Alvin and the Chipmunks is a six-time Grammy Award-winning animated music group created by Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. in 1958. The group consists of three singing animated chipmunks: Alvin, the mischievous troublemaker, who quickly became the star of the group; Simon, the tall, bespectacled intellectual; and Theodore, the chubby, impressionable sweetheart. The trio is managed by their human father and confidant, David Seville. In reality, David Seville was Bagdasarian's stage name, and the Chipmunks themselves are named after the executives of their original record label, Liberty Records: Alvin Bennett (the president), Simon Waronker (the founder and owner), and Theodore Keep (the chief engineer).
The Chipmunks act began with recordings first brought to life in Bagdasarian's 1950s novelty recordings under the name David Seville and the Chipmunks. For stage purposes, such as during an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Bagdasarian lip-synched the words of "David Seville" in front of a small puppet theater, with puppets of the three Chipmunks also lip-synching. The puppets looked similar to the Chipmunk illustrations on the covers of some of the group's 45 RPM records. The characters were an unprecedented success, and the singing Chipmunks and their manager were given life in several animated cartoon series, using redrawn, anthropomorphic chipmunks, and eventually motion pictures.
The voices of the group were all performed by Bagdasarian, who pitched up the playback to create higher pitched, comical, squeaky voices. This oft-used process was also not entirely new to Bagdasarian, who had also used it for a previous novelty song project, "The Witch Doctor," but it was so unusual and well executed it earned the trio two Grammy Awards for engineering. Although the characters were fictional, they did release a long line of actual albums and singles, with "The Chipmunk Song" becoming a number-one hit single in the United States. Since Ross Bagdasarian, Sr.'s untimely passing on January 16, 1972, their voices were performed by Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. and Janice Karman in all subsequent incarnations except for the 2007 CGI/live-action film adaptation, when they were voiced by Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler and Jesse McCartney respectively.
In early 1958, Bagdasarian released a novelty song, as David Seville, about being unlucky at love until he found a Witch Doctor who told him "What To Do" to woo his woman. The entire song was done by Bagdasarian in his normal voice, except for the "magic" words, done first in Bagdasarian's pitched-up, pre-Chipmunk voice, then in a duet between his pitched-up voice and his normal voice. The words, of course, are nonsense: "Oo-ee, oo-ah-ah, ting-tang, walla-walla, bing-bang." The "Walla Walla" part of the song was just thrown in as a reference to Ross Bagdasarian's uncle who lived in Walla Walla, Washington. The song was a major hit, sitting at Number 1 in the Billboard Top 100, a predecessor to the Billboard Hot 100 chart which would be introduced that August, for three weeks during the spring, and the Witch Doctor's "magic words" were being sung by kids everywhere. Although nothing in the song makes any reference to chipmunks, the song is now sometimes included on Chipmunk compilations, as if the Chipmunks themselves had provided the voice of the Witch Doctor (Bagdasarian did record a "Chipmunks" version of "Witch Doctor," which appeared on the second Chipmunks album, Sing Again with The Chipmunks, in 1960). In 1999, the song was covered by a band called The Cartoons. A followup song was recorded, but instead of Seville singing the song, it was sung by Jiles Perry Richardson. The song "The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor" was released as the B-side of "Chantilly Lace." Chipmunk-like voices sing backup for the Bopper.
The Chipmunks first officially appeared on the scene in a novelty record released in late fall 1958 by Bagdasarian. The song, originally listed on the record label (Liberty F-55168) as "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)," featured the singing skills of the chipmunk trio. One phrase in the chorus has Alvin wishing for a hula hoop, which was that year's hot new toy. The novelty record was highly successful, selling more than 4 million copies in seven weeks, and it launched the careers of its chipmunk stars. It spent four weeks at Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart from December 22, 1958 to January 12, 1959. It also earned three Grammy Awards and a nomination for Record of the Year. At the height of its popularity, Bagdasarian and three chipmunk hand-puppets appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, lip-synching the song. "The Chipmunk Song" appeared on the Chipmunks' debut album, Let's All Sing with the Chipmunks, in 1959, and was repeated on Christmas with the Chipmunks, released in 1962. The song also has been included on several compilation albums.
The first television series to feature the characters was The Alvin Show. The cartoon gave more distinctive looks and personalities to the three chipmunks than just their voices, and an animated portrayal of Seville was a reasonable caricature of Bagdasarian himself. The series ran from 1961 to 1962, and was one of a small number of animated series to be shown in prime time on CBS. Unfortunately, it was never an immediate success in prime time and was cancelled after one season, only to find new life in syndication.
In addition to Alvin cartoons, the series also featured the scientist Clyde Crashcup and his assistant Leonardo. Those characters did not feature prominently on any of the later series'. Crashcup made a single cameo appearance in A Chipmunk Christmas, and in an episode of Alvin and the Chipmunks.
The first television series was produced by Format Films for Bagdasarian Film Corporation. Although the series was broadcast in black and white, it was produced and later re-run in color. 26 episodes each were produced for the Alvin and the Chipmunks and Clyde Crashcup segments, along with 52 musical segments.
The final Chipmunks album in their original incarnation, The Chipmunks Go to the Movies, was released in 1969. After the death of Ross Bagdasarian in 1972 from a heart attack, the Chipmunks' careers stalled until NBC showed interest in the original show (the network carried Saturday morning reruns of The Alvin Show as a midseason replacement in 1979) and the following year, Excelsior Records released a new album of contemporary songs performed by the Chipmunks. The new album — Chipmunk Punk — featured Bagdasarian's son, Ross Bagdasarian Jr., doing the voices of the characters. That album and the continued reruns of the series proved to be popular enough to warrant further new records as well as a new television production, and in 1981, the Chipmunks and Seville returned to television in the Christmas special A Chipmunk Christmas, produced by Chuck Jones, which was first broadcast on NBC on December 14 of that year.
In 1983, the second animated television series, produced by Ruby-Spears Productions, was released. Titled simply Alvin and the Chipmunks, the outline of the show closely paralleled the original Alvin Show. A more sustained success than the original, the series lasted eight production seasons, until 1990. In the first season, the show introduced the Chipettes, three female versions of the Chipmunks — Brittany, Jeanette, and Eleanor, who each paralleled the original Chipmunks in personality (except Brittany was vainer than Alvin, Jeanette was smart like Simon, and Eleanor was fond of food like Theodore), with their own human guardian, the myopic Miss Beatrice Miller (who arrived for the 1986 season). The Chipmunks even sang a variation of NBC's Let's All Be There campaign for its Saturday-morning lineup in 1984. After 1988, the show was renamed just The Chipmunks to indicate that there were now two groups of them. Also introduced was the boys' "Uncle" Harry, who may or may not have actually been a relative. The show reflected current trends and historical events in pop culture; the Chipmunks sang recent hits, and wore contemporary clothing. One "documentary" episode spoofed John Lennon's 1966 infamous comment that The Beatles had become "more popular than Jesus", by recalling how the Chipmunks had fallen in popularity after Alvin boasted they were "bigger than Mickey Mouse!"
In 1987, during the fifth season of the show on television, the Chipmunks had their first animated feature film, The Chipmunk Adventure, directed by Janice Karman and Ross Bagdasarian, Jr., and released to theatres by The Samuel Goldwyn Company. The film featured the Chipmunks and the Chipettes in a contest traveling around the world.
In the 1988–89 season, the show switched production companies to DIC Entertainment, by which time the Chipmunks had truly become anthropomorphized. In 1990, the show switched titles again to The Chipmunks Go to the Movies. Each episode in this season was a spoof of a Hollywood film, such as Back to the Future, King Kong, and others. In addition, several television specials featuring the characters were also released. At the conclusion of the eighth season, the show was cancelled again.
In 1990, a documentary was produced about the show entitled Alvin and the Chipmunks/Five Decades with the Chipmunks. In that year, the Chipmunks also teamed up for the first and only time with other contemporary cartoons (such as Bugs Bunny, Garfield, etc.) for the drug abuse-prevention special Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue.
In 2004, 20th Century Fox, Regency Enterprises and Bagdasarian Productions announced a CGI/live action film adaptation of the popular musical group and animated series. The new film Alvin and the Chipmunks, directed by Tim Hill and starring Jason Lee as Dave Seville, was released on December 14, 2007. With Justin Long as Alvin, Matthew Gray Gubler as Simon, and Jesse McCartney as Theodore, it marks the first motion picture in which nobody related to Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. has performed as David or the Chipmunks. Though the critics gave it harsh reviews, audiences consisting of children and their baby boomer parents flocked to the theatres. As of February 14, 2008, it has made over $210 million in North America alone and a total of nearly $330 million worldwide.
In 2006, Bagdasarian Productions sued Thomas Lee, the creator of Chipmunks Gangsta Rap, a parody created by Bentframe and featured on Atom Films. The lawsuit is still in process. Also, The Chipmunk Adventure was released on DVD by Paramount Home Entertainment, then later Trick or Treason, A Chipmunk Christmas: 25th Anniversary and A Chipmunk Valentine. The Chipmunks Go To The Movies was released on May 22, 2007.
However, the extensive use of this technique with the Chipmunks, coupled with their popularity, linked this technique to them. The term "chipmunk-voiced" has entered the American vernacular to describe any artificially high-pitched voice. A similar effect could be obtained in playback by merely taking an LP recorded at 33 1/3 RPM and playing it back at 45 or 78 RPM, a trick sometimes tried out by ordinary record listeners just for laughs. The instrumental portions of the song are sped up as well, however, making it obvious that the music is being played at the wrong speed (Bagdasarian recorded vocals and music at different speeds to combine properly on his recording). Also, doing so might damage the record being played.
The technique was frequently imitated in comedy records, notably "The Ying Tong Song" by The Goons, "Transistor Radio" by Benny Hill, "Bridget the Midget" by Ray Stevens, "The Laughing Gnome" by David Bowie, and on several tracks on Joe Meek and the Blue Men's album I Hear a New World. The technique also appears in the instrumental break in Bobby Lewis' 1961 US #1 hit "Tossin' and Turnin'". It was used extensively in the British puppet show Pinky and Perky.
Prince has also used the technique on several of his songs.
In the early 90's rave scene, many breakbeat hardcore productions would utilize the same studio tricks, often taking acappellas from old soul and house records and speeding them up to fit the faster tempo. Vocals in songs that used this method would typically be referred to as "chipmunk vocals".
There were five Grammy Awards, a Golden Reel Award, and a Kids Choice Award in total.