W hen I was growing up, there was a commercial that was played locally for Riggs Bank with the line “The most important bank in the most important city in the world,” and it had this great classical music playing in the background. I have searched online endlessly for the music but have come up empty-handed. Any ideas where I could find a copy?
— Maggie Prisby, Alexandria
Yes, on the SoundCloud account of Carlos Chafin, the man who composed the catchy little ditty more than 30 years ago.
In the early 1980s — he can’t remember precisely when — Carlos was in his 20s and living in Richmond. He’d studied classical piano as a child, then switched to rock and was a fixture in the Virginia capital doing session work and engineering. One day, he was approached by Peter Coughter of the ad agency Siddall, Matus and Coughter.
“He said, ‘You’re a pretty good musician. Have you ever considered writing?’ ” Carlos told Answer Man. “I said, ‘I’d love to, but I don’t know how.’ ”
There is nothing like a deadline to inspire creativity. Peter told Carlos that the client was a bank and that the music needed to be “classical but modern.”
The melody came quickly. While Carlos composed the music on a piano, he recorded it using something he was fascinated by: an analog Moog synthesizer. The client needed only 30 seconds of music, so that’s what Carlos provided.
Living in Richmond, Carlos didn’t see the commercial at first. A few months after the spot started airing in Washington, he was contacted by the producer of a local TV program who told him his composition — officially titled “Washington Celebration: The Riggs Theme” — had taken D.C. by storm.
Then adman Peter got in touch. “He said, ‘You should consider doing a longer version, like a real version,’ ” Carlos said. “I did a three-minute version, and it was released as a 45-single.”
It was the first advertising music Carlos had written, and it was huge. It ended up being used in Riggs advertising up until the venerable D.C. bank was bought by PNC in 2005.
“I probably did 100 versions of it,” Carlos said. In addition to the synthy original, he recorded an a cappella version, a handbell version, a bluegrass version, a country version — even a rap version.
“The thing about having a melody like that is, it’s pretty durable,” Carlos said. “You can beat it up different ways, and it still works.”
How best to describe that melody? It’s peppy, that’s for sure.
“Because it’s advertising, it had to be celebratory,” said Carlos, 60. “It’s very major. It has a very major tonality to it. And I wanted it to be melodically driven. I didn’t want it to be rhythmically driven.”
Carlos said the music is obviously the work of someone who didn’t know what he was doing.
“Most music for advertising, they want in the background,” he said. “This piece, I didn’t know better. I wrote it very melodically so it would own the whole space.”
Not long after it debuted, “Washington Celebration” got even more publicity. In the spring of 1984, reports started surfacing that Girl Scout cookies nationwide had been tampered with. People in the Washington area reported being pierced by pins after biting into Samoas.
When cookie sales dropped precipitously, Riggs Bank stepped forward and offered to donate all proceeds from the sale of the 45 rpm record to the local Girl Scouts.
Carlos said he didn’t make very much money on “Washington Celebration” — “I think they gave me a couple thousand bucks when all was said and done” — but he was fine with that.
“The Riggs thing really launched my career,” he said. Since then, Carlos’s music has been heard in jingles for such accounts as McDonald’s, Purina and the D.C. Lottery. He’s written for “Sesame Street,” too. He’s the co-founder of In Your Ear studio in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom neighborhood, and he plays drums in a cover band called the Fender Benders.
Carlos said that at the height of Riggs Theme mania, “Washington Celebration” was played on a “guess the composer” segment on a public radio quiz show.
“Nobody knew where it came from,” he said. “There were all these bets. I was really flattered being compared to Vivaldi and all these people.”
To hear “Washington Celebration: The Riggs Theme,” go to soundcloud.com/carlos-chafin/washington-celebration.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.
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