July 25, 2020

HISTORY OF ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS

Ross Bagadarian Sr., aka Dave Seville, with his creations.



            Ross Bagdasarian Sr. was a singer-songwriter, record producer and actor who often performed under the stage name “Dave Seville”, inspired by his Air Force post in Seville, Spain during WWII. After composing a few hit songs for other performers, Bagdasarian signed up with the then-new Liberty Records in 1955 where he recorded several novelty records of his own. His biggest hit came in 1958 with “Witch Doctor”. Bagdasarian experimented with speed control on a $200 tape recorder that he had bought and used a sped-up recording of his voice to represent the titular witch doctor. “Witch Doctor” became a Billboard number-one single for three weeks, selling 1.5 million copies and rescued Liberty from the brink of bankruptcy. Bagdasarian followed it up with “The Bird on My Head” where he sang a duet with his sped-up voice as the titular bird, however it only peaked at #34 on the charts.

The original Alvin & the Chipmunks with Dave on their first album cover.

            Bagdasarian decided to apply his new technique as the voices of regular characters in his songs, coming up with the first virtual band. He conceived of three anthropomorphic chipmunk brothers: trouble-making Alvin, intelligent Simon, and giddy and shy Theodore—all named after the executives of Liberty. The Chipmunks were the apprentices and adopted sons of his Seville persona, who also served as their manager. The first song released by the Chipmunks was “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”, which followed the storyline of Seville conducting the Chipmunks in the recording of the song. Of course, Alvin frequently caused trouble by going off script, resulting in Seville having to yell “ALVIN!” several times. All of the voices were provided by Bagdasarian and played on top of each other as the Chipmunks sang together.

The Chipmunks in puppet form.

            “The Chipmunk Song” was a hit, becoming Bagdasarian’s second #1 single, selling 4.5 million copies in seven weeks (ironically, it was featured on the “Rate-A-Record” segment of American Bandstand and received the lowest-possible score). It would break The Hot 100 chart several times between 1958 and 1962, and remained the only holiday-themed song to chart at #1 until Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” in 2019. While the song was at its peak, Bagdasarian appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show with Chipmunk hand-puppets designed by Bob Clampett to perform the song. The song was later re-released on the Chipmunks’ debut album, Let’s All Sing with the Chipmunks in 1959. Along with a couple of original songs, the album featured Chipmunk-ized covers of other songs that would become a franchise staple.

A page from the Dell comic.

            The design for the Chipmunks initially had them looking fairly realistic, except that they wore clothing with their initials in order to make them distinguishable. This style was used in their first comic book outing for Dell ComicsFour Color Comics #1042. When the concept was adapted for animation for the first time in The Alvin Show in 1961, the designs were heavily modified by Format Films to look more cartoonish. Although their faces were still similar, they were given distinctive body types, with Alvin being the shortest, Theodore slightly taller and chubbier, and Simon the tallest and leanest. They were all now depicted as the size of human children with floor-length shirts of distinctive colors. However, Alvin’s retained his “A” initial and was given a ball cap while Simon wore glasses. The Seville character also received an upgrade, becoming a fair caricature of Bagdasarian. The new designs were used on reissues of previous Chipmunks albums and on future albums going forward.

The re-release featuring the new character designs.

            The Alvin Show, named after the most popular character of the group, featured one short Chipmunk adventure and two musical numbers. Another adventure segment featured the original character Clyde Crashcup (Shepard Menken), a scientist who invented things that already existed and whose experiments tended to fail, and his assistant Leonardo (who only whispered in Clyde’s ear). The series wasn’t a ratings success and was cancelled after only a single season of 26 episodes. CBS reran the series on Saturday mornings shortly after its cancellation where it fared slightly better. 

The final original Chipmunks album.

            1969 saw the release of the 12th and final original Chipmunks album, The Chipmunks Go to the Movies. It featured cover versions of songs from six movies, with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang being the most represented. Bagdasarian would die of a heart attack three years later in 1972, seemingly putting an end to the Chipmunks’ careers and the franchise he created. However, renewed interest in The Alvin Show and a joke by a radio DJ led to a resurrection.

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