As the songs were announced for the Halloween Week of the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing (I do a podcast, you see), one of the songs drew me back into a mystery that’s plagued me for years.
I first heard this song being honked out of some tinny speakers by a Danish cover band in the foodcourt of Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre. And I asked myself, “What is this nonsense and where did it come from?”
In the case of Witch Doctor’s blend of R&B knockoff backing, vintage racial and sexual politics and a totally sense-free chorus, the answers to these questions form a sort-of potted history of entertainment in the 20th Century.
Where did this song come from?
As a very middling songwriter, I find that songs come from three main places:
Expressing a feeling, idea or mood
Writing to order
Unconscious remixing and plagiarism of stuff that you’ve heard before somewhere
All songs come from a mixture of 1, 2 and (more often than the songwriter would like) 3.
But less flippantly and more realistically, songs come from songwriters.
The songwriter behind Witch Doctor is Ross Bagdasarian Snr, who wrote and performed a batch of novelty hits in the 1950s under the name David Seville. Like a lot of folks in the entertainment industry, the change of name was about gently eliding the fact that he was not uncomplicatedly ‘American’ (European, Protestant and white, basically). Ross Bagdasarian’s parents had been forced to leave Armenia under the Stalinist regime – and like the Kardashians and Cher’s family the Sarkisians, they set up their new lives in California. The Bagdasarian’s ran a vineyard out in Fresno, where there a lot of the family still live.
After his time in military service during WW2, Ross eventually found his way to Los Angeles, where a significant Armenian diaspora community had settled around Glendale and Pasadena, and thanks to some general connections via his cousin, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright William Saroyan. (A lot of the stories in this article originate from Saroyan: A Biography by Lawrence Lee & Barry Gifford)
Bagdasarian started out his songwriting career turning out unusual novelty songs, some of them at least partially based on Armenian folk tunes. His first big success – Come On-A My House – is apparently based on an Armenian folk song about hospitality and was written in collaboration with his cousin William Saroyan, while they were touring. The recording combining Rosemary Clooney’s game stab at an Armenian accent and rollicking harpsichord backing became a number 1 hit in 1951, and things started to look up. For a while.
In the Autumn of 1957, Ross Bagdasarian was on the last throw of the dice. The entertainment industry is pretty fickle when you’re a novelty song writer and you’re no longer new. The money from the earlier hits had dried up and Liberty Records was on the verge of folding. In later interviews, he refers to spending $190 of his last $200 on a Varispeed tape deck. He was writing to order and he had to come up with a new hit, with a new gimmick, no matter how formulaic.
Let’s try to work out what ingredients were sloshing around in Bagdasarian’s conscious and subconscious mind to find out where this lethal earworm came from.
In the same interviews that refer to the $190 tape machine, he also describes Witch Doctor as a response to ‘teenage records where you couldn’t hear the words’. In the late 1950s, this can basically only mean doo-wop. Doo-wop combines vocal harmony, sung phrases that don’t have lyrics, and the excitement and romance of rock and roll. It was also a primarily black form of music, and therefore doo-wop acts didn’t necessarily benefit from the huge national record distribution networks and had more limited opportunities to have their songs heard on TV and radio.
Have a listen to The Chips perform Rubber Biscuit to get yourself into that uptempo doo wop mood.
If at the start of Bagdasarian’s career he had found it fruitful to mine his own rich musical heritage to find folk songs that could easily be transposed into pop songwriting, then it makes sense to look for individual, somewhat obscure songs that provided direct inspiration for Witch Doctor. And after a pleasant afternoon scrolling through the doo-wop archives, I think I’ve found the specific record.
Back in 1956, a group called The Cellos recorded a slightly questionable record called Rang Tang Ding Dong (I am the Japanese Sandman). It features a nonsense word chorus, an ‘exotic’ central character based on racial stereotyping and this character is also evoked by a pitch altered vocal. It reached #62 in the Billboard Hot 100 charts in May 1957, placing it at about the right time to have been in the back of Ross Bagdasarian’s mind as he tried to songwrite himself out of financial disaster.
The Cellos were on a New York based label called Apollo Records, which at the time of release was notable for being run by a woman – Bess Berman. She’d started the label with her husband Ike, where they collaborated until he passed away until 1956. Their major artist had been Mahalia Jackson, but they had an extremely varied roster of artists, from jazz to devotional music to Jewish standup comedian Sam Levenson’s spoken word monologues.
The Cello’s song was intially entitled I Am The Japanese Sandman, but citing legal issues, it was inititally released as Rang Tang Ding Dong and then re-released with the original title as subtitle. But wait, legal issues?. Let’s see if rabbit hole goes deeper.
The Cello’s song is itself a reference back to a 1920 song called Japanese Sandman, which became used for propaganda purposes by both the US and the Nazis, and then passed into memehood as a catchall slur on Japanese people, including being used as the epithet for boxer Harold Hoshino. Also, if you watched Boardwalk Empire, you’ve definitely heard this song before, soundtracking various moments of drama in the first few episodes.
So perhaps the legal issues would have been with the original publisher of this piece, who wanted to ensure that the two works remained legally distinct in the eyes of the public. Sadly, they’ve failed, because many of the references to the song by The Cellos (especially those relating to doo-wop and exotica connoisseur Frank Zappa) refer to it as being a cover of the older 1920 jazz tune.
Oh, and while we’re linking in ‘Western representations of Japanese culture’ and ‘cult recording artists’ the title of Sparks’ influential album Kimono My House is reference to that first hit that Ross Bagdasarian wrote for Rosemary Clooney.
Why did the Sandman become a Witch Doctor? Bagdasarian was evidently a subscriber to the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books – a very 20th century publication that provided abridged versions of modern novels bound together in a single volume. In the Summer and Autumn 1957 editions of the Reader’s Digest, a novel called The Spiral Road by Jan de Hartog was covered in two sections, “Mission To Borneo” and “Duel With A Witch Doctor”. This places the idea of a witch doctor, the Varispeed tape machine and, potentially, the half-remembered Cello’s single all in Bagdasarian’s head in the late Autumn of 1957.
The Spiral Road is the curiously moralistic pulp adventure story of a Dutch doctor and atheist who joins a medical expedition to the Indonesian jungle, and encounters a witch doctor by the name of Burubi. The novel is hard to locate now (and I haven’t located a reasonably priced local copy yet), and isn’t available digitally, but the 1962 film adaptation starring Rock Hudson and Burl Ives is apparently available on DVD. I doubt there’ll be any oo-ee oo-ah ah business in it, I don’t think Bagdasarian’s inspiration ran that deep.
While I don’t think it’s worth trying to track down all the lyrics to their source, the ‘Walla Walla’ part of Bagdasarians’ nonsense chorus is supposed to be a reference to Walla Walla in Washington State, where Bagdasarian’s uncle (who is suspiciously unnamed in any source that I can find – also no Bagdasarians or Saroyans come up in any local paper obituaries) had just moved. Walla Walla is interesting in itself – named after the Waluulapam people who lived there before the place was colonised by Europeans.
Why Do I Have To Be Screamin’?
An undeniable part of the pop cultural landscape was also Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. In 1956, his earth-shaking single I Put A Spell On You generated equal proportions of excitement and notoriety by combining an immortal blues ballad with the exotic sense of Other provided by Hawkins’ vocal performance. Banned from radio broadcast variously for being too sexy (and let’s be honest, too black) the single apparently sold loads but never actually hit the charts.
In 1957 would Bagdasarian have been aware of the story of Hawkins’ evocation of control through love magic? Maybe he’d be aware of the smash hit that Okeh Records missed out on by Hawkins’ performance being just that little bit too wild? Maybe he realised that there was a cultural moment ready to be capitalised on – one that combined musical forms developed by black artists with imagery that tacitly mocked and dehumanised them? There was a lot of money to be made by repackaging black cool for white consumption.
And maybe that’s Witch Doctor came from, too.
Back in the Autumn of 1957, Ross Bagdasarian was on the last throw of the dice. Into the cauldron goes pulp adventure fiction, the thrilling sound of doo-wop, tape manipulation, and the history of the Armenian diaspora.
And out comes a tune that I wish I could dislodge from my head.
If you’re interested in Ross Bagdasarian’s early discography (and want to help me try and match each song to its Armenian inspiration!) take a look here
I wanted to showcase music by partners and family members of the various squads today, but such has been the changearound in the England setup that there aren’t really any popstar girlfriends. So we’re going experimental pop instead.
So for Croatia, enjoy Wanda Why by Rolo from their delightfully titled album HØØP. It’s summery, snappy and it’s less than three minutes long.
And for Yorkshire, because we all know that the main power of the England team comes from God’s Own County, it’s The Bleeding Obvious. Crack out the glowsticks and baggy trousers and have a go at the Hacienda remix of Spectrum.
Trixie Whitley is a Belgian American pop artist from Ghent whose new single Heartbeat goes on a voyage through multi-layered trip hoppy cascading melodies. The accompanying album will be her 4th – I can’t believe I’d never been introduced to her music before because it is exactly my sort of thing.
For what is surely going to be one of my favourite matches of the tournament (thrilling Brazil finally getting going vs Belgium who could etch a new name on the trophy!) let’s have some of my favourite genres and two incredibly stylish black and white videos.
For Brazil, I present B-movie surf-rock from the Hitchcocks. Their video for It’s Alive looks super cool on a super low budget, and they rock all the way to the outer limits.
For Belgium, I have found some female-fronted heavy vaguely occult rock, which is basically my favourite thing in the whole world. Light some incense, inscribe a pentagram (if you’ve had the correct training) and enjoy Black Mirrors tear it up on their song Günther Kimmich.
Let’s have a bit of summery pop for this sunny Friday afternoon.
For Uruguay we have pop duo Olvidate! (the exclamation point is part of the name). Now, when I’ve been researching Uruguayan chart pop I’ve noticed that the basic reggaeton rhythm has mutated in all sorts of directions. The one you’ll hear in Qué Calor is at the same time closer to a Euro dance rhythm but also contains some jarring moments that would be challenging on the dancefloor.
For France, Therapy TAXI are very interesting indeed. They’ve launched their new album Hit Sale with a sequence of three videos telling a weird and troubling exploitation story, but for today I’ve got you ADENA from their first album.
Phoneme-wise, it’s been a wee while since we’ve had a double ‘sw’ match in the knockout stages of the World Cup. In fact, since Swaziland have renamed themselves to eSwatini, this is now your only option.
For Sweden, home of sophisticated space age synth pop, we have some incredible throwback Italo disco from Carino Cat.
Today’s afternoon fixture is a big, intense Central and South American party and we have some music to go with it.
For Brazil, meet Cofo de Parafernalha who have done something I never imagined hearing and combined cumbia vocals, crunchy new wave of heavy metal guitars and samba drums. It is WILD. I want to go to one of their gigs because I don’t know if we’d mosh or dance or what.
For Mexico, enjoy the sundrenched yet slightly melancholic psych of Acid Waves. Inferno Club sounds like it could be a lost song from that early noughties rock/dance wave that brought us The Rapture. Riffy and ace, never stops moving.