A Duel with “Witch Doctor”

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.

Witch Doctor.

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:

  1. Expressing a feeling, idea or mood
  2. Writing to order
  3. 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.

Finding Inspiration

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.

Dutch Origins

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.

By 1960 Hawkins was performing in full faux-cannibalistic regalia in this segment captured by one of Granada TV’s Travelling Eye teams (prototype roving reporter/outside broadcast units)

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 

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