/3 speed still found on some older turntables. (The later Chipmunk records produced by his son do employ studio background singers, usually male; the Chipettes however are usually sung by female vocalists.)
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 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. (Even a Chipmunk album of punk and new wave songs was released in the 1980s by Ross Jr.)
Other trick-recording producers tried to imitate Seville's Chipmunks, with usually embarrassing results for lack of good comedy writing and weak characterization. A failed novelty single by "Shirley and Squirrelly" is a good example. Wynecote Records attempted to cash in on both the Chipmunks and Beatlemania in 1964 with an LP dubbed A Hard Day's Night, and Others by the Four Chipmunks (SW-9037) but later were forced to change the artist credit to the more generic "Wynecote Squirrels".
Ray Stevens had somewhat better luck using similar speed-varying techniques on some of his novelty records, particularly his "Bridget the Midget" song from 1970 which hit the Top-5 in the United Kingdom in early 1971, as did Sheb Wooley with his "Purple People Eater" single in the late 1950s. Other novelty recording artists experimented with similar speed tricks—Buddy Holly recorded a Chipmunk-styled version of Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'" for his own amusement, and his slow vocal was later released commercially—but none came close to the longevity of Bagdasarian's strongly-defined Chipmunk characters, Simon, Theodore, and the trouble-making Alvin.
The Chipmunks' recordings had the performers often labeled as "David Seville and the Chipmunks" and the composer typically listed as "Bagdasarian." Bagdasarian's last album was The Chipmunks Go to the Movies, released in 1969, almost three years before his death.
Ross Sr. was found dead of a heart attack on January 16, 1972, eleven days before his 53rd birthday; he was cremated at the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles, California. His ashes were moved later by his son, Ross Bagdasarian, Jr.
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."
The 2007 film Alvin and the Chipmunks was dedicated to his memory. A title card shown in the middle of the end credits reads "This film is dedicated to Ross Bagdasarian Sr., who was crazy enough to invent three singing chipmunks nearly fifty years ago".
Discography (Without the Chipmunks)
Songs recorded under the name "Ross Bagdasarian", unless otherwise noted:
- "Oh Beauty/Come On-A My House" (1951 Coral 60544; recorded under the name "William Saroyan & Ross Bagdasarian")
- "The Girl With The Tambourine/He Say Mu-Humm" (1951 Coral 60597)
- "Hey Brother Pour The Wine/Let's Have A Merry Merry Christmas" (1953 Mercury 70254)
- "Lucy Lucy/Scallywags & Sinners" (1963 Liberty 55619)
- "The Bold & Brave/See A Teardrop Fall" (1956 Liberty 55013)
- "Judy/Maria From Madrid" (1959 Liberty 55193)
- "Lotta Bull/??" (1959 Liberty 55239)
- "Lazy Lovers/One Finger Waltz" (1960 Liberty 55276)
- "Armen's Theme/Russian Roulette" (1962 Liberty 55462)
- "Cecelia/Gotta Get To Your House" (1963 Liberty 55557)
- "Lucy, Lucy/Scalliwags And Sinners (1963 Liberty 55619)
- "La Noche/Naval Maneuver" (1965 Liberty 55810)
- "Come On -A My House/Gotta Get To Your House" (1965 Liberty 55837)
- "Walking Birds Of Carnaby/Red Wine" (1967 Liberty 56004)
- "Yalla/Naval Maneuver" (1968 Liberty 56043)
- "When I Look Into Your Eyes/Sands Of Time" (1968 Liberty 56048)
- "Jone-Cone-Phone/Spanish Pizza" (1969 Imperial 66379)
- "You've Got Me A Merry-Go-Round/You Better Open Your Eyes" (1969 Imperial 66414)
- "I Treasure Thee/Lie, Lie" (1970 Liberty 56165)
Songs recorded under the name "David Seville", unless otherwise noted. For a look at The Chipmunks' discography, refer to the Alvin and the Chipmunks discography page.
- "The Trouble with Harry/Little Beauty" (1955 Liberty 55008; recorded under the name "Alfi & Harry")
- "The Word Game Song/Persian on Excursion" (1956 Liberty 55016; recorded under the name "Alfi & Harry")
- "Armen's Theme/Carousel in Rome (1956 Liberty 55041)
- "The Donkey and the Schoolboy"/"The Gift" (1957 Liberty 55055)
- "Safari/Closing Time" (1957 Liberty 55066; recorded under the name "Alfi & Harry")
- "Gotta Get to Your House/Camel Rock" (1957 Liberty 55079)
- "Pretty Dark Eyes/Cecelia" (1957 Liberty 55105)
- "Baghdad Express/Starlight, Starbright" (1957 Liberty 55113)
- "Bonjour Tristesse"/"Dance from Bonjour Tristesse" (1958 Liberty 55124)
- "Witch Doctor/Don't Whistle at Me, Baby" (1958 Liberty 55132)
- "The Bird on my Head/Hey There Moon" (1958 Liberty 55140)
- "Little Brass Band/Take Five" (1958 Liberty 55153)
- "The Mountain/Mr. Grape" (1958 Liberty 55163)
- "Witch Doctor/Swanee River" (1960 Liberty 55272)
- "Oh, Judge, Your Honor, Dear Sir, Sweetheart/Freddy, Freddy" (1961 Liberty 55314)
- "Yeah Yeah/Lucy Lucy" (1964 Liberty 55679, recorded under the name "The Bedbugs")
- "The Song of Bruce and Dutch"/"I Remember Dillinger" (1968 Liberty 56041; recorded under the name "Bruce & Dutch")
The Music of David Seville (1957 Liberty 3073)
The Witch Doctor Presents: David Seville...and his Friends (1958 Liberty 3092)
The Mixed-up World of Bagdasarian (1966 Liberty 7451; recorded under David Seville's real name, Ross Bagdasarian)
A Summer Day's Delight (Circa 1970, Ross Bagdasarian Productions RB-1; recorded as Ross Bagdasarian, privately released in small quantities)
- US Census, Fresno, California, Enumeration 10-46 District, Supervisor's District 11, Sheet 4A
- "David Seville and the Chipmunks". Tom Simon. April 20, 2000. Retrieved December 14, 2010.
- "Alvin and the Chipmunks: It all began in 1958...". Bagdasarian Productions, LLC. 2009. Retrieved December 14, 2010.
- Pearson, Ryan (December 14, 2007). "The Chipmunks have a very close family". The Providence Journal. AP. Retrieved December 14, 2010.
- Ross Bagdasarian at the Internet Movie Database
- Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. at AllMovie
- History area on TheChipmunks.com with some photos and stories about Ross Bagdasarian
- Allmusic Entry
- David Seville Review at Rockabilly