Treasures of NAASR's Mardigian Library ~ “Come On-a My House” and the Armenian-American Pop Music Invasion That Never Was
Not everything in NAASR’s Mardigian Library is a book. There are also, among other things, a huge number of recordings—78s, LPs, tapes, CDs, etc., all with some Armenian connection or another. Some of these will be topics of future installments; most of them are obscure, except to specialists and collectors. For this installment we will go in a totally different direction and focus on a record that was a huge hit in its day, and its Armenian connections.
In 1951 Rosemary Clooney (1928-2002) had the biggest hit of her career—a career that would include some 30 American Top 40 hits and acting in the holiday classic film White Christmas (1954)—with “Come On-a My House,” written by Ross Bagdasarian (1919-1972) and his cousin William Saroyan (1908-1981).
Clooney had had minor hits before, but nothing like “Come On-a My House” which spent most of the summer of 1951 at number 1 and was one of the biggest songs of the year. (We take it as merely a coincidence that the song’s success in 1951 aligned with the 1500th anniversary of the Battle of Avarayr.)
Bagdasarian, the Fresno-born actor, songwriter, and musician, would go on to great success (under the name David Seville) in the late 1950s as the manic creator of the hit song “The Witch Doctor” and the Chipmunks, for which he won three Grammy Awards in 1959 for “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).” As for William Saroyan, he never again hit the Top 40, but he could console himself with having already won a Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award among other distinctions.
Saroyan and Bagdasarian wrote the song together in the late 30s and it sort of kicked around for while. In 1950, Bagdasarian was acting in Saroyan’s play The Son and his performance of the song was incorporated into the production. Finally the song got some interest at major record labels and, most significantly, from Mitch Miller who, besides his later fame as the king of the sing-a-long was the head of A &R (artists and repertory) at Columbia Records and, as such, one of the most powerful men in the record business. Miller arranged Rosemary Clooney’s recording, backed by a frenetic band notably featuring session musician Stan Freeman on harpsichord. (The record label says piano, but it’s a harpsichord.)
Notwithstanding the fact that it is supposed to be based on an Armenian folk melody, what makes the song sound “Armenian” (note the quotation marks, please) is Clooney’s singing. Although she would later enjoy success with “Italian” numbers like “Botch-a-Me” (as in baciami, kiss me in Italian) and “Mambo Italiano,” there is something distinctly Hay—or at least would-be Hay—about the way she sings “apple and-a plum and-a apricot-a too ah!” to say nothing of “pomegranate.” Clooney said that “I don’t know how to do an Armenian accent, so I used what I laughingly called an Italian accent.”
Certainly there’s nothing even remotely Armenian (or “Armenian”), despite perhaps her best efforts, about American singer Kay Starr’s (1922-2016) recording, also from 1951, nor Julie London’s (1926-2004) sultry late 50s rendition. And Clooney’s recording is practically “Mer Hayrenik” compared with Bagdasarian’s quasi-rock and roll version from 1965 which sounds about as Armenian as, well, David Seville. Rather more interesting is a version Bagdasarian recorded with spoken passages by Saroyan. Then there’s this 1967 recording by Belgian garage band The Shakes, which, let us say, takes a whole different approach.
Most interesting is to compare Clooney’s record with the considerably more restrained recording by actual Armenian-American singer and actress Kay Armen (Armenuhi Manoogian, 1915-2011), which was actually the first recorded version and released early in 1951. Perhaps Armen, because she was Armenian, felt less compelled (or obligated?) to lay on the ethnic mannerisms quite as thick. Regardless, as Clooney drily notes in her memoir Girl Singer, Armen’s record “went exactly nowhere.”
Clooney hated the song, saying that “the lyric ranged from incoherent to just plain silly” (perhaps) and it “sounded more like a drunken chant than an historic folk art form” (touché). She sang it only because Mitch Miller thought it might be a hit and he was in a position to insist. So, score one for Mr. Sing Along With.
Clooney was even less enthusiastic (if such a thing be possible) about another ethnic number Miller brought her a little later, one which goes “Come On-A My House” one better in the Armenian department but in no other department: “Cheegah Choonem (I Haven’t Got It)” (the translation, dear readers, is supplied by Columbia Records, not your humble servant) landed on one side of an unsuccessful Clooney release in 1953. Wikipedia can’t be bothered to spell it right (calling it “Cheekan Choonem”) and Rosie can’t be bothered to pronounce it right (something like “sheega shoonem” is deemed close enough), but Stan Freeman is back again, pounding that crazy harpsichord into submission, none of which was enough to get the record into the Top 40. Perhaps it was just a case of going once too often to the well, or perhaps it was, shall we say, a bit too Armenian?
The song is credited to “Hovey” and “S. Ward” on the label, elsewhere identified as Vahan Hovey and Sam Ward. Iran–born Vahan Hovey (1925-2019), born Hovhannisian, lived a long and very interesting life and, I am sorry to say, died last fall. It would have been fascinating to know how he managed to get a song (hit or no hit) with actual Armenian words in it recorded by one of the biggest stars on one of the biggest labels in the business, in 1953, no less. If anyone ever asked him, please let us know.
For more information:
Lawrence Lee & Barry Gifford, Saroyan: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)
John Leggett, A Daring Young Man: A Biography of William Saroyan (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002)
Rosemary Clooney with Joan Barthel, Girl Singer: A Memoir of the Girl Next Door (New York: Broadway Books, 1999)
Rosemary Clooney, Come On-A My House (7-CD Deluxe Box Set), complete recordings for Cosmo and Columbia from 1946 to the end of 1954 (Bear Family Records, 1997)