Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)

The holidays have always been a time for novelty songs. Songs such as "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," and even the bizarre "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" were hits during the Christmas season. As many novelty songs have there have been in Yuletides past, there is only one that created a multi-million media franchise. That was the "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)."

"The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" and hence The Chipmunks (Alvin, Theodore, and Simon) were created by Ross Bagdasarian Sr. Ross Bagdasarian Sr. had a good deal of previous successes prior to his biggest hit. With his cousin, William Saroyan, he co-wrote "Come on-a My House," the first hit for Rosemary Clooney. He had also appeared in bit parts in movies, including Rear Window (1954) and Stalag 17 (1953). He recorded many records under his given name before scoring a minor hit with "The Trouble with Harry" under the stage name of David Seville in 1955. Several more singles would follow, but he would not have a huge hit until "Witch Doctor" in 1958.

"Witch Doctor" took advantage of a fact many children had long knew. If a record was played at a higher speed than it was meant to be, the voices on that record would become very high pitched. Record players weren't the only technology in the Fifties capable of this, as the effect could also be achieved with a V-M tape recorder. Mr. Bagdasarian (or Mr. Seville, if you prefer) used his V-M tape recorder to achieve the high pitched voice of the witch doctor in the song. Ross Bagdasarian Sr. would use the effect again in another novelty song, "The Bird in My Head," which did not even hit the top 40.

"Witch Doctor" only used the sped up voice in its chorus. "The Bird in My Head" only used it in parts of the song. David Seville's next novelty song would be a quantum leap forward where the effect of sped up voices was concerned. First, it would use three sped up voices (all done by Ross Bagdasarian) singing in unison. Second, the sped up voices comprised nearly all of the song.  That song was "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)." For the record David created the characters of three chipmunks, Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, named for Liberty recording executives Alvin Bennett and Simon Warnoker and recording engineer Theordore Keep. Each Chipmunk had his own personality. Simon was the intelligent, capable one. Theodore was the shy, sensitive, slightly none too bright one. Alvin was impulsive, anarchistic, anti-authoritarian one (in his original incarnation he was a lot like Bart Simpson). David Seville himself appeared as a character on the record, conducting The Chipmunks and keeping Alvin in line.

"The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late) proved to be a huge hit. It reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the last Christmas song to do so. It also hit number one on Billboard's special Christmas singles chart. For several years afterwards, until 1962, "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" would re-enter the Top 100 each holiday season. Ultimately, it would sell 4.7 million copies.

Indeed, so successful was "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" that David Seville was invited to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show with his singing rodents. This created a bit of a problem, as The Chipmunks did not actually exist. David Seville then went to legendary animator and puppeteer Bob Clampett (best known as the creator of Beany and Cecil), who created three puppets based on The Chipmunks as they appeared on record sleeves. Here it must be pointed out that  The Chipmunks in their original incarnation did not look as they do today. At that point The Chipmunks looked more realistic, more like actual Chipmunks. Regardless, David Seville and The Chipmunks did well enough on The Ed Sullivan Show that they appeared five more times. "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" would also win three Grammy Awards: Best Comedy Performance, Best Children's Recording, and Best Engineered Record (non-classical).

So successful was "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" that it created a media franchise. In 1959 David Seville would have two more hits with his singing rodents ("Alvin's Harmonica" and "Ragtime Cowboy Joe," as well as a full length album (Let's All Sing With The Chipmunks). The Chipmunks would also appear in a comic book, in Dell's Four Color Comics #1042, December 1959. The success of The Chipmunks would not only lead to more records, but to a prime time television series. The Alvin Show aired on CBS in the 1961-1962 season. The original designs for The Chipmunks were rejected for the television show, and entirely new designs were provided for The Chipmunks. In other words, The Chipmunks' modern appearance was created for the TV series. Afterwards, The Chipmunks' earlier records would be re-issued with the new design from the TV show. Although lasting only one season, it would appear in  network Saturday morning line ups for years and would be a huge success in syndication.

Throughout the Sixties The Chipmunks continued to release records, even tackling The Beatles' early hits and a few rock songs. Their last album in their original incarnation was The Chipmunks Go to the Movies, released in 1969. Ross Bagdasarian Sr. died in 1972 from a heart attack, putting an end to any more Chipmunks records. It was in 1980 that Ross Bagdasarian Jr. revived The Chipmunks with the album Chipmunk Punk. This would lead to more records and in 1983 a new animated series, Alvin and The Chipmunks. The new cartoon differed considerably from the original incarnation of The Chipmunks to a degree, particularly in that Alvin was no longer quite the anti-authoritarian, anarchistic reprobate he had been. Since then there have been two live action movies.

By 1961 The Chipmunks had already become a million dollar business. They not only sold records, but appeared on television and in comic books (a Dell comic spun off from The Alvin Show ran from 1962 to 1973). It had all began with a single record, a Christmas novelty song, which became an enormous hit. While there have been holiday novelty songs since "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)," it is the only one that can truly claim to have created a media franchise.

No comments: