Rostom Sipan Bagdasarian (/bæɡdəˈsɛriən/; January 27, 1919 – January 16, 1972), known professionally by his stage name David Seville, was an American singer-songwriter, record producer, and actor of Armenian descent, best known for creating the cartoon band Alvin and the Chipmunks. Initially a stage and film actor, he rose to prominence in 1958 with the songs “Witch Doctor” and “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”, which both became Billboard number-one singles. He produced and directed The Alvin Show, which aired on CBS in 1961–62.
Rostom Sipan Bagdasarian was born in Fresno, California, to Armenian parents. His father was a grape farmer. The novelist William Saroyan was his first cousin and a life-long friend. Bagdasarian served as a staff sergeant (SSgt) in the United States Army Air Forces. During World War II, he was stationed in Europe. His later stage name “David Seville” originated from the fact that he was stationed in the city of Seville in Spain.
Bagdasarian’s Broadway debut was in 1939 when he played the newsboy in The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan, his cousin. He also appeared in minor roles in several films, such as Viva Zapata! (1952), Stalag 17 (1953), Destination Gobi (1953), Rear Window (1954), and The Proud and Profane (1956). Notably, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, he is the piano player. In Stalag 17, he sings “I Love You” in a pivotal scene at the POW Christmas Party.
Singing and songwriting
Bagdasarian’s major success with songwriting came with “Come On-a My House”. Originally recorded by Kay Armen in 1950, it was turned into a million-selling hit in 1951 by Rosemary Clooney released by Columbia Records. It is an adaptation of an Armenian folk song Bagdasarian wrote with his cousin William Saroyan. The song was originally composed for their off-Broadway musical The Son. It launched Clooney’s career, reaching number one on Billboard charts and was number four on Billboard year-end top 30 singles of 1951. The song sold some 750,000 records in a month. In 1954, he wrote “Hey Brother, Pour the Wine”, a hit for Dean Martin.
In 1955, Bagdasarian signed with the then new Liberty Records. The following year, he had a transcontinental hit with the novelty record “The Trouble with Harry” credited to Alfi & Harry. It reached #44 on the Billboard chart and was a bigger hit in England reaching #15. Later in 1956, he charted with his first record credited to his David Seville pseudonym, “Armen’s Theme” which reached #42 on the Billboard chart.
Bagdasarian’s rise to prominence came with the song “Witch Doctor” in 1958, which was created after he experimented with the speed control on a tape recorder bought with $200 from the family savings. Liberty Records released this novelty record under the David Seville name. It is a duet between his real voice and accelerated version. The record went on to become a Billboard number-one single by April 28, 1958 and further established him as a songwriter. It sold 1.5 million copies.
Bagdasarian went on to create his trio of Chipmunks named after the executives of Liberty Records: Simon, Theodore, and Alvin. Their debut song, “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” was released on November 17, 1958, and became a number one hit by New Years Day. The song sold 4 million records in the first few months. It topped Billboard charts the two weeks before and two weeks after New Years and won three Grammy Awards at the 1st Annual Grammy Awards on May 4, 1959: Best Recording for Children, Best Comedy Performance, and Best Non-Classical Engineered Song. Bagdasarian won the first two as David Seville. The song was the 23rd most performed Christmas song of the 20th century.
Shana Alexander, writing for Life magazine in 1959, noted that Bagdasarian was the first case in the “annals of popular music that one man has served as writer, composer, publisher, conductor and multiple vocalist of a hit record, thereby directing all possible revenues from the song back into his pocket.” Alexander also found it remarkable that Bagdasarian “can neither read nor write music nor play any musical instrument in the accepted sense of the word.” Bagdasarian owned Chipmunk Enterprises, which sponsored Chipmunk-related sales. By 1963, some 15 companies were using or planned to use Alvin figures. By that year, Billboard magazine estimated the total income from the Chipmunks’ record sales (including overseas sales) and record club sales to be around $20 million (around $171 million adjusted for inflation to 2021 dollars).
In the following years, the Chipmunks released several hit songs: “Alvin’s Harmonica” (1959), “Ragtime Cowboy Joe” (1959), “Alvin’s Orchestra” (1960), “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” (1960), “The Alvin Twist” (1962), and the album The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles Hits in 1964 during the British Invasion.
Bagdasarian then produced The Alvin Show, a TV cartoon broadcast on CBS from October 1961 to September 1962.
Bagdasarian lived with family in Los Angeles from 1950. In the mid-1960s, he bought Sierra Wine Corp., a winery that supplied product, among others, to E & J Gallo Winery. He died of a heart attack at his home in Beverly Hills on January 16, 1972, 11 days before his 53rd birthday. He was cremated and inurned at the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles.
Bagdasarian willed the Chipmunks franchise to his wife Armenuhi Kulhanjian, and his three children: Carol (b. 1947), an actress; Adam (b. 1955), a fiction writer; and Ross Jr. (b. 1949). Ross Jr. said in an interview that he “worshipped” his father and felt a need to continue his work. He resumed activities of the franchise with his wife Janice Karman in the late 1970s, after finishing law school, and became the complete owner when he bought the rights from his brother and sister in the mid-1990s.