During the late ’50s, Ross Bagdasarian discovered that speeding up a song recorded on a tape recorder makes the singer’s voice high-pitched and funny-sounding. Scoring a pre-Hot 100 #1 with “Witch Doctor” in 1958 taught Bagdasarian (who used the name “David Seville” professionally) that this goofy tape effect could be parlayed into a hugely successful multimedia enterprise. So for his next hit, Bagdasarian expanded from the one sped-up “witch doctor” voice to three “chipmunks,” which he named Alvin, Simon and Theodore. He tapped into the lucrative Christmas songs market with an ode to the true meaning of Christmas: toys, bickering and petulance.
Depending on your point of view, the Chipmunks are either adorable or irritating. I tend more toward the latter camp. I admire Bagdasarian’s entrepreneurial skill but am eternally amazed that a one-joke enterprise is still going strong after 50 years – enough so that a hugely profitable movie was released last year, and four (FOUR!) Chipmunks singles made the 2007 Hot 100 (“Funkytown” charted highest at #26). Then again, the Alvin and the Chipmunks TV show was a staple of my youth, and “The Chipmunk Song” is one of those songs that would be intolerable any other time of year but which make me feel warm with nostalgia when Christmastime hits. Good thing for “The Chipmunk Song” that I’m reviewing it on December 15. Still, in terms of cartoon-related holiday classics, it’s no “Christmastime is Here” or “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” 5
- “The Chipmunk Song” is still the only Christmas-themed single to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
- “Witch Doctor” wasn’t Bagdasarian’s first #1 – he cowrote “Come on-a My House” with his cousin William Saroyan in 1939, which Rosemary Clooney rode to the top of the charts in 1951.
- Bagdasarian also appears in the 1954 Hitchcock film Rear Window as the songwriter in the building opposite Jimmy Stewart.
Hit #1 on December 22, 1958; total of 4 weeks at #1
8 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 0.83% through the Hot 100