Born Rostom Sipan Bagdasarian, 27 January 1919, Fresno, California
Singer / songwriter / pianist / producer / actor.
In 1958, David Seville scored two number one hits in the US. Both were novelties, based on the then innovative idea of recording at half speed and playing the tape back at full speed, thus creating a squeaky, child-like voice.
The son of an Armenian-born California grape farmer, Ross Bagdasarian entered show business as a struggling actor. At age 19 he left for New York to appear in his cousin William Saroyan’s play "The Time Of Your Life". As an actor, Bagdasarian would later play small roles in such films as Billy Wilder’s "Stalag 17" (1953) and Alfred Hitchcock’s "Rear Window" (1954).
After serving in the US Air Force for almost four years during World War II, Ross married a woman named Armen and settled in Los Angeles. Turning to songwriting, he had several early successes, most notably "Come On-A My House" (co-written with Saroyan), a million-selling number one by Rosemary Clooney in 1951. Initially he recorded under his own name (for Coral and Mercury), but after signing with the fledgling Liberty label in 1955, Bagdasarian changed his name to the more user- friendly David Seville. His first Liberty single, the novelty instrumental "The Trouble With Harry" (credited to Alfi and Harry), was his first US chart entry (# 44) and was also popular in the UK (# 15, London HLU 8242). More instrumentals followed, the most successful being the often covered "Armen’s Theme", which peaked at # 42 in January 1957.
After buying an expensive tape recorder in 1957 and experimenting with the speed control, Seville discovered that he could produce a distinctive high-pitched voice with a gimmicky effect. Manipulating the tape speed, he sang "Witch Doctor" as a duet between his normal and accelerated voice. The song shot to # 1 on the pop and R&B charts in the spring of 1958, supplying the almost bankrupt Liberty label with a solid financial basis.
After employing the same formula with "The Bird On My Head" (# 34), Seville went a step further in his overdubbing experiments by letting multiple sped-up voices sing in harmony. To this end, he invented a trio called The Chipmunks, Simon, Theodore and troublemaker Alvin, whose names were taken from Liberty chiefs Si Waronker, Ted Keep and Al Bennett. The first Chipmunks release, the Christmas novelty "The Chipmunk Song", sold 3,500,000 copies in five weeks (late 1958 - early 1959), then the fastest selling single of all time. Needless to say, it was another # 1 for Seville (for four weeks), who went on to milk the Chipmunks gimmick for all it was worth.
The follow-ups "Alvin’s Harmonica" (# 3) and "Ragtime Cowboy Joe" (# 16) still made the Top 20. Then the novelty started to wear off, but there were still a few more Chipmunk hits until 1962, while Christmas reissues of "The Chipmunk Song" in 1959, 1960, 1961 and 1962 consistently peaked around the bottom of the Top 40. The first five Chipmunks singles all had piano-led instrumental B-sides (credited to "The Music Of David Seville") that often showed Armenian influences.
An animated television series, "The Alvin Show", ran on CBS from October 1961 until September 1962, and was very popular with children. In 1964 Liberty released an album called "The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles Hits", which went to # 14 on the LP charts.
Beside the Chipmunks recordings, Seville also kept recording on his own for Liberty ; during the 1960s most releases (a mix of vocals and instrumentals) came out under his own name, Ross Bagdasarian. In 1967 Seville retired his Chipmunks and moved toward mainstream rock music. He died of a heart attack in 1972, aged only 52. His son, Ross Bagdasarian Jr., a Stanford law graduate, resurrected the Chipmunks in 1979 and successfully marketed a string of Chipmunks projects, including new albums and a new TV series. In 2007 he produced the movie "Alvin and the Chipmunks", dedicated to the memory of his father. The film was an international commercial success and spawned two sequels.
In 1999 "Witch Doctor" reached # 2 on the UK charts via a version by the group The Cartoons. The original version is available on countless Various artists compilations.
More info and discography of non-Chipmunks recordings :
CD : David Seville and the Chipmunks, All the Hits And Then Some (Italian Liberty, 2013). 31 Liberty tracks in alphabetical order. A mix of instrumentals, Seville vocals and Chipmunks recordings, 1955-1965.
Acknowledgements : Nick Talevski, Fred Bronson, Wikipedia.
Dik, January 2015
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