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The Story Behind 'The Christmas Song'

Dec 25, 2017
Originally published on December 26, 2017 12:02 pm

In 1946, Nat King Cole became the first recording artist to wrap his lush vocals around what would become a standard of the holiday season, "The Christmas Song." But that song was written by a different crooner: Mel Tormé.

NPR's Noel King spoke with Mel Tormé's youngest son, James — an accomplished jazz singer himself — to get the story behind the creation of this Christmas classic.

According to James, it was on a hot, oppressive summer day in 1945 that his father, Mel, went over the house of one of his writing partners, Bob Wells.

"Wells was nowhere to be seen," James says, "But there was a spiral pad at the piano. There were four lines scribbled down on it in pencil."

Those four lines were: "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire / Jack Frost nipping at your nose / Yuletide carols being sung by a choir / And folks dressed up like Eskimos."

When Bob Wells eventually appeared, he told Mel that he had been trying to do everything to cool down on that hot day. Wells said, "I thought that maybe if I could just write down a few lines of wintry verse, I could physiologically get an edge over this heat."

Forty-five minutes later, the lyrics of what would be "The Christmas Song" were finished.

Click the audio link to hear how Tormé and Wells got "The Christmas Song" in the hands of Nat King Cole, how the song has evolved over the past 70 years and what James Tormé has learned from his father's legacy.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHRISTMAS SONG")

NAT KING COLE: (Singing) Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose.

NOEL KING, HOST:

In 1946, Nat King Cole was the first recording artist to wrap his luscious voice around what would become a standard of the season, "The Christmas Song." But that song was written by a different crooner, Mel Torme.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHRISTMAS SONG")

MEL TORME: (Singing) Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe help to make the season bright.

KING: There is a terrific story behind the writing of this song, and we thought the best person to tell it would be Mel Torme's youngest son, James. He himself is a jazz singer. James Torme, welcome to the show.

JAMES TORME: Noel, thanks for having me.

KING: So this song is a Christmas classic. It evokes a frigid winter day. You know, folks dressed up like Eskimos. But there is a twist.

J. TORME: Oh, yeah. In the summer of 1945, the year before the song's release, it was a very hot, sort of an oppressive summer that summer. And my father went to the house of his then-writing partner, a guy called Bob Wells. And Wells was nowhere to be seen. But there was a spiral pad at the piano. There were four lines sort of scribbled down on it in pencil - chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, yuletide carols being sung by a choir, and folks dressed up like Eskimos.

And when Bob Wells eventually appeared he said, you know, Mel, I have tried everything to cool down. I've been in my pool. I had a cold drink. I've taken a cold shower. I'm nothing but hot. And I thought that maybe, you know, if I could just write down a few lines of wintery (ph) verse I could psychologically get an edge over this heat.

KING: Wishful thinking.

J. TORME: So my dad sort of looked at Bob, looked back down at the spiral pad, and then looked back at Wells and said, I think there's something here. And about 45 minutes later - no more than that - the song was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHRISTMAS SONG")

M. TORME: (Singing) They know that Santa's on his way.

J. TORME: The two of them, you know, they got kind of excited about it and drove it over to Van Heusen publishing, where those guys said to them, no. Nobody would ever want a song like this that's only really going to be popular one day of the year. So they, a little bit dejected, took the song the same afternoon to the house of a guy called Nat Cole.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHRISTMAS SONG")

COLE: (Singing) And so I'm offering...

J. TORME: Played the song once for Nat and he said, play that again. And they played it one more time. And before they could get it done, he said, stop everything. That's my song.

KING: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHRISTMAS SONG")

COLE: (Singing) Although it's been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you.

KING: I love that story. But I do wonder, your dad himself had such a beautiful voice. Did he ever think about keeping that song for himself?

J. TORME: You're right. But the simple truth is Nat Cole was simply exploding at that particular moment in time. And so my dad and Bob Wells sort of - you know, they just put it in his hands and said, you know what? You take this. We want you to have this.

KING: I'm talking to James Torme, the son of legendary singer Mel Torme. And, James, "The Christmas Song" is not the only Christmas song your dad wrote. In fact, you're reviving one of his songs called "The Christmas Feeling." Tell me about that song.

J. TORME: It's a song that I discovered through doing my father's symphony arrangements that I do all over the world with celebrated orchestras and...

KING: So you didn't know anything about this other Christmas song, "The Christmas Feeling," when you were a kid growing up.

J. TORME: I didn't. That was a little bit of an epiphany for me. And just the fact that it seemed like it was so contemporary, the melody of the song, and yet these beautiful, timeless lyrics a lot like, in fact, chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHRISTMAS FEELING")

M. TORME: (Singing) The Christmas feeling, that time when we will once again sing all the carols while we trim the tree. We'll open presents and we'll watch the children play. And then we'll gather around the table Christmas day.

KING: All right, and now I want to hear your interpretation of "The Christmas Feeling." Let's take a listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHRISTMAS FEELING")

J. TORME: (Singing) The Christmas feeling, the time when we will once again sing all the carols while we trim the tree. We'll open...

KING: James, your dad, Mel Torme, passed away when you were in your mid-20s almost 20 years ago. And I wonder, when you hear his songs, when you hear his voice, and when you sing his songs, what kind of memories does that evoke?

J. TORME: Well, the whole thing is sort of a double-edged sword from an emotional point of view. During the Christmas holidays I'm hearing my father. You know, you go into a mall, be in a mall in London or something, and there he'll come on. I sometimes get very emotional about it. But overall, I just look at it as, hey, my dad's saying hi. You know, that's the way I choose to look at it. You asked me the type of memories that I have. We had magical Christmases as kids, my sister Daisy and I. Mr. Christmas, we used to call Dad - an accomplishment for a Jew.

KING: Yeah.

J. TORME: It was the fake sleigh marks in the front yard and the singing music together in four-part harmonies. Dad made our Christmases very, very special. So it just - you know, it brings a smile to my face and a sort of a glow to my heart when I'm walking around somewhere and suddenly I hear Dad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE CHRISTMAS")

M. TORME: (Singing) I'm dreaming of a white Christmas.

KING: That is James Torme, the son of Mel Torme. James, thank you so much, and Merry Christmas.

J. TORME: You, too. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE CHRISTMAS")

M. TORME: (Singing) Where the treetops glisten... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.