Who doesn’t love “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”? It introduced the world to Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, arguably the world’s most famous trio of singing rodentia. The song, released in 1958, is a staple of the holiday season. It’s among the earliest holiday songs that I can remember, and it doesn’t quite feel like Christmas unless I’ve listened to it a whole googob of times while singing the line, “Me I Want A Hula Hoop!” at the top of my lungs.
As improbable as it seems, the song reached number one on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart and helped net composer Ross Bagdasarian Sr. three Grammy Awards (Best Children’s Recording, Best Engineered Record – Non-Classical, and Best Comedy Performance) in 1958. Two years later, the Chipmunks would win another Grammy for their album “Let’s All Sing With the Chipmunks” (which included “The Christmas Song” as the final song of the album). All this fame and fortune resulted in an animated television series, movies, and a popularity that has lasted now for 60 years. However, let’s rewind just a bit. How did we even wind up with a trio of singing chipmunks?
Rod Bagdasarian apparently first came up with the idea after spotting a chipmunk by the side of the road. The stubborn little critter wouldn’t move for his car. Somehow, this sparked the idea in his imagination. Their names were taken from the president, chief engineer, and founder of Liberty Records, the label that released the song.
Earlier in the year, Bagdasarian had achieved success with his song “Witch Doctor”. He performed the song under the name David Seville, which fans of The Chipmunks likely recognize as the name of the group’s manager. Before these successes, Bagdasarian had written songs for Rosemary Clooney. However, he was struggling to make ends meet and was just about broke. With only $200 to his name, Bagdasarian purchase a machine for $190 which allowed him to speed up his voice. He employed the novelty on the chorus of the song “Witch Doctor” and it was this machine that gave The Chipmunks their distinctive high-pitched voices.
The inspiration for the “The Chipmunk Song” apparently came from one of Bagasarian’s children. His son Adam had a tendency to start asking if it was Christmas yet as early as September. He realized that kids all over were probably asking similar questions, and decided that it would make good subject matter for a holiday ditty. However, it didn’t come all at once. The song went through several revisions, including an instrumental version and one entitled “In A Village Park”. The third version was “The Chipmunk Song” we’ve all come to know and love, and Bagdasarian performed all three voices. An article in a 1959 issue of LIFE Magazine noted that it was the first time in the “annals of popular music that one man has served as writer, composer, publisher, conductor and multiple vocalist of a hit record, thereby directing all possible revenues from the song back into his pocket.”
In 1961, The Chipmunks were given their own TV series. It was known as “The Alvin Show” and didn’t achieve near the success as the group’s earlier music. There were only 26 episodes, going off the air in late 1962. The group also continued recording albums, releasing a total of 12 between 1959 and 1969 (including a Beatles’ cover album). During that time, the group had a number of hit songs, including “Alvin’s Harmonica”, “Ragtime Cowboy Joe”, and “The Alvin Twist”.
Sadly, Bagdasarian died of a heart attack in 1972 and The Chipmunks went on hiatus until his children decided to revive the group later in the decade. In 1980, the group released “Chipmunk Punk” (an album whose title is a bit of a misnomer, seeing as how it featured songs by musicians like Tom Petty, Queen, Billy Joel, and The Knack). The following year saw the release of “A Chipmunk Christmas”, a television special produced by the legendary Chuck Jones, that brought the group back to their yuletide roots.
Now that the group have become pop culture icons with over half a century of success, it’s interesting to think that at one point their creator was down to his final ten dollars, placing all his hope in a machine that would make his voice sound funny. Even more fascinating? It worked.