The chase was on, as it had been for years. After the tale of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was put to music and sold in a frenzy in 1949, each yuletide brought a bumper crop of sonic delights (or irritants) in hopes of finding the next holiday smash. By 1958, there were reportedly hundreds of new attempts annually, in a scramble that one journalist dubbed “the nightmare before Christmas.”

“Gaily, madly, (songwriters) hang holly wreaths about the necks of practically every member of the animal kingdom,” Associated Press reporter Hugh A. Mulligan lamented. They put Santa everywhere “from inside jail to outer space, and fashion nonsense lyrics that are meant to be stammered, whistled, turkey-talked.”

Wax figures of Alvin and the Chipmunks are unveiled at Madame Tussauds in Las Vegas on Monday, Nov. 10, 2008. Isaac Brekken/Associated Press file

There had been Christmas hits after “Rudolph,” even chart-toppers such as 1952’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” sung by 13-year-old Jimmy Boyd. But few were bona fide sensations from the start like “Rudolph,” whose original Gene Autry version sold 1.7 million records in its first year. By 1958, the song was the genre’s top hit, with its many iterations having sold 27 million copies in the United States. (Irving Berlin’s earlier “White Christmas” trailed by a few million sales at the time, though Bing Crosby’s 1942 version now is listed by Guinness World Records as the best-selling physical single of any genre.)

But by the start of December 1958 – 65 years ago this month – another sensation was emerging: “The Chipmunk Song,” by the Chipmunks with David Seville.

It was gimmicky, cute, and as catchy as a smile (or the flu, depending on the listener). In it, Seville coaxes a holiday ditty from his childlike chipmunk trio of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore.

The song, which had been released in November, got a jump-start when DJs bucked a tradition of not playing holiday records before Thanksgiving, and it then spent December scaling Billboard’s Hot 100 pop singles chart. Three days before Christmas, it hit No. 1 and held the spot for four of its 13 weeks on the chart.

In a year that also produced Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run,” sales of “The Chipmunk Song” nonetheless shot into the millions before New Year’s Day – around 4 million, by some accounts – leading to reports that it was, at that time, the fastest-selling record ever.

It also was the last Christmas song to hit No. 1 for six decades, until 2019, when Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” finally got there, 25 years after its release. At the first-ever Grammy Awards the following year, “The Chipmunk Song” was nominated for Record of the Year. It lost that category – to Domenico Modugno’s “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare)” – but won three others, including Best Comedy Performance.

And it wasn’t even the only No. 1 hit of 1958 for Seville, who had started the year as a struggling songwriter.

Seville, who died in 1972 at age 52, was the stage name of Ross Bagdasarian, a son of Fresno, Calif., grape farmers. He was an aspiring actor before serving in World War II and then buying his own grape farm in the late 1940s. He and his wife, Armen, started a family, but their crops didn’t sell, as grapes or raisins. “Finally, my mom said to my dad, ‘Ross, listen: You love music, you love writing songs,” recalled one of their three children, producer and voice actor Ross Bagdasarian Jr. “‘If we’re going to starve, I’d prefer doing it with your music. Let’s go to L.A., rather than having more raisin casserole.'”

In Hollywood, if not on the farm, he seemed like the kind of person to bet on.

“He was just bigger than life at 5-foot-7,” said the younger Bagdasarian, 74, who with his wife, Janice Karman, resurrected the Chipmunks and created the past four decades worth of albums, cartoon series, and feature films. “A great sense of humor, a great storyteller. Just an incredible person.”

The family moved to Los Angeles in 1950. The following year, Bagdasarian scored a No. 1 hit when Rosemary Clooney recorded a song he’d written in 1939 with his cousin, Pulitzer Prize- and Oscar-winning writer William Saroyan: the jaunty “Come On-a My House.”

Over the next few years, he wrote a handful of successful songs, including Dean Martin’s “Hey, Brother, Pour the Wine” and the instrumental “Armen’s Theme,” and he appeared in films – notably, uncredited roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” Billy Wilder’s “Stalag 17” and Elia Kazan’s “Viva Zapata!” – with fallow spells in between.

Then, in early 1958, his son recalled, “with $200 left in the bank, he takes $190 of it to buy a varied-speed tape machine”- which the family still has – “and he starts to play around with the lyrics of [what would become the song] ‘Witch Doctor.'”

Singing extra slowly while recording at half speed, then playing back the tape at full speed, Bagdasarian created the pinched voice of a shaman who, in the song, gives a lovelorn man (also voiced by Bagdasarian, at regular speed) these magic words: “ooh-ee, ooh-ah-ah, ting, tang, walla-walla bing-bang.”

“Witch Doctor” topped the Billboard chart in April 1958.

“It’s a really interesting time in ’58 because you’ve got so much going on musically,” said Daniel Goldmark, a music professor at Case Western Reserve University who studies popular music and the music of cartoons. Rock ‘n’ roll pioneers jockeyed for chart positions alongside doo-wop groups, folk revivalists, R&B stars, the surviving titans of big-band jazz, and the future ones of bop. It also was the heyday of the loose genre of curios known as novelty records. And in his time, Bagdasarian was perhaps “its greatest popularizer,” Steve Otfinoski writes in his book, “The Golden Age of Novelty Songs.”

That wasn’t necessarily his goal. Ross Bagdasarian Jr. said his father was more reverent about music and orchestration than the term “novelty” might imply.

He’d never learned to read or write music but would hum or plunk piano keys to express his ideas. “I can do things which a trained musician wouldn’t do. He’d know better,” Bagdasarian told a reporter with the Newspaper Enterprise Association in 1963. “But I don’t know better, so I do them – and they work.”

Toward the end of the summer of 1958, Bagdasarian’s youngest child, 4-year-old Adam (now an author and National Book Award finalist), began asking his father: Is it Christmas yet? Dumbfounded at first, Bagdasarian began mulling that marathon wait for the holiday.

Using the technique from “Witch Doctor,” he gave voices and personalities to three chipmunks, while also voicing Seville at regular speed. He borrowed the chipmunks’ names from the brass at his record label: Liberty Records executive Alvin Bennett, founder Simon Waronker, and chief engineer Theodore Keep.

“The rest,” he told the Toledo Blade the next year, “is wonderful history.”

“The Chipmunk Song” stayed in the top 40 from December until mid-February – just long enough to overlap there with Bagdasarian’s next single, “Alvin’s Harmonica,” which reached No. 3. More hit records followed, and the Chipmunks jumped to TV for a few seasons in the early 1960s.

Decades later, the song remains in perennial rotation, casting a specific shade of nostalgia.

That long success may be, in part, due to mechanics: the song’s gentle, treadmill-like movement – and its brevity, at a little over 2 minutes, said Goldmark. “It’s good enough to know when to stop.”

For Ross Bagdasarian Jr., the alchemy – especially as generations came to know the characters – is perhaps in the ways listeners identify with a kid’s desire for a little independence and a parent’s impulse to do things his way. “Alvin was never mean-spirited or angry,” he said. “Alvin’s feeling was that he knew he had a great idea, and if Dave would just work with him on this thing, it would be great for everybody.”

It’s a feeling that motivated his father in 1958, too, in an industry he found leery of novelty.

“‘You can’t do that,’ they’ll say. ‘It’s never been done before,'” Bagdasarian Sr. told the Blade. “So what?”

Danny Freedman is a freelance journalist in Memphis His writing has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, the New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine and elsewhere.

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