Rostom Sipan “Ross” Bagdasarian was born January 27, 1919 in Fresno, California.
Ross enlisted in the U.S. Army one month after Pearl Harbor and served until the end of World War II.
After the war, he performed on Broadway and wrote the song “Come on- a My House” recorded by Rosemary Clooney in 1951.
Ross then played minor roles in films, the best known of which was his appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 murder mystery Rear Window. Ross portrayed a piano-playing songwriter who composes, plays, and sings the song “Lisa”.
Rose had small parts in The Greatest Show on Earth, Viva Zapata!, Destination Gobi, Stalag 17, Alaska Seas, The Proud and Profane, Three Violent People, Hot Blood, The Deep Six, and The Devil’s Hairpin.
In 1956, Ross recorded a moderate hit as “Alfi and Harry” with a novelty record “The Trouble with Harry”, the same title as Alfred Hitchcock’s comedy-thriller that year. Ross also wrote The Ballad of Colin Black, a tie-in song to The Proud and Profane. Later reported by his son Ross Bagdasarian, Jr., his father was down to his last $200 when he spent $190 on a V-M tape recorder that would let him vary the tapes speed.
Most consumer tape recorders of the day had changeable speeds, but usually only in simple binary multiples, doubling or halving the speed, creating sounds an octave apart. Changing speeds of voices in these limited multiples creates extremely high or low pitches that sound too extreme for most purposes. (Walt Disney used half-speed recording for his Chip ‘n Dale cartoon characters, making the extremely fast dialogue difficult to understand. As a result, dialog recorded at that speed had to consist of very short phrases.)
Ross Bagdasarian’s main recording innovation was to use tape machines that could vary speeds in between these extreme octaves, creating more understandable and thus emotionally accessible voices that worked well for both singing and spoken dialogue.
In 1958, after taking the stage name of David Seville, Ross had a number-one hit with “Witch Doctor” which was his first experiment with speeding an audio track to get a distinctive, squeaky, high-pitched voice.
Seville soon followed that with “The Bird on My Head”, which barely made the Top 40.
Then for the 1958 Christmas season Seville recorded “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” with The Chipmunks, for which the song won three Grammy Awards at the inaugural Grammy Awards held May 4, 1959 at Hollywood’s Beverly Hilton hotel.
Seville was awarded Grammy’s for Best Comedy Performance and Best Recording for Children. The song also won Best Engineered Record – Non-Classical for the song’s engineer Ted Keep.
The first Chipmunk record, “The Chipmunk Song”, had Seville doing all the voices.
Seville named the three Chipmunk characters after record executives: Simon Waronker, Ted Keep (Theodore), and Alvin Bennett. (The spoken coda, when played slowly, reveals him enacting the roles of Theodore, Simon, and Alvin.)
Thereafter, most of his Chipmunk records used female voice artists, recorded only about 1/4 slower than the normal playback speed.
The Chipmunk Song became very successful, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Pop Singles chart, becoming The Chipmunks’ first (and only), as well as David Seville’s second and final, No. 1 single.
The Chipmunk Song has the distinction of being the only Christmas record to reach No. 1 on the same chart. The single sold 4.5 million copies in seven weeks, according to son, Ross Bagdasarian, Jr.
Ironically, before the song’s Grammy success, “The Chipmunk Song” was featured on American Bandstand’s “Rate-A-Record” segment and received the lowest possible rating of 35 across the board.
Between 1959 and 1962, the single managed to re-enter the Hot 100, peaking at No. 41 in 1959, No. 45 in 1960, and No. 39 in 1962.
(Starting in 1963, Billboard would list re-current Christmas songs on a separate charts)
“The Chipmunk Song” is the last Christmas/holiday song to reach No. 1 on any US singles record chart totaling performance of all available records.
After the success of “The Chipmunk Song”, a series of follow-up hit singles were quickly released, also on Liberty Records. “Alvin’s Harmonica” was the second, “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” the third and “Alvin’s Orchestra” the fourth, with B-sides (like “Mediocre” and “Almost Good”) sometimes featuring non-chipmunk semi-comedic concepts. Albums also continued this trend, the first album being released on red vinyl, successfully continuing well into the 60s with an album of the Chipmunks singing various early hits of the Beatles in 1964.
(Even a Chipmunk album of punk and new wave songs was released in the 1980s by son Ross Jr.)
Other trick-recording producers tried to imitate Seville’s Chipmunks, with usually embarrassing results for lack of good comedy writing and weak characterization.
Other novelty recording artists experimented with similar speed tricks— Buddy Holly recorded a Chipmunk-styled version of Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin'” for his own amusement, and his slow vocal was later released commercially — but none came close to the longevity of Seville’s strongly-defined Chipmunk characters, Simon, Theodore, and the trouble-making Alvin.
Following his hit records, Ross provided the voice for David Seville and Alvin in the Chipmunks’ short-lived 1961-62 animated television series The Alvin Show.
The Chipmunks’ recordings had the performers often labeled as “David Seville and the Chipmunks” and the composer typically listed as “Bagdasarian.”
Ross Bagdasarian’s last album was The Chipmunks Go to the Movies, released in 1969.
Rostom Sipan “Ross” Bagdasarian, Sr. was found dead of a heart attack on January 16, 1972, eleven days before his 53rd birthday.
All Chipmunk activity ceased until 1979, when Ross Jr began releasing Chipmunks recordings. He also became the voice for David Seville and the Chipmunks, except for those performed by Ross Jr.’s wife, Janice Karman, such as Theodore and all of The Chipettes.
Ross Jr. said he was surprised to find himself following in his father’s footsteps. “I revered my dad, but I didn’t want to do what he had done. That was his creation. Had he remained alive, I never would have done this. But when he passed away suddenly, it was a way of keeping my dad alive, and keeping what he created alive.”
The Chipmunk Song managed to chart on the Hot Digital Songs for the first time in 2005, peaking at No. 35 on that chart.
With the release and popularity of the film Alvin and the Chipmunks in December 2007, “The Chipmunk Song” re-entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 70. At the same time, a remixed version of the song that appears on the Chipmunks’ 2007 album (and soundtrack to the film) Alvin and the Chipmunks: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, peaked at No. 66 and was credited as “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late) (2007 Version)”.
As of December 25, 2011, Nielsen SoundScan estimated total sales of the digital track for The Chipmunks at 867,000 downloads, placing it third on the list of all-time best-selling Christmas/holiday digital singles in SoundScan history (behind Mariah Carey’s 1994 hit single “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s 1996 track “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24”).
The 2007 film Alvin and the Chipmunks was dedicated to Ross, Sr.
A title card shown in the middle of the end credits reads:
“This film is dedicated to Ross Bagdasarian Sr., who was crazy enough to invent three singing chipmunks nearly fifty years ago”.
Now WE know em