How David Seville And The Witch Doctor Rescued Liberty Records

October 11, 2017

Liberty records was an American record label formed in 1955. Started by former 20th Century Fox music producer Simon Waronker, by 1957 the label had had a string of successful hits including recordings by the likes of Julie London, Patience and Prudence, Eddie Cochran, John D. Loudermilk, and many more.

In 1958 a couple of years of slow movers sent Liberty on the fast track to the poor house. That was, until the day was saved by a young pianist / voice actor named Ross Bagdasarian Sr. or David Seville. Ross had already started to make a name for himself in the music biz with a couple of minor hits under various pen names. One instrumental piano ballad called Armen’s Theme and another song called Trouble With Harry… A novelty record based on the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name.

With Liberty hinging on bankruptcy Ross had successfully convinced the execs to allocate the remaining vinyl pucks and labels in the warehouse to pressing his new record “Witch Doctor”. The song was an enormous number one hit and rescued the company.

Witch Doctor is a love song, in which a gentleman seeks advice from a witch doctor, when the woman of his affection will not requite his love. The Witch doctor simply replies “Oo ee oo ah ah ting tang walla walla bing bang”. (Allegedly the Walla Walla bing bang part was a low key shout out to his uncle, who had recently moved Walla Walla, Washington… how cool is that). Witch Doctor utilizes experimentation of tape speed to create the doctor’s high pitched voice (David’s own voice recorded at half speed, then played back normally), a technique he would use to create all of the records for the rest of his career, including his next and lesser known novelty record “Bird on My Head” (1958)

This one is about a disgruntled man sitting in a parking lot, lamenting the lack of his life’s achievements with a similarly disgruntled bird sitting on his head. The characters in Seville’s arrangements never seem to come to resolution, which I find to be super intriguing.

The disgruntled character angle is another popular formula to be found in Seville’s records Including the earlier “The Trouble With Harry”

The entire Trouble With Harry record seems to be the narrator (David) complaining about how the Harry the piano player just plays the same song over and over. It’s a playful exchange with the listener in a sort of Looney Tune, or Woody Allen sort of way. Even though this is an earlier song, before his tape experimentation method, and under a different name (Alfi & Harry) this song is an important one in the trajectory of David’s career. The voice over instrumental tool is one very much in the tool kit of David’s Swan Song… Alvin and the Chipmunks.

At the end of 1958, David Seville applies all of his learned skills in to one perfect idea and creates The Chipmunks, “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”. In another magical, low key shoutout, he names the Chipmunks after the founding members of Liberty Records Al Bennet, Simon Waronker, and Theodore Keep, respectively. The record comes just in time for Christmas… It’s a smash, selling 4.5 million copies in 7 weeks, and garnering the distinction of being the only Christmas record to ever reach number one on the charts.

Despite contrary belief David did the voice of all three Chipmunks. He and Liberty continued to make Chipmunks records until shortly before his death in 1972. But Chipmunk song would be his last #1 hit. In 1979 his son Ross Jr. took over the Chipmunk empire, became the voice of David Seville… and the rest is a billion dollar global success story that is ongoing to this day. All because Ross Bagdasarian Sr. convinced a few record execs to hang the fate of their company on pressing his record: a kooky, experimental, novelty song called Witch Doctor. Pretty Cool.

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