Nutty Squirrels

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Alvin & the Chipmunks may have done it first, but when it came to cartoon-pop rodents, nobody did it better than the Nutty Squirrels. The brainchild of jazz vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Don…
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Alvin & the Chipmunks may have done it first, but when it came to cartoon-pop rodents, nobody did it better than the Nutty Squirrels. The brainchild of jazz vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Don Elliott and jingle composer Alexander "Sascha" Burland, the Nutty Squirrels employed the same sped-up vocal playback techniques as Ross Bagdasarian's Chipmunks, but added to the mix a far stronger musical approach, a sharper, hipper sense of humor, and the studio support of jazz greats including saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. And though the Chipmunks beat their many rivals in the race to record stores, the Nutty Squirrels actually outpaced Alvin, Simon, and Theodore to television by a year.

Both Elliott and Burland had enjoyed commercial success prior to the Nutty Squirrels' 1959 formation -- the former was arguably the most notable proponent of the jazz mellophone as well as a gifted and innovative scat vocalist, experimenting with multi-tracking and tape speeds to dub as many as nine different vocal tracks per tune on his LP The Voices of Don Elliott. Burland, meanwhile, was a Hollywood-based orchestra leader perhaps best known for composing the theme song for the hit game show What's My Line? The author of a number of commercial jingles (including, most famously, Alka-Seltzer's "No Matter What Shape Your Stomach's In"), for Riverside he recorded the album Swingin' the Jingles, a collection marrying advertising themes with jazz. (The session even included an appearance by Maynard Ferguson.) By the late '50s, both Elliott and Burland were devoting much of their energy to writing advertising music for Madison Avenue, and when "The Chipmunk Song" emerged as an enormous hit in late 1958, their own commercial instincts began to take over.

The Chipmunks -- the creation of composer Bagdasarian, aka David Seville -- were the product of a clever studio process whereby vocals were recorded at 16 rpm and played back over twice as fast at the conventional 33-and-one-third rpm speed, resulting in a chirpy, high-pitched sound akin to the standard human voice following the inhalation of helium. After the massive success of "The Chipmunk Song," imitators lined up in droves, but few if any boasted the pedigree or ingenuity of Elliott and Burland. Unlike the bland, cutesy Chipmunks, the Nutty Squirrels were cool, with goatees, dark suits, and berets, complete with beatnik lingo to match. Drawing upon Elliott's singular scat approach, the duo capitalized upon stereo technology to separate their vocals to one speaker apiece, and recruited top-flight jazzmen like Adderley, flutist Bobby Jaspar, and clarinetist Sam Most to cut the Nutty Squirrels' self-titled 1959 debut, issued on comedian Steve Allen and producer Bob Thiele's Hanover label.

When the single "Uh-Oh, Pt. 2" cracked the pop Top 20 at year's end, plans for a Nutty Squirrels animated series were quickly announced. Format Films had already announced an animated Chipmunks program, but when production was beset by problems, rival Transfilm-Wilde was able to rush-release 100 five-minute Nutty Squirrels cartoons into syndication in September 1960. (The Chipmunks did not premiere until a year later.) Although the Squirrels' "radical" jazz content prompted many small-market stations to pass on the show, it was a hit in larger metropolitan markets, especially Chicago, where it aired on superstation WGN six days a week. A second LP, Bird Watching, appeared that same year, but failed to enjoy the chart success of its predecessor. After one final collaboration, the Beatles tribute The Nutty Squirrels Sing 'A Hard Day's Night', in 1964 Elliott and Burland split.