Which came first, The Chipmunks or the Mouse Musicians? Walt Disney’s very own idea for a Christmas record didn’t take the world by storm. But a year later, when one of the biggest novelty hits used basically the same technique… was it coincidence?
WALT DISNEY’S CHRISTMAS CONCERT
Ludwig Mousensky and the All-Mouse Symphony and Chorus
Disneyland Records STEP-1003 (7” 45 rpm EP with Booklet / Mono)
Released in 1957. Executive Producer: Jimmy Johnson. Producer/Arranger/Conductor: Camarata. Songs: Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith, Traditional. Running Time: 10 minutes.
Voices: Jimmy Macdonald (Ludwig Mousensky, Assorted Mice); Singers likely to include Gloria Wood, Thurl Ravenscroft and Bill Lee (Mouse Chorus).
Songs & Carols: “Jingle Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
When Walt Disney’s first in-house record company, Disneyland Records, started up in the spring of 1956, he was engrossed in such other projects as Disneyland Park, Sleeping Beauty and television shows. Disneyland Records President Jimmy Johnson, in his much sought-after 1975 autobiography, Inside the Whimsy-Works: My Life with Walt Disney Productions (which will at last be by published by University Press of Mississippi this February), recalled the inside story:
In the first year of the record company, Walt hadn’t taken any interest in what we were recording, but in the summer of 1957, he came up with an idea for a Christmas record.
“You see,” he said, “there’s this bunch of mice who live in the basement of a recording studio. They sing, they play instruments, and when everybody goes home at night, they make records. We can use the speed-up voice technique we used for the mice in Cinderella.”
“Professor Ludwig Mousensky and his All-Mouse Orchestra and Chorus” came into being and Tutti [Camarata] and I went to work recording them. By speeding up the tape, the regular voices of ordinary singers become squeaky and mouse-like. We used the speed-up on the orchestra, too. We recorded Jingle Bells and three Christmas carols with the mouse chorus and orchestra, plus a flamboyant mouse instrumental version of Winter Wonderland.
Using the speed-up technique involves a great deal of hard and painstaking work but we finally came up with a record. When I played it for Walt he was disappointed.
“I’ve never known a musician with a sense of humor,” he said, and dismissed the matter from his mind.
We released the record during the Christmas season of 1957, complete with a little booklet filled with drawings of all the mouse musicians. The record made a few dollars, but it was not a big hit.
The next Christmas, Ross Bagdasarian released his first Chipmunk record, The Chipmunk Song, on the Liberty label. He also used the speed-up technique for the voices of the Chipmunks. The Christmas season is a short one for record sales but Liberty did the impossible and sold over four million records between the middle of November and the middle of January. It was one of the biggest Christmas hits ever.
There was one small, but very important, difference between the Chipmunk record and our mouse record of the year before. At the very beginning of the Chipmunk record Ross Bagdasarian says in a straight voice, “All right you Chipmunks, ready to sing your song?” Thus the speeded-up voices were immediately identified as chipmunks. We forgot to immediately identify ours on the record as mice. Walt never forgave me for allowing Ross to scoop us on his idea.
While Walt’s comment about “a musician with a sense of humor” might seem curt, it’s not necessarily a slight of trusted musical director Tutti Camarata or the real-life musicians, but a statement about why the project disappointed him. The resulting recording tried to make a very large group of mouse musicians funny—a daunting task left unfulfilled, despite the presence of a few cut-ups within the musical mouse ensemble.
The booklet’s illustrations – which, though not verified, appear to be the work of story artist Bill Peet – hint at hijinks that might been incorporated into the recording. (The booklet images are posted below – click thumbnails to enlarge) The art resembles storyboard gag sketches for an animated film (which could have been considered had the project pleased Walt).
However, the book identifies even more mice than the record does and the gags get lost in the crowd. Cinderella had lots of mouse friends too, but the focus was on Jaq, Gus-Gus and Suzy. Christmas Concert lacked that focus, as Johnson realized.
Musically, Christmas Concert is spectacular. Camarata’s arrangements are wildly imaginative, employing every bit of the skill he employed when he created the famous tempo changes on Jimmy Dorsey’s hit big band records. The orchestra itself sounds a little speeded-up too, something that Bagdasarian did not do on his records.
I’ve found no confirmation as to whether Bagdasarian listened to Walt Disney’s Christmas Concert before he created Alvin and The Chipmunks. The following Summer brought his first big hit, “Witch Doctor” (Ooh-Ee-Ooh-Ah-Ah), with only one speeded-up voice that was not a chipmunk so much as the witch doctor himself. But by fall 1958, the release of “The Chipmunk Song” cemented the three personalities in seconds.
Speeded-up voices were nothing new in the 1950s. The voices of the aforementioned mice in Cinderella were created that way, as were several of Mel Blanc’s roles in Warner Bros. cartoons, Pinto Colvig’s Gabby in Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels and many more. Even Thomas Edison’s squeaky recording of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” makes one wonder if he and his staff recognized the effect at the very dawn of recording.
Whatever the complete truth might be, great minds often think alike.
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
Introduction to “Winter Wonderland” & Intro to “The Chipmunk Song”
Ludwig Mousensky (with two different accents) warms up the orchestra for a show-stopping rendition of “Winter Wonderland,” as several mice practice their sections and/or mess things up. Six mice are mentioned by name: Hans, Fritz, Otto, Squeeky, Zeke and mischievous Pinky. Additional mouse musicians in the book include Horace, Henrietta, Tubby, Tootie (a nod to Tutti?), Clarence, Stuffy, Zooty, Pee Wee and Frenchy.
Within seconds of the start of “The Chipmunk Song,” we know Alvin, Simon, Theodore and David Seville (whose name is on the label if not in the song). A multi-million-dollar entertainment phenomenon was born. Of course, Walt Disney had already had several such phenomena with more on the way.
WALT DISNEY’S CHRISTMAS CONCERT (Reissue)
Mickey Mouse and the All-Mouse Chorus
Disneyland Records DBR-47 (7” 45 rpm EP / Mono)
Released in 1959. Executive Producer: Jimmy Johnson. Producer: Camarata. Arranger/Conductors: Camarata, Buddy Baker. Running Time: 11 minutes.
Songs & Carols: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Jingle Bells,” “Kris Kringle,” “From All of Us to All of You.”
Voices: Jimmy Macdonald (Mickey Mouse, Goofy); Cliff Edwards (Jiminy Cricket); Singers likely to include Gloria Wood, Thurl Ravenscroft and Bill Lee (Mouse Chorus).
The selections from 1957’s Christmas Concert were repurposed for at least a dozen subsequent Disney albums, singles and read-alongs. This particular one cleverly eschews Ludwig Mousensky for the way-more-famous Mickey Mouse as the presenter.
As Mickey, Jimmy Macdonald (whose Mickey always sounds like Mister Moose to me) introduces the public domain All-Mouse Symphony selections (“Winter Wonderland” is copyrighted), as well as Edwards’ “Kris Kringle” and the title song from the 1958 Disneyland holiday themed TV episode, From All of Us to All of You.
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
Ludwig Mousensky Intro & Mickey Mouse Intro to “Christmas Carol Medley”
It’s kind of neat to compare and contrast the two performances of Jimmy Macdonald in two different roles. In Mickey’s case, it sounds to me as if his lines were read in one or two takes on the fly.
DISNEY CHRISTMAS FAVORITES
The Mouse Concert Plus Other Yuletide Favorites
Disneyland Records 1356 (12” 33 rpm LP / Mono)
Released in 1973. Executive Producer: Jimmy Johnson. Producer: Camarata. Arranger/Conductors: Camarata, Buddy Baker, Brian Fahey. Running Time: 25 minutes.
Performers: Jimmy Macdonald (Mickey Mouse, Goofy); Cliff Edwards (Jiminy Cricket); Louis Prima, Gloria Wood, Thurl Ravenscroft, Bill Lee, The Mike Sammes Singers.
Songs & Carols: “Jingle Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Kris Kringle,” Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Kris Kringle,” “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” “Senor Santa Claus,” “Jingle Bones.”
Poem: “The Night Before Christmas.”
Over 15 years after their debut, Johnson put Ludwig Mousensky and the All-Mouse Symphony and Chorus on the cover of an LP record with several sketches from the booklet on the back cover. The entire 1957 recording takes up Side One, while Side Two is actually a direct pick-up from Side One of a 1968 Disneyland album, Favorite Songs of Christmas Featuring Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Ludwig and friends continued to pop up once in a while on various Disney records, like 1976’s Jingle Bells Little Golden Book & Record, for example. But the musical mice never recorded again, nor did they star in a holiday TV special. Otherwise, like most other animated characters, they would have inevitably saved Christmas.
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer – The Mike Sammes Singers
This is a rare stereo version from a Time-Life CD set called Disney Christmas Collection. I love the smooth, distinctive, pitch-perfect sound of The Mike Sammes Singers, who sang with the biggest stars of the mid-20th century. They recorded “Rudolph” at London’s Abbey Road Studios, where they also backed up The Beatles in “Good Night” and “I Am the Walrus.” The singers can be heard in countless other TV shows and movies, included several Rankin/Bass specials.