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Goldmine Magazine 1982

Goldmine is an American magazine with a focus on the collectors' market for records and albums, as well as music news, interviews, and discographies.

In 1982, a magazine interview, by Lydia Sherwood, about the creation of Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Alvin Show television series, and multiple Chipmunk albums, entitled The Chipmunks Chatter - A Talk with Ross Bagdasarian, Jr., was released.

Synopsis[]

Lydia Sherwood interviews with Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. about Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. and the Alvin and the Chipmunks discography.

Main Questions[]

  1. How did he break into show business?
  2. What happened with the record?
  3. Was he involved in show business in any other capacity?
  4. Legend has it that the Chipmunks were created because he was experimenting with a tape recorder. Is this true?
  5. Why did he use a different name?
  6. Wasn't "Witch Doctor" basically a Chipmunk record?
  7. How did your father's switchover to Liberty Records come about?
  8. "Witch Doctor" was released because Liberty was going bankrupt?
  9. Why chipmunks?
  10. Is it true that the Chipmunks were named after Liberty executives?
  11. What happened after your father decided on chipmunks?
  12. When did the television show begin?
  13. Was your father responsible for the story lines, too?
  14. Do you have a favorite segment of The Alvin Show?
  15. How much of the story lines were based on you and your siblings?
  16. How long did the Chipmunks last?
  17. Why did you bring back the Chipmunks after your father passed?
  18. Can you discuss the recording technique?
  19. Is it true that production is under way for some new Chipmunks cartoons?
  20. Isn't the cartooning process much different today?
  21. How much of an influence was Walt Disney on your father?
  22. What do you see as your role and responsibility in children's programming today?
  23. Do you and Janice have any children?
  24. Are the Chipmunks popular recording stars in other countries, too?

Full Interview[]

Lydia: Ross, it seems that those loveable rodents, The Chipmunks, have been singing sensations forever. But of course, they were first created by your father in the late '50s. How did he break into show business?
Ross: My dad grew up in the vineyards of Fresno, California, the grapelands, and he really wasn't enjoying that too much. He decided that if he was going to be staving anyways, he would rather be starving by doing entertainment work, so he moved the family to Los Angeles in 1950.
Lydia: What did he do then?
Ross: He had one song with him called "Come On-A My House," but he was told by everyone who heard it that the song would never work, because it was too ethnic. Finally, Mitch Miller, who had a singer named Rosemary Clooney under contract to him, persuaded her to sing the song. She really didn't want to, but Mitch said, "I want you to sing it exactly the way Ross tells you to."
Lydia: What happened with the record?
Ross: That resulted in my father's first gold record, and at the time he thought, "My God, there's nothing to this entertainment business." But there were a lot of years in between before his next success.
Lydia: Which was?
Ross: A song that Dean Martin recorded called "Hey Brother, Pour The Wine." This also went gold in 1954.
Lydia: Was he involved in show business in any other capacity?
Ross: Yes, In between that time he was acting in odd jobs - not because he was a terribly good actor, but because he was so funny. Everyone liked having him on the set.
Lydia: What movies was he in?
Ross: He was in several movies in the early to mid-'50s, including Viva Zapata with Marlon Brando and Destination Gobi with Richard Widmark. He also played with Bill Holden in Stalag 13 and with Grace Kelly in Rear Window. How this very mediocre actor wound up in all these great shows is really a surprise to everyone.
Lydia: Ross, your father is best known as the creator of the Chipmunks, of course. Legend has it that the Chipmunks were created because he was experimenting with a tape recorder. Is this true?
Ross: Yes, in late 1957, when the family was down to about $200, my dad decided to take about $190 of it and invest in a recorder. He was fiddling around with it at home and he came up with a song called "Witch Doctor." That was the one that went (sings) "OO-EE-OO-AH-AH."
Lydia: How old were you then?
Ross: I was about eight, my sister, Carol, is two years older, and my brother, Adam, is five years younger.
Lydia: Do you have any memories from then?
Ross: I remember my dad asking the three kids to come into the back room, where he had a little studio. He wanted us to listen to the song ("The Chipmunk Song") and we just loved it! We honestly didn't know whether songs were good, bad, or well done musically, but we thought that it would be popular with the other kids.
Lydia: And it was. It went to number one, didn't it?
Ross: Yes! We loved the song just as millions of other people when it was released.
Lydia: The record was credited to David Seville, who really was your father using a pseudonym. Why did he use a different name?
Ross: It was the feeling of the record company in those days that Bagdasarian would be too difficult a name to pronounce, so they asked him to come up with something short and simple. During World War II, he was stationed near Seville, a city in Spain that he has always enjoyed. Liberty liked the name and a short while later he came out with "Witch Doctor."
Lydia: But wasn't "Witch Doctor" basically a Chipmunk record? It has the same sound.
Ross: No, "Witch Doctor" just featured the same sped-up voice sound.
Lydia: Can you explain how your father discovered that technique? Was he really just fiddling with the recorder?
Ross: That's right. And all of a sudden he hit on a sound that he liked.
Lydia: "Witch Doctor" was released on Liberty but wasn't your father originally signed to Mercury Records? How did that switchover come about?
Ross: Well, in those days, I think that everyone switched around. He was on Liberty Records a little earlier than "Witch Doctor" - he had composed a song called "Armen's Theme," an instrumental that went gold in 1956. You can still hear it in elevators as muzak.
Lydia: Did your father have confidence in "Witch Doctor?"
Ross: Oh, sure. He was very optimistic about everything that he did. Actually, had Liberty not been on the verge of going out of business, there probably never would have been the career of the Chipmunks.
Lydia: You mean, "Witch Doctor" was released because Liberty was going bankrupt?
Ross: Yes. My dad said, "What have you got to lose? If it's a bomb you're broke anyway, and if it's a success you've saved for about six months." Of course, it was a big success. And about nine months later, Liberty was about to go under again, because one hit record can't keep you afloat forever. So, they said, "Ross, we need another hit."
Lydia: And the Chipmunks came to be?
Ross: That's right.
Lydia: Why chipmunks?
Ross: He liked the sound in "Witch Doctor" but he didn't know whether to make the new characters hippos, elephants, beetles or what. He was driving along the road - and this is a true story - near Yosemite, California, when this chipmunk almost dared him and his huge car to drive past. My dad was so impressed by that audacious behavior that he decided to make the three singing characters chipmunks.
Lydia: Is it true that the Chipmunks were named after Liberty executives?
Ross: That's right.
Lydia: Why those particular executives: Alvin, Simon and Theodore?
Ross: Who knows? Maybe it was a chance to get back at them or to give them immortality. I don't know which.
Editor's Note: Alvin is Al Bennett, then president of Liberty Records. After selling Liberty in the late '60s to Trans-America/United Artists, Bennett formed Cream Records. Simon was named after Bennett's partner Si Waronker, whose son, Lenny Waronker, presently works at Warner Brothers, and has produced such notables as Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and Randy Newman. Theodore's namesake is Ted Keep, the recording engineer at the session.
Lydia: I was wondering if he based the individual personalities on the executives as well?
Ross: No, he always liked including people around him in what he was doing.
Lydia: What happened after your father decided on chipmunks?
Ross: One he finished "The Chipmunk Song," he took it to Liberty. Of course, Al Bennett said, "We need hits, not chipmunks." My dad said, "Come on Al, you've got nothing to lose." It was the "Witch Doctor" story all over again, nine months later. In the next seven weeks, "The Chipmunk Song" became number one and sold over four and a half million records. To date, it's still the fastest selling record in the music business. There was such a crush of product to get out that they were running out of the printed green labels which was the Liberty trademark. They needed to use anything so they used black labels, blue labels, whatever could be found.
Lydia: Does that mean that the records released on labels different than the green labels are worth more?
Ross: Yes.
Lydia: Do you know the value of those records?
Ross: I have no idea.
Lydia: The success of the Chipmunks records led to a television show. When did that begin?
Ross: The Alvin Show aired on CBS for seven seasons beginning in 1961.
Lydia: Who created the original design of the characters?
Ross: That was done with my dad and a company called Format Films.
Lydia: Was your father responsible for the story lines, too?
Ross: Yes, most of the story lines were my father's, and there's a real mark of his throughout. I think that one of the reasons the show was so successful even then was due to the fact that it had a little sophistication in it. Adults could watch it and not be totally bored.
Lydia: Who were some of the characters?
Ross: There was Clyde Crashcup, the crazy inventor who invented everything from the wild west to babies, soap and wives. He really "misinvents" things.
Lydia: Can you give an example?
Ross: If he invented a horse, it would have five legs instead of four legs and would always trip over itself.
Lydia: I see! Any other characters?
Ross: There was Leonardo, Crashcup's assistant who spoke in a whisper and tried to explain Clyde's mistakes. Of course, Clyde was too arrogant to listen to his little underling. Sam Valiant, predated the Maxwell Smart character played by Don Adams in Get Smart (a situation comedy of the '60s about a bumbling secret agent) and had a very familiar voice along with that same imbecilic nature.
Lydia: Do you have a favorite segment of The Alvin Show?
Ross: Yes. It stars the Chipmunks and Stanley, the eagle, who was afraid to fly. The Chipmunks undertake the task of teaching Stanley to fly, trying everything from attaching wings to pushing him down on a skateboard and leaping off of a ramp, to tying him on a kite. Finally, Alvin gets an encyclopedia and shows Stanley the picture of a proud eagle. It's like a Rocky story; Alvin gives him confidence and encouragement and pretty soon he's soaring high.
Lydia: How much of the story lines were based on you and your siblings?
Ross: I really don't think there's much of that, although it's hard not to have premises come up from kids. I guess even the idea of "The Chipmunk Song," where Alvin sings "Is it Christmas, yet," in July, came from my brother, who would do the same thing, I guess there's some element of home life, but I don't know how much.
Lydia: The Chipmunks are three brothers and your father had three children.
Ross: Yes, but you won't get any of us to admit to being a too fat Theodore or the bookwormish Simon. I guess all of us still want to be Alvin.
Lydia: Is The Alvin Show still on in any markets?
Ross: No, the show aired until 1968 and has run from time to time (as recently as 1978 on NBC) in probably over 80 countries.
Lydia: Are any of these shows available on video?
Ross: Not yet, but we've talking with Viacom, the company who owns the distribution rights.
Lydia: How long did the Chipmunks last?
Ross: My dad finished the last Chipmunk album in 1967. After nearly 10 years of making Chipmunk records, he was exhausted. You see, in the beginning, not only was he doing all the story writing, but he wrote the music and performed all three Chipmunk parts, plus David Seville, who was the Chipmunks' guardian and appeared on all the records and cartoons with them. There was other merchandising, too. He had begun as a serious songwriter and he wanted to get back to that.
Lydia: Ross, your father passed away in 1972, and years later, the Chipmunks are back. Why?
Ross: My wife and partner, Janice Karman, and I decided to honor my dad with a tribute because of my feelings of love and respect for him and the characters that he created.
Lydia: How have the Chipmunks changed since the early days?
Ross: I don't think that the characters have changed much. I believe that we've been able to capture the same feeling for the Chipmunks that my dad had, partly because the characters are so good themselves. We try not to ruin them and I think we've been able to rekindle their fun and charm, while bringing them into the '90s. We released the first album, Chipmunk Punk, in 1980, and in it the Chipmunks sing songs by Blondie, Billy Joel, the Cars and the Knack.
Lydia: Chipmunk Punk was released on the Pickwick label and your second album, Urban Chipmunk (which featured guest vocalists Brenda Lee & Jerry Lee) is on RCA. How did that come about?
Ross: We wanted to be with a company that was in the business of making records as well as distributing them. Pickwick was really just a distributor.
Lydia: Can you discuss the recording technique?
Ross: Not really. It's just something that we don't talk about, except to say that it's a difficult process to get the personality and humor in the voices when you are changing tape speeds. Our first few days in the studio were miserable because neither of us knew what to do. But we decided to stick with it.
Lydia: Has the recording process changed at all?
Ross: Not on iota. We have experimented with harmonizers and all kinds of things that people tell us will make it simpler to record the Chipmunks' voices, but none of them have worked. We're still using the same recipe that my dad used nearly 25 years ago.
Lydia: Is it your voice now?
Ross: Yes. My voice is very similar to my dad's. David Seville yells just as convincingly as he did 24 years ago!
Lydia: Do you do all the voices?
Ross: Yes, with the exception of Theodore. I honestly don't think that you would be able to hear the difference between the characters we're doing now and my dad's, except for Theodore, who is recorded by Janice. I think that her voice gives him his own personality, and a cuter sound.
Lydia: How do you and Janice collaborate?
Ross: We throw around ideas and from five to 10 we'll get a good one to pursue. Because we write and produce together it works out well.
Lydia: Is it true that production is under way for some new Chipmunks cartoons?
Ross: Yes, it is. We're just beginning to develop some Saturday morning shows which will be aired in the fall of next year. If these shows do well, we already have a storyboard written for an Urban Chipmunk special, and hopefully, we'll get to do other specials, too.
Lydia: Isn't the cartooning process much different today? How does it work?
Ross: Today's animations are limited due to the enormous expense of creating cartoons. The arms, legs, feet, eyes, nose and mouths no longer move at the same time, as they did 30-40 years ago. To compensate, the first step is to write a good script along with good vocals. It's more important than ever to have a good script and we're concentrating our efforts on that. The second phase is to storyboard it. This involves putting approximately an 11 minute segment of the show, which will be told in about 300 different still drawings, on a board to determine if the story works, if it's funny and tasteful.
Lydia: Do you work with animators?
Ross: We're working with several people: Ruby/Spears Productions is the animation company that is helping to develop the shows, but we're always had outside consultants like Freddy Helmick, who worked with Disney for a very long time. We'd like to talk with Don Bluth who recently did The Secret Of Nimh, a beautifully animated film. He's part of a group of men who recently left the Disney studios about two years ago. Obviously, they'd be too expensive for Saturday morning shows, but we'd like to work with this high caliber of people.
Lydia: I wonder how much of an influence Walt Disney was on your father?
Ross: He was a real influence to the degree that my father wanted the Disney studios to do The Alvin Show originally in the 1960-'61. The problem was that Walt Disney wanted to own the characters, etc., so it wasn't a deal that would work. By my dad was a real fan of Disney's animation techniques, just as Disney respected what my dad had done with his characters on record. Disney could never get Chip and Dale to be as popular as the Chipmunks.
Lydia: In the story about Stanley, the eagle, the Chipmunks actually read an encyclopedia, an idea that should be encouraged, but isn't. What do you see as your role and responsibility in children's programming today?
Ross: In the new shows, we want to present stories that will make a difference (if only in a small way) and we've been thinking a lot about that question recently. There's two sides: Janice and I want to create stories that are uplifting, with a little bit of a moral or message, without preaching a sermon. We would like to introduce that element of education, along with role models, but in an entertaining way. What you find out, though, is that the networks are resistant to these ideas until you prove that they can be successfully combined and do well in the ratings, too. It's very hard in the beginning because most of today's shows are not geared that way. When the Sesame Street characters showed the country that education can be fun, everyone thinks it's great. But then another character comes along and doesn't deal with this at all and does really well, too ... you always have to overcome that sort of thing. We want the shows to be informative and positive. Otherwise what's the point?
Lydia: What age bracket will the shows be aimed at?
Ross: At three, four, and five-year-olds, but also the 11-14 age group. Like Peanuts and the Muppets, we'd like the show to be sophisticated enough for parents, but still entertain the little ones.
Lydia: Do you and Janice have any children? I'm wondering where some of your inspirations will stem from.
Ross: We're looking forward to having children in the future but our present schedules are so busy with records, personal appearances, etc., that we don't have the time to devote to children that I believe they deserve. Our inspirations will probably come from the fact that we're still kids ourselves. Even though we have a house, car, and adult things that we're supposed to be doing, we don't feel like adults. And we love being in this world of crazy characters.
Lydia: Ross, are the Chipmunks popular recording stars in other countries, too?
Ross: Yes, and as a matter of fact, Chipmunk Punk, Urban Chipmunk, A Chipmunk Christmas, and Chipmunk Rock, have all been released in Canada and Australia, as well as the United States. They've all gone gold or platinum in those territories.
Lydia: What about other countries?
Ross: We just completed a Spanish album which is a combination of Urban Chipmunk and Chipmunk Rock. Now Mexico and Latin America can hear the Chipmunks in Spanish. Also, Simon just finished "Bette Davis Eyes," in French!
Lydia: I would think that there would be a large Japanese audience. Is there?
Ross: You're right, but as of only three months ago, and we've been doing incredibly well. Recently, a Japanese film crew came to the house to film the Chipmunks performing their rendition of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger," from their new album, The Chipmunks Go Hollywood.
Lydia: You mean the Chipmunks speak Japanese, too?
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