The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late) turns 60 this year, regardless of your feelings about it. Since it will never go away, let’s take a look at this extraordinarily successful novelty single.
The song was written, produced, and recorded by Rostom Sipan “Ross” Bagdasarian, better known by his stage name David Seville. Bagdasarian was a California kid, born to immigrants from the Ottoman Empire. He wrote a hit (Come On-a My House) for Rosemary Clooney in 1951, and had a bit part in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window three years later, as the shadowy, distant, songwriter.
In 1958, Bagdasarian scored a number 1 hit with his single “Witch Doctor.” According to his son, Bagdasarian—broke, heavily in debt, and with three babies—took his life savings of $200 and bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder, one which would allow him to vary the tape speed.
A voice recorded at half speed, when played normally, sounds like, well…a chipmunk. Or, initially to Bagdasarian’s ears, a witch doctor. That single stayed at number 1 for three weeks.
Seizing on the formula, Bagdasarian created four new characters: Alvin, Simon, and Theodore the Chipmunks, as well as their frazzled producer Dave.
The song was featured on American Bandstand, where it received the lowest possible rating. No matter: In commercial release it performed extravagantly well, going straight to number 1, garnering three Grammys, and selling 4.5 million singles in less than two months. The Chipmunks have been with us ever since.
“Every time I write a song I keep a mental picture of a housewife with her hands in soapy water, listening to the radio,” Bagdasarian once said. “I try to figure out how to get her hands out of the dishwater to turn up the volume, to hear my song.”
“The Chipmunk Song” wasn’t just a one-off: it spawned an entire franchise. In 1959, The Three Chipmunks comic book was issued by Dell Comics, then the short-lived animated series The Alvin Show. A later series ran from 1983 to 1990, in addition to all manner of largely Christmas-related television specials.
The Chipmunks continued to make albums, covering popular songs from the Beatles to Blondie. After Bagdasarian died in 1972, his son Ross Jr. took over voice acting duties. Oh, and there were also several major motion picture releases, direct to video movies, lawsuits, and a female version of the group called the Chipettes.
If tapes can be sped up, 45 records can be slowed down. One of the best things about “The Chipmunk Song” is comedian Patton Oswalt’s childhood memory of listening to a slowed-down LP with his brother, and the terrifying aural demon that appeared. Oswalt’s “demon” was actually producer Dave’s hectoring voice slowed down to half speed. His screams of “Alvin!” are actually a little unnerving. For additional amusement, here’s what they heard.