The Christmas Song
|"The Christmas Song"|
|Published||1945 by Burke and Van Heusen|
"The Christmas Song" (commonly subtitled "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" or, as it was originally subtitled, "Merry Christmas to You") is a classic Christmas song written in 1945[note 1] by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé.
According to Tormé, the song was written in July during a blistering hot summer. In an effort to "stay cool by thinking cool", the most-performed (according to BMI) Christmas song was born. "I saw a spiral pad on his (Wells's) piano with four lines written in pencil", Tormé recalled. "They started, 'Chestnuts roasting..., Jack Frost nipping..., Yuletide carols..., Folks dressed up like Eskimos.' Bob didn't think he was writing a song lyric. He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter he could cool off. Forty minutes later that song was written. I wrote all the music and some of the lyrics."
The Nat King Cole Trio first recorded the song in June 1946. At Cole's behest – and over the objections of his label, Capitol Records – a second recording was made in August utilizing a small string section. This version became a massive hit on both the pop and R&B charts. Cole again recorded the song in 1953, using the same arrangement with a full orchestra arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, and once more in 1961, in a stereophonic version with another full orchestra arranged and conducted by Ralph Carmichael. Cole's 1961 version is generally regarded as definitive, and in 2004 was the most-loved seasonal song with women aged 30–49, while the original 1946 recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1974.
Nat King Cole recordings
|"The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)"|
|Single by The King Cole Trio|
|B-side||"In the Cool of Evening"|
|Released||November 1946(2nd recording)|
|Recorded||August 19, 1946|
Recorded at WMCA Radio Studios, New York City, June 14, 1946. Label credit: The King Cole Trio (Nat King Cole, vocals & piano; Oscar Moore, guitarist; Johnny Miller, bassist). Not issued until 1989, when it was (accidentally) included on the various-artists compilation Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits (1935–1954) Rhino R1 70637(LP) / R2 70637(CD).
Recorded at WMCA Radio Studios, New York City, August 19, 1946. First record issue. Label credit: The King Cole Trio with String Choir (Nat King Cole, vocals & piano; Oscar Moore, guitarist; Johnny Miller, bassist; Jack "The Bear" Parker, drummer; Charlie Grean, arranger and conductor of 4 string players and a harpist). Lacquer disc master #981. Issued November 1946 as Capitol 311 (78rpm). It is available on the Cole compilation CDs Capitol Collectors Series and Christmas for Kids: From One to Ninety-Two, as well as on a CD called The Holiday Album, which has 1940s Christmas songs recorded by Cole and Bing Crosby.
Recorded at Capitol Studios at 5515 Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, on August 24, 1953. It was the song's first magnetic tape recording. Label credit: The King Cole Trio with String Choir (Nat King Cole, vocals; Buddy Cole, pianist; John Collins, guitarist; Charlie Harris, bassist; Lee Young, drummer; Ann Stockton, harp; Charlie Grean, Pete Rugolo and Nelson Riddle, orchestral arrangement; Nelson Riddle, orchestra conductor). Master #11726, take 11. Issued November 1953 as the "new" Capitol 90036(78rpm) / F90036(45rpm) (Capitol first issued 90036 in 1950 with the second recording). Correct label credit issued on October 18, 1954 as Capitol 2955(78rpm) / F2955(45rpm). Label credit: Nat "King" Cole with Orchestra Conducted by Nelson Riddle. This recording is available on the Cole compilation CD Cole, Christmas, & Kids, as well as on the various-artists CDs Ultimate Christmas and Casey Kasem Presents All Time Christmas Favorites. It was also included, along with both 1946 recordings, on the Mosaic Records box set The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio.
Recorded at Capitol Studios, New York City, March 30, 1961. This rendition, the first recorded in stereo, is widely played on radio stations during the Christmas season, and has become the most popular/familiar version of this song. Label credit: Nat King Cole (Nat King Cole, vocals; Hank Jones, pianist; John Collins, guitarist; Charlie Harris, bassist; Lee Young, drummer; Charlie Grean, Pete Rugolo and Ralph Carmichael, orchestral arrangement; Ralph Carmichael, orchestra conductor). The instrumental arrangement is nearly identical to the 1953 version, but Cole's vocals are deeper-sounding and more focused. Originally done for The Nat King Cole Story (a 1961 LP devoted to stereo re-recordings of Cole's earlier hits), this recording was later included in a reissue of Cole's 1960 holiday album The Magic of Christmas replacing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen". Retitled The Christmas Song, the album was issued in 1963 as Capitol W-1967(mono) / SW-1967(stereo) and today is available both on compact disc and streaming on iTunes. This recording of "The Christmas Song" is also available on numerous compilation albums. Some are Capitol pop standards Christmas compilations while others are broader-based. For example, it is available on WCBS-FM's Ultimate Christmas Album Volume 3. An alternate take of the 1961 recording, featuring a different vocal and missing the solo piano on the instrumental bridge, appears on the Deluxe Edition of the 2014 compilation The Extraordinary Nat King Cole. There were several covers of Nat Cole's original record in the 1940s. The first of these was said to be by Dick Haymes on the Decca label, but his was released first – not recorded first. The first cover of "The Christmas Song" was performed by pop tenor and bandleader Eddy Howard on Majestic. Howard was a big Cole fan, and also covered Nat's versions of "I Want to Thank Your Folks" and "(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons", among others.
|US Billboard Hot 100||65|
|Canada (Canadian Hot 100)||15|
|Netherlands (Single Top 100)||49|
|Global 200 (Billboard)||16|
|New Zealand (Recorded Music NZ)||37|
|UK Singles (OCC)||51|
|US Billboard Hot 100||11|
|US Rolling Stone Top 100||33|
|United Kingdom (BPI)||Gold||400,000|
Sales+streaming figures based on certification alone.
"The Christmas Song" has been covered by numerous artists from a wide variety of genres. In December 1946, Bing Crosby performed it on a recorded radio broadcast with an introduction including Skitch Henderson on piano. Crosby with the Ken Darby Singers and the John Scott Trotter Orchestra also performed it on March 19, 1947 which went on to be released as a single later that same year. In 1953, Perry Como performed the song for both the Christmas Joy single and his album Around the Christmas Tree.
In 1999, Christina Aguilera recorded a version and included it on her album, My Kind of Christmas (2000). The song found critical and commercial success and peaked at number 18 on the US Billboard Hot 100 singles chart; the second highest position for the song in the chart after the original. In 2003 for his EP Let It Snow, Michael Bublé recorded a cover of the song. It charted at number 6 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart. In 2018, Lauren Daigle's cover of the song reached number 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the Christian Songs chart.
The song has also been covered by Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello, The Carpenters, Celine Dion, Ella Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Gillies, Frank Sinatra, The Jackson 5, John Legend, JoJo, Justin Bieber, Kenny Burrell, Luther Vandross, Mary J. Blige, Ne-Yo, NSYNC, Pentatonix, Peter Hollens, Shawn Mendes, and Toni Braxton among others.
Mel Tormé recordings
Mel Tormé himself made several recordings of the song, including versions released in 1955 (on his live Coral Records album At the Crescendo), 1961 (on his Verve Records album My Kind of Music), 1970 (on a Columbia Records promo single), 1990 (in a medley with "Autumn Leaves", on his live Concord Records album Mel Tormé Live at the Fujitsu–Concord Festival 1990), and 1992 (on his Telarc Records album Christmas Songs).
The 1970 Columbia version of the song adds an opening verse, written in 1963 while Tormé was working as musical arranger for The Judy Garland Show. He first performed and introduced the opening verse while duetting with Garland on the song for the show's Christmas Special, which aired on December 22, 1963:
All through the year we waited
Waited through spring and fall
To hear silver bells ringing, see wintertime bringing
The happiest season of all
Love and joy come to you
And to you your Christmas too
And God bless you and send you a happy New Year
And God send you a happy New Year
- Torme, James. "James Torme - Home for the Holidays". Jamestorme.com. Tormé Entertainment LLC. Archived from the original on November 3, 2020. Retrieved November 3, 2020.
Nearing the show’s end, [James] Tormé satisfies the crowd’s anticipation: he tells the story of the July 1945 afternoon when his father Mel and music partner Bob Wells famously wrote the world’s no.1 holiday song 'The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on An Open Fire)', bequeathing it to close friend Nat ‘King’ Cole later that same day.
- Torme, James; King, Noel (December 25, 2017). "The Story Behind 'The Christmas Song'". Npr.org. NPR. Archived from the original on May 23, 2020. Retrieved November 3, 2020.
"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.'
- Hutchinson, Lydia (December 5, 2016). "The Christmas Song". Performingsongwriter.com. Archived from the original on October 2, 2020. Retrieved November 3, 2020.
As Tormé relates in his autobiography, 'Improbable though it may sound, ‘The Christmas Song’ was completed about 45 minutes later. Excitedly, we called Carlos Gastel [manager of Nat Cole and Peggy Lee], sped into Hollywood, played it for him, then for [lyricist] Johnny Burke, and then for Nat Cole, who fell in love with the tune. It took a full year for him to get into a studio to record it [in 1946], but his record finally came out in late fall of 1946; and the rest could be called our financial pleasure.'
- Kim, Wook (December 14, 2012). "Music Yule Laugh, Yule Cry: 10 Things You Didn't Know About Beloved Holiday Songs". Time. Archived from the original on December 13, 2013. Retrieved November 3, 2020.
...the song was written during a sweltering patch of weather in the summer of 1944. The music was written by Mel 'The Velvet Fog' Tormé—he was inspired by a few lines he saw jotted down in a pad by his friend and lyricist Bob Wells. They began writing the song as a way to temporarily distract themselves from the heat—it was finished in 45 minutes. Nat King Cole was the first to record the song. He did four different recordings (with his trio and as a solo performer) between 1946 and 1961—the final version is the likely the one you’re most familiar with.
- McPhate, Tim (December 2, 2014). "Deck The GRAMMY Hall". Grammy.com. Recording Academy. Archived from the original on November 3, 2020. Retrieved November 3, 2020.
Mel Tormé and lyricist Bob Wells wrote the song during a hot Los Angeles summer in 1944 as a way to trick themselves into feeling cooler. Cole recorded four versions. The inducted version was first, cut simply with his trio. A final version made in 1961 with a full orchestra is the one to which you likely roast chestnuts today. The list of covers is nearly infinite, and includes unlikely versions by Big Bird and the Swedish Chef, Daffy Duck, Bob Dylan, Twisted Sister, and Kim Taeyeon of K-pop group Girls Generation, highlighting the song's universal reach. After the initial 1946 recording, according to Performing Songwriter, Tormé and Wells pointed out the grammatical error Cole sang in the bridge: "To see if reindeers really know how to fly." Cole was a perfectionist, but correcting that error was not likely the reason for the three additional versions of the song.
- "Mel Tormé - The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)". Allmusic.com. AllMusic, Netaktion LLC. Archived from the original on November 3, 2020. Retrieved November 3, 2020.
Comp Date: 1944
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In 1978, at Karen’s request, the vocals were re-recorded for the release of Christmas Portrait, their first Christmas album.CS1 maint: location (link)
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