In 1958, Ross Bagdasarian Sr. used the last $200 he had to purchase a state-of-the-art tape recorder and crafted the blend of sped-up vocals/standard-paced music for his novelty hit “Witch Doctor.”
“After that, he wanted to give it some more personality,” says his son Ross Bagdasarian Jr., and that prompted the concept of harmonizing chipmunks led by the unruly Alvin.
“The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)’” was a bona fide hit, topping the charts within seven weeks of its release in late 1958, going on win three Grammys, which veteran music analyst Paul Grein says is “amazing” for a children’s novelty record. The song spawned a dozen ’60s-era albums and drew attention from the Beatles.
“They were just amazed that he was able to do the voices of Alvin and Dave and Simon and Theodore and then the music, and keep bouncing tracks back and forth,” recalls Bagdasarian Jr. “The engineering feat of that was what impressed the Beatles so much that they gave him the authorization to do ‘The Chipmunks Sing The Beatles Hits’ [in 1964].”
After his father’s death in 1972, Bagdasarian Jr. hoped to rekindle the Chipmunks’ fabled but faded musical career. He assembled “Chipmunk Punk,” a collection of rock, punk and new wave covers, in 1980. It became the Chipmunks’ first gold record and inspired a series of genre-centric follow-ups and celebrity duets.
Today, the Chipmunks — and their female counterparts, the Chipettes — remain a potent force via their film soundtracks and YouTube video views. “The Chipettes doing Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ has gotten over half a billion views,” says Bagdasarian Jr. “Beyonce’s kids even thought that Beyonce had covered the Chipettes’ hit!”
“Both father and son have been very clever about finding things to capitalize on and movements to play off of,” says Grein. “People were raised on those records and enjoyed hearing them on the radio. Now they have kids, so it’s intergenerational: they turn their kids on to it.”