How The Chipmunks Saved Christmas (and Liberty Records)
I’ve never been a great fan of Christmas music on vinyl from a collector’s standpoint – and for that matter – I tire very quickly of any Christmas song that is being played continuously on the airwaves. One listen was enough for “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”. “The Little Drummer Boy” by the Harry Simeone Chorale was nice enough but enough is enough. That song first charted in December of 1958 reaching number 13 and then commenced to enter the Top Forty again in the next four consecutive years.
Two holiday exceptions for me are The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album which came out in 1963. That LP charted high on Billboard’s Christmas Charts reaching number 6 in 1964 and had the single track “The Little Saint Nick” reach number 3 that same year on the Christmas single charts. That LP was fun to listen to with Beach Boy harmonies and some great rock and roll holiday tunes mixed in with standards. The other exception (for me) was Phil Spector’s Christmas LP with his stable of artists, “A Christmas Gift For You”, which first charted on the Christmas charts in 1963 at number 22 and then, after a long winter’s nap, reached number 22 on the same charts in 1987.
I can’t stand the Jackson Five’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. It drives me crazy. Michael screeches away – repeating the refrain over and over and over. It is just awful. And it reached number 2 on the Billboard Christmas charts in 1970.
That brings us to Ross Bagdasarian, or “David Seville”. David was struggling as an artist, having signed on with Liberty records in 1955 after one flop in 1953 on Mercury Records, “Let’s Have a Merry, Merry Christmas”. David’s Liberty output would include a few very minor hits up until 1958. That was the year that the struggling label was very close to closing it’s doors after a short three year-run. The hits just weren’t coming. They had a decent hit with Julie London’s “Cry Me a River”, but that was the exception. The label had been concentrating on releasing film music tracks and going nowhere. The closing was pretty much a done deal until Ross convinced the ownership to release a novelty ditty that he put together using a sped-up version of his voice coupled with a sing-along tune.
“The Witch Doctor” was just the tonic. The single screamed up the pop charts all the way to the number 1 position where it remained for three weeks and with a 19 week-run on the charts. This was followed by three more rather forgettable singles – and then along came Christmas 1958. Liberty was breathing a little easier after “The Witch Doctor” but was far from solvent.
“The Christmas Song” by Theodore, Simon and that rascal Alvin – The Chipmunks – put bankruptcy to rest. The song also hit the number 1 position in December of 1958, remaining there for a full month. The song would initially sell an astounding 4 and 1/2 million copies and Liberty was home free with working capitol. (And the song would ride atop the Hot 100 – not any special Christmas charts). A strange marriage occurred a little later in 1958 when the flip side of “Chantilly Lace” by the Big Bopper was a track entitled “Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor”.
From there on it was upward and onward with Martin Denny, Bobby Vee, Gene McDaniels, Johnny Burnette, Jan and Dean and then in short order, Gary Lewis and The Playboys – providing Liberty with a very nice run in the youth pop market.
By the way, the founders for Liberty Records were Al (Alvin Bennett), Simon Waronker and Theodore Keep (uummmmm…) – Clever!
“The Christmas Song” would chart once again in 1959 (#41), 1960 (#45, 1961 (#39) and 1962 (#40). The Chipmunks are alive and well in 2015 with a new holiday movie just released – and kept alive by son Ross Bagdasarian Jr.
After many changes and new ownerships via acquisitions by other labels, Liberty remains to this day – owing their survival to all those little rascals from back so long ago.