Friday, August 10, 2012

He Was "Almost Good"

By Doug Vehle, The Daily Bosco

I'm one of those people who has a way of singing the most obscure songs out of the blue.

While everyone recognizes Styx, few people realize they had this album cut 'Boat on the River.' Probably the most likely song you'd hear me sing (And noone even seems to understand why I'm singing it) is bound to be the first song I ever knew the words to: There's only one line. If you'd asked me who sang it, I couldn't have told you for all those years. I began to wonder myself.

My oldest brother had a hit single in high school ('Bombora,' an instrumental by the Surfaris at the time, later changed to "The ORIGINAL Surfaris" when another bunch stole their name and had a bigger hit.)

I came to assume 'Almost Good' was just one of the many demo singles of unknown artists from my brothers' stack, that I was humming 'DaDadaDAH DA DA DA DAH DA. . . .' to air bass guitar and repeating the "Hey, that's almost GOOD" of someone not merely forgotten, but who in fact was never known so he can't even be forgot.

Recently the miracle of the internet made it possible for me to try to solve the mystery of who the artist was once and for all. Little did I know that I was rescuing from obscurity someone who'd really never been obscure.

Ross (Short for Rostom) Bagdasarian began his adult life in the shadow of his more famous cousin, novelist/playwright William Saroyan, the writer of 'The Time of Your Life,' (A favorite of my college English and Theatre years) which provided Bagdasarian with his first acting role on the eve of World War II.

After serving in the Army for the duration, he came home to write a song with his cousin, whose notoriety no doubt served to get Rosemary Clooney to make a major hit of 'Come on a My house.' 

While he amassed some 16 film and television roles from 1952-58, the most noteworthy was appearing alongside Alfred Hitchcock's cameo in 'Rear Window,' where he played the songwriter in one of the apartments observed by James Stewart. His music found its' way into such films as 'The Bold and the Brave' and 'Stalag 17,' but he was said to have spent his last $200 in 1957 on some Voice of Music brand recorders which allowed him to vary the speed of the playback. And he would solve a riddle that not even Disney could come up with a solution to: How to use the sped up playback to create unique voices.

In the Summer of 1958 his new method broke through with the number one hit single 'The Witch Doctor.' Having recorded under his own name and as "Alfi and Harry," Bagdasarian chose the name David Seville for his new style of music. He has been said to have believed he wasn't so much a singer as a performer in a comedy sketch singing a duet with the Witch Doctor, (Also himself) so he took a character name.

Under his own name he had a small hit with 'A Bird on my head' before the Seville character returned at Christmastime with 3 new scene partners; Simon, Theodore and the ever uncooperative Alvin. (All voiced by himself.) 'A Chipmunk Christmas' would change everything.

I could go on about the string of hits by the Chipmunks, the cartoon series with Bagdasarian again providing the voices, but that's not really the point. My favorite out of all the performances by Ross Bagdasarian is the ragged, not quite professionally packaged 'Almost Good.'

Appearing as the B-side of 'The Chipmunk Song,' imagine the string of peope who were stumped that such a song existed at all. Technically, it sold just as many copies as the A-side. Would it be as much fun if he really could play the piano?

Years ago, this guy Steve, who tended to be a bit on the morose side, was vocalizing his normal despair, leading me to agree with him about how bad things were, adding my own reasons for a bleak outlook. Then, in the manner that has been so often compared to the old 'Dennis the Menace' TV series, I perked right up and asked "Hey, Steve, is this what you call 'Depression?'"

Steve did his best to enhance the gloom before responding, "No, Doug, YOU do not become depressed." AH, little did he know.

So just recently I'm listening to not one but TWO guys named Chris, both with dark clouds hanging over them for lord only knows what reason. Gee, the way things have been going for me, I'm the one that should be sounding like them. But as Steve said so long ago, I don't really become depressed.  I just wander off to the place where there's guys like Ross Bagdasarian saying 'Come on a My house. . . ."
 By 1967 Bagdasarian was through with show business, devoting himself to the vineyards the Chipmunk records had bought for him. In 1972, on the eve of his 53rd birthday, he was found dead from a heart attack.

In 1979, after years of disc jockeys using the Chipmunks for their own comedy with the current hit songs, Ross Bagdasarian Jr. brought back Simon, Theodore and the reluctant Alvin to sing such songs as 'Mama's don't let your babies grow up to be Chipmunks' as well as such lyrics as "The life I love is playing baseball with my friends, I can't wait to be OFF the road again." This spurred a new round of television specials, another cartoon series, even two feature films.

The Chipmunks are now billed as the oldest continuously working band in the history of music. . . .

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