The only Christmas song that achieved the number one position on Billboard’s Top 100 during the boomer years was knocked off its six-decade throne by a relative newcomer this past week. In case you missed the news, the former number one song to which Mister Boomer refers is none other than The Chipmunks Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late), originally issued in 1958. It was the first holiday record to reach number one on the Billboard charts, a title it held until December of 2019. The song that replaced its 61 year reign was All I Want for Christmas, by Mariah Carey.
The remarkable thing about this musical usurping is that Carey’s song was first released in 1994. Ok boomers, you do the math. It took her song 25 years to reach number one, a feat the Chipmunks did in one month. Does that say anything about the Boomer Generation? Who knows? But Mister Boomer prefers talking about his generation …
Recorded under his stage name of David Seville, Ross Bagdasarian Sr. wrote, sang and produced The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late) as a novelty record featuring his fictitious anthropomorphic animal group, Alvin and the Chipmunks. Within seven weeks, the record had sold 4.5 million copies. It went on to win three Grammy Awards in 1958: Best Comedy Performance, Best Children’s Recording, and Best Engineered Record (non-classical).
If the name David Seville sounds familiar outside of the Chipmunks records, TV shows and movies, it is because he (Ross Bagdasarian Sr.) released another Top Ten hit in 1958: Witch Doctor. In that single, which reached number 4 on the charts, Bagdasarian utilized the sped-up vocals that became the signature sound of the Chipmunks a few months later. Hardly the first to speed-up vocals on record, Bagdasarian saw the potential for an entire band of singing Chipmunks within the technique. He sang all the parts on the record, changing the speed and pitch to individualize each singing Chipmunk.
It’s hard to say why boomer kids took to this song so completely. It may have been the mischievous Alvin character, who kept singing about wanting a hula hoop for Christmas. It may have been that there was an established tradition of singing animals already present, thanks to decades of Disney films. Yet, Mister B has to say, it was not incredibly popular in his household. His sister, all of two when the song was initially released, would rock back and forth to the Waltz-like tempo. Mister B did try to imitate the Alvin voice, uttering an occasional “OK,” when told to do something by his parents during the Christmas season for a couple of years, but that was about as much attention as the song got.
Despite its novelty status, it was quite a feat to reach number one considering the catalog of Christmas music that came before and after it. Billboard changed the rules and stopped counting holiday songs in the Top 100 from 1963 to ’72, then again from 1983 to ’85. During those years, holidays songs were charted separately. Think about that boomers. All the songs released by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and even Elvis could not do what Alvin and the Chipmunks did.
What other Christmas competition did the song have in 1958? Some real Christmas classics came to us that year:
• Winter Wonderland by Johnny Mathis (his version of the 1934 classic)
• Run Rudolph Run (aka Run Run Rudolph) Chuck Berry (incidentally, the song was written by Johnny Marks, the same songwriter who gave boomers Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, popularized by Gene Autry, in 1949)
• Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee (also written by Johnny Marks, the song did not catch on until 1960, and has been considered a classic ever since. Marks also gave us Holly, Jolly Christmas in 1962 )
The Chipmunks Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late) was reissued in 1959 and again in 1961. Both times it charted into the Top 100, reaching number 45 and number 39, respectively. However, it could not repeat its 1958 rise to number one.
How about you, boomers? Do you have any specific memories of Alvin and the Chipmunks singing Christmas Don’t Be Late?