The Chipmunks were created in 1958 by Ross Bagdasarian, a singer, songwriter, and later record producer, who got his start writing the song “Come On-a My House”, a million-selling hit record performed by Rosemary Clooney.

The song would make Clooney a star, selling over 750,000 copies in a single month. It would go on to hit #1 on the Billboard Charts and would be the #4 single for all of 1951. Bagdasarian would go on to write “Hey, Brother, Pour the Wine” for Dean Martin, and then began releasing his own Billboard Charting songs under the pseudonym “David Seville”. His most famous song before The Chipmunks was the Halloween favorite, “Witch Doctor”, released in 1958. The novelty record sold 1.5 million copies and held the #1 spot on the charts for three weeks.

For “Witch Doctor”, Seville used the speed control on his tape recorder to adjust the pitch of his voice whenever the titular witch doctor sang his now-famous chrous, “Ooh, ee ooh-ah-ah, ting tang, walla-walla bing-bang”. While this wasn’t the first time a song featured sped up and higher-pitched lyrics, it became a tool that Seville would use often.

After the success of “Witch Doctor”, Seville’s record label, Liberty Records, asked him for another novelty song. Seville used the speed control on his tape recorder again to create the sound of the high-pitched rodents, named after the three top executives at Liberty Records – Alvin (for Al Bennett), Simon (for Si Waronker), and Theodore (for Ted Keep). According to Seville, he was inspired to create The Chipmunks when he was traveling through Sequoia National Park and a chipmunk darted in front of his car.

The Chipmunks’ debut single, “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”, was released on November 17, 1958, and became a number one hit during the holiday season.

Like “Witch Doctor”, “The Chipmunk Song” was a huge success, selling over 4 million copies in just seven weeks of release, and spent four weeks at #1 on the Billboard Charts. The song would go on to receive three Grammy Awards, including a nomination for Record of the Year. (Side Note: It lost Record of the Year to “Nel blu, dipinto di blu”, by the Italian singer Domenico Modugno. That song would become an American standard under it’s more common name, “Volare”, and has been covered by Bobby Rydell, Dean Martin, David Bowie, and Ann-Margaret.) For many years, “The Chipmunk Song” would reappear on the charts right around Christmas time, and has since been reissued on various Chipmunks albums many, many times.

Hot off the success of “The Chipmunk Song”, Seville released Let’s All Sing with The Chipmunks in 1959, followed by new Chipmunks albums almost every year during the 1960s. In the span of 10 years, Seville released 12 albums, with songs ranging from traditional American folk songs (i.e., “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, “Comin’ Round the Mountain”, “Home on the Range”) to original Seville tunes to covers of The Beatles (apparently The Beatles loved this album). In all, these early Chipmunks albums would earn 13 Grammy nominations, winning five times.

Beyond the music, Seville expanded the Chipmunks to become a multi-media franchise, starting with the Dell comic book in 1959, The Three Chipmunks.

Shortly after, in 1961, the Chipmunks became animated on The Alvin Show, which ran for two seasons on NBC in prime-time.

The show wasn’t a rating success, though, so it was canceled after 26 episodes. The show was made up of three segments – a Chipmunks segment, a musical number from one of the three Chipmunks albums that had been released by this time, and a final segment starring Clyde Crashcup. Crashcup was another Seville invention, a scientist in a white lab coat who, along with his silent assistant, Leonardo, invents things that have already been invented. Needless to say, Crashcup didn’t have the staying power of his rodent colleagues.

It was on The Alvin Show that the Chipmunks really developed their on-air personas – Theodore is the kind of dumb one who likes to eat, Simon is the brainy straight man, and Alvin is the trouble-making narcissist who demands the spotlight.

After cancellation, The Alvin Show would be repackaged for syndication and ran numerous times throughout the 1960s and 70s.

Unfortunately, Ross Bagdasarian died in 1972. As the voice of all three chipmunks and his alter-ego, David Seville, it seemed to signal the end of any further Chipmunks media. However, Bagdasarian’s son, Ross, Jr., saw there might still be life left in the franchise and so took over all the duties of his father’s creation.

Ross, Jr. released Chipmunk Punk, the first Chipmunks album since 1969’s The Chipmunks Go to the Movies, in June of 1980. Like The Beatles album before it, Chipmunk Punk featured covers of contemporary songs from artists like Blondie, Billy Joel, Queen, and The Cars.

While many saw the album as a money grab, Ross, Jr. was undeterred, and released Urban Chipmunk in 1981. The album was a parody of the 1980 film, Urban Cowboy, and featured The Chipmunks singing popular country and western songs from the day.

Urban Chipmunk was my first Chipmunks record and I loved it as a musical five-year-old. I think that album was one of the reasons I got into a real cowboy kick around that time. I can remember my mom bought me a pair of cowboy boots, some checkered shirts, and even put a handkerchief around my neck to help complete the look. (I didn’t get a hat until I was in my 20s, though, when Garth Brooks and line dancing were all the rage.)

The Chipmunks returned to animation with 1981’s A Chipmunk Christmas, an special that aired on December 14th on NBC.

A soundtrack album of the special was released and hit #72 on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart. It would go on to become a gold record, the third gold for the trio, but would also be their last certified gold record.

Their next album was 1982’s The Chipmunks Go Hollywood, featuring covers of popular music from the movies and TV shows. This was my absolute favorite Chipmunks album as a kid and I played it so often, singing every song at the top of my lungs, that my parents got sick of it.

As a seven-year-old, I clearly didn’t see the humor in me belting out the theme to Arthur, a movie about a drunk millionaire, but I was all about getting lost between the moon and New York City. Of course it featured other songs that I knew, like “Eye of the Tiger”, the theme to The Dukes of Hazzard, and, probably my personal favorite, the theme song to The Greatest American Hero. Unfortunately, when I dug through what remained of my family’s record collection, The Chipmunks Go Hollywood was nowhere to be found. My parents probably never wanted to hear that thing again…

After the success of the Christmas special, Ross, Jr. and Ruby-Spears Productions released Alvin and the Chipmunks in 1983, a Saturday morning cartoon that ran for eight seasons on NBC for a total of 102 episodes.

It’s amazing how that intro song is just engraved into my brain after all these years. Of course for most Gen Xers/Millennials, this was the height of The Chipmunks’ fame.

Aside from The Chipmunks, the show also introduced The Chipettes, a girl group that were both rivals and love interests for The Chipmunks. The Chipettes were essentially carbon copies of the The Chipmunks in personality – Jeanette was the nerdy one like Simon, Eleanor was the hungry one like Theodore, and Brittany was the spotlight-chasing lead singer like Alvin.

Not only was the cartoon a ratings success, but over it’s eight seasons, the show would be nominated for three Daytime Emmy Awards and two Young Artist Awards.

Of course with a cartoon in the 1980s, there had to be merchandising, too.

There were Chipmunk stuffed animals…

as well as PVC figures, poseable action figures, playsets, t-shirts, books, stickers, and plenty more.

But perhaps the most popular Chipmunks collectible were the Hardee’s glasses released in 1985.

For 69 cents, everyone was buying these glasses. I know at one time I had the entire collection, but, as often happened, they wound up victims to accidents or got tossed away once I outgrew them. Of course, that doesn’t mean I can’t get a new set for my collection today.

I didn’t actually set out to collect The Chipmunks glasses; it just sort of happened. I loved the show as a kid, but I also simply outgrew my interest in the franchise. However, my family and I were at an antique mall, and I found Alvin and Theodore on sale for $7 for both of them. At $3.50 each, I couldn’t say no. It took me a few weeks, but I was finally able to track down Simon and The Chipettes on Facebook Marketplace for $5 each. The Simon one has a stain of some kind (of course the picture on Marketplace showed the unblemished side), so if I happen across a better one at a thrift store, I’ll probably replace it. While I didn’t set out to collect them, now that I have them, I’m very happy I did.

In 1987, the animated show became an animated feature, The Chipmunk Adventure. The film had The Chipmunks and The Chipettes traveling the world as accidental diamond mules (WTF?) as they carried stolen gems in a race to see who could traverse the globe first. The film was mostly animated by former Disney employees who had been laid off after the box office flop, The Black Cauldron. The movie didn’t set the box office on fire, bringing in only $6.8 million.

The cartoon would be canceled in 1990, following an uninspired Season 8 where every episode saw The Chipmunks just doing parodies of popular movies like Back to the Future, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and the very not-kid friendly, National Lampoon’s European Vacation. After that, The Chipmunks went dormant for a number of years.

In 1996, Universal Studios purchased the rights to The Chipmunks sporadically released new material, including a few new albums, as well as 1999’s direct-to-video animated film, Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein, and it’s sequel, Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet the Wolfman.

However, Universal lost the rights to The Chipmunks in 2002 when Ross, Jr.’s Bagdasarian Productions sued because Universal wasn’t doing enough with the franchise. Bagdasarian regained rights and, five years later in 2007, released a live-action film, Alvin and the Chipmunks, starring Jason Lee and David Cross (which Cross loves to be reminded of, by the way). The film featured 3-D CGI Chipmunks and became a major box office smash, bringing in $361 million on a $60 million budget.

This was followed up by three more sequels – 2009’s Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, 2011’s Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, and 2015’s Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip.

Despite being critically panned, all three of these sequel films were big hits, too! Squeakquel brought in $443 million on a $70 million budget; Chipwrecked made $342 million on an $80 million budget; and Road Chip made $234 million on a $90 million budget.

As of 2021, Bagdasarian Productions has said that The Chipmunks are up for sale. Paramount Pictures was apparently interested in the acquisition, but there hasn’t been any further word since those initial talks. I can’t believe that someone hasn’t picked up the rights yet, because clearly this nearly-70-year old franchise still has some juice left in the tank. It’s probably just a matter of time before these rockin’ rodents are rebooted for a whole new generation to enjoy.

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