As I sit here watching Saturday-morning cartoons with my kids, an old, nagging question resurfaces, to wit: how are the harmonious, perfectly pitched voices of Alvin and the Chipmunks created? Eunuchs? The Mandrell sisters on helium? I breathlessly await your reply.
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Obviously, Earl, you never spent much time horsing around with the speed control on your tape recorder to make goofy high-pitched voices. As kids my brothers and I found this to be a source of endless amusement, and if we’d been smarter and about 20 years older, we’d be millionaires today. Unfortunately, we were beaten to the punch by California songwriter Ross Bagdasarian.
Bagdasarian, who used the stage name David Seville, showed early signs of genius in 1951, when he and his cousin, the playwright William Saroyan, wrote a number-one hit for Rosemary Clooney called “Come On-a My House.” But the guy didn’t really hit his stride until 1958, when he recorded the classic tune “Witch Doctor.” By singing at a very … deliberate … pace into a tape recorder running at half speed, and then replaying the tape at normal speed, Bagdasarian was able to create the unforgettable proto-chipmunk chorus line, “Oo Ee Oo Ah Ah, Ting, Tang, Walla Walla Bing Bang.”(Bagdasarian used Walla Walla because he had an uncle who moved to Washington state. If the uncle had moved to Chicago, the whole course of musical history might have been different.)
The record sold 1.5 million copies. Realizing he was onto something big, Bagdasarian followed up seven months later with “The Chipmunk Song,” a Christmas tune featuring the now-famous trio of Theodore, Simon, and the obstreperous Alvin. Alvin was loosely based on Bagdasarian’s equally obstreperous four-year-old son Adam. According to Life magazine writer Shana Alexander, Adam was given to engaging his father in such implausibly precocious dialogue as the following:
adam: I made a valentine for you in school today.
ross: Adam, I told you not to come in here when I’m …
adam: But I didn’t bring it because it’s not finished.
ross: Adam, didn’t you hear me?
adam: You see, I only made the valen today.
ross (voice rising): Shut up, Adam …
adam: I’m making the tine tomorrow.
ross: A-A-A-A-DAM! (Slow fade.)
Sure, Shana. Adam apparently inspired his father to write “The Chipmunk Song” by pestering him about Christmas in September. (The song, you may remember, is a child’s lament about the slow passage of time before the holidays, sung about 23 octaves above high C.) Bagdasarian did all the voices himself, a tedious process that took three days and nine tape tracks in a recording studio. He named the chipmunks after Al Bennett and Si Warnoker, the heads of his record company, Liberty, and Ted Keep, the recording engineer for the session.
“The Chipmunk Song” sold four million copies, moving CBS to broadcast an animated prime-time version called The Alvin Show in 1961. Bagdasarian again did all the voices. The show bombed, but was moved to Saturday mornings and aired there successfully for several seasons. In 1979 NBC picked up the show for its own kid-vid lineup, retitling it Alvin and the Chipmunks. This was produced by Bagdasarian’s eldest son, Ross Junior — Ross Senior, God rest his soul, had passed into the void in 1972. No matter; he’d attained immortality long since.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.