The story: Try to rewind your mind to the summer of 1945, in the San Fernando Valley district of Los Angeles, California. I quote singer Mel Torme’ (shown at left in the 1940s) to fill in the rest of the details: “One excessively hot afternoon, I drove out to Bob Wells’s house in Toluca Lake for a work session. The San Fernando Valley, always at least ten degrees warmer than the rest of town, blistered in the July sun. Bob lived with his parents in a beautiful Colonial-type home, but even it was oppressive in those pre-air conditioned days. I opened the door and walked in. (Before Charles Manson, some people left their front doors unlocked.) I called for Bob. No answer. I walked over to the piano. A writing pad rested on the music board. Written in pencil on the open page were four lines of verse:
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 finally appeared, I asked him about the little poem. He was dressed sensibly in tennis shorts and a white T-shirt, but still looked uncomfortably warm. ‘It was so damn hot today,’ he said, ‘I thought I’d write something to cool myself off. All I could think of was Christmas and cold weather.’ I took another look at his handiwork. ‘You know,’ I said, ‘this just might make a song.’
We sat down together at the piano, and, improbably though it may sound, ‘The Christmas Song’ was completed about forty-five minutes later. Excitedly, we called (Torme’s manager) Carlos Gastel, sped into Hollywood and 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 Nat to get into a studio to record it, but his record finally came out in the fall of 1946, and the rest could be called our financial pleasure..” (1)
Nat Cole (pictured at right in the late 1940s) provided some more details to (jazz journalist) Leonard Feather in 1961: “Mel Torme’ brought it to me while I was working at the Trocadero. It was in the middle of a heat wave, when so many Christmas songs seem to be recorded. I told him it was beautiful but I didn’t feel it would be right to do it with just a trio.”(2) Music historian Will Friedwald picks up the narrative: “Both Cole and Gastel (who was also Cole’s manager), who was constantly encouraging Cole to find new material beyond the jazz and blues fields, fell in love with the song immediately. Although Cole had until then resisted the idea of working with anything but the trio, he felt the song needed strings to work. Ironically, then, it was not Capitol pressuring Cole to drop the trio in favor of singing in front of a big string orchestra, as one might expect. “Capitol was adamantly against the idea,” Cole explained, “so I cut it first with the trio.”
The King Cole Trio in 1945: L-R: Oscar Moore, Wesley Prince and Nat Cole.
Nat “King” Cole made four recordings of “The Christmas Song.” The first two were made in New York City in 1946. The first, on June 14, by Cole and guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Johnny Miller, the regular King Cole Trio. (Shown at left in The second was made on August 19, with the King Cole Trio, plus four strings a harp, and some barely audible drums, with the arrangement being written by Charles Randolph Grean, then known simply as Charlie Grean. The third was made in Los Angeles on August 24, 1953, with a much larger string ensemble. The arrangement, by Pete Rugolo, basically followed the Grean original, except that a few more strings were added for a more lush sound. The final version was recorded in 1961 in Los Angeles. The 1953 Grean/Rugolo arrangement included even more strings than before, and Ralph Carmichael conducted the orchestra.
“The Christmas Song”
Composed by Mel Torme’ and Bob Wells. Initial arrangement by the King Cole Trio.
Recorded on June 14, 1946 by the King Cole Trio for Capitol.
Nat “King” Cole, piano and singing, with Oscar Moore, guitar and Johnny Miller, bass.
The music-part 1: Here we have “The Christmas Song” in its pristine initial form. This recording contains almost all of the musical elements we have come to know through the four eventual recordings of this classic song, including guitarist Oscar Moore’s quote from “Jingle Bells” as the coda. I am struck by the balance and beauty of the melody, the tasty harmonies supporting it, and most of all, by Nat Cole’s restrained yet warm singing of the evocative lyric. The utter simplicity and intimacy of this performance by the piano/bass/guitar trio, and Cole’s uniquely attractive voice, allows all of those musical elements to be appreciated with not one extraneous sound. (At right: Nat Cole – summer 1946.)
There are two moments in Cole’s singing of the lyric that one will notice are unusual. The first is his pronunciation of “by a choir,” which to my ears sounds like “by require.” The second is his use of “reindeers” as the plural of “reindeer.” I suspect that these small blemishes were overlooked in this first recording of “The Christmas Song” because no one connected with the song knew if it was going be be popular or successful. When “The Christmas Song” was first recorded, it was just another tune recorded by the King Cole Trio. Moreover, as was mentioned above, Nat himself thought the trio performance would sound better with strings. “As soon as they played it back, I knew it was wrong, and finally convinced them to let me remake it with a string section added.”(**)
“The Christmas Song”
Composed by Mel Torme’ and Bob Wells; strings arranged by Charlie Grean.
Recorded by the Nat “King” Cole Trio for Capitol on August 19,1946 in New York.
Nat “King” Cole, piano and singing, with Oscar Moore, guitar; Johnny Miller, bass; a small string section, harp and drums.
The music-part 2: Two months pass. The King Cole Trio is once again in the WMCA recording studio in Manhattan to record “The Christmas Song,” this time with the strings Cole said he wanted. During the interim between these two recording sessions, Nat himself had set in motion the process of getting an appropriate arrangement for the instruments he wanted. He contacted the well-known arranger Russ Case, who worked with many popular vocalists (and was conductor of the orchestra on The Kraft Music Hall radio show), to write the necessary music for the ensemble that would augment the trio. Case however was contracted to Victor Records, and was precluded from working with artists who recorded for other labels. The assignment fell to Case’s assistant, the talented Charlie Grean, whose minimalistic arrangement brings out the harmonic beauty of “The Christmas Song,” while never interfering or competing with the subtle musical basics already established by the King Cole Trio. Thus it is with this performance, which is a perfect integration of the original trio approach to this song with the other instruments (mostly strings), that we hear what ultimately became the classic Nat “King” Cole treatment of “The Christmas Song.”
Curiously, the two “mistakes” in Cole’s articulation of the lyric mentioned above are repeated in this performance. Nevertheless, this recording became a hit for Nat “King” Cole and for Capitol Records, and “The Christmas Song” became one of a handful of songs that are evergreen holiday season hits, played endlessly between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year.
“The Christmas Song”
Composed by Mel Torme’ and Bob Wells; arrangement by Charlie Grean with minor additions by Pete Rugolo.
Recorded by Nat “King” Cole for Capitol Records on August 24, 1953 in Los Angeles.
Nat “King” Cole, piano and singing; with John Collins, guitar; Charlie Harris, bass; orchestra conducted by Nelson Riddle.
The music-part 3: By the time this recording was made, several important things had happened. First, as was mentioned above, “The Christmas Song” had become an enduring holiday season hit. Second, the age of high-fidelity long-playing records had arrived. And third, Nat “King” Cole had become a major mainstream singing star, with several middle-of-the road hits to his credit on Capitol Records. By 1953, the jazz days of the King Cole Trio were essentially over, and Nat Cole’s piano playing, great as it had always been, was relegated to being a rarely featured part of his performances, especially on record.
To me, this is the most perfect performance by Nat “King” Cole of “The Christmas Song.” All of the elements of the two previous recorded performances had been distilled into a completely integrated whole, and the two “mistakes” in Nat’s singing were now gone. This was a highly professional and confident performance by a major recording artist having A-1 production support provided by Capitol Records for one of its biggest stars.
As a sidelight, this performance shows quite plainly that pop singer Johnny Mathis had his first inspiration from Nat Cole. Mathis’s earliest recordings, which would come a few years after this one, show that he carefully listened to Cole.
Although there would be still another recording of “The Christmas Song” made by Nat Cole at Capitol in Los Angeles in 1961, that version is in almost all respects a carbon-copy of this one, except that it was recorded in stereophonic sound, which was a technical innovation that came to the recording industry in the late 1950s. The 1953 Grean/Rugolo arrangement was expanded yet again for more strings, and Ralph Carmichael conducted the orchestra. Paul Smith was at the piano in place of Cole who just sings, and guitarist John Collins once again plays the parts originated by Oscar Moore. This final version is the one that is ubiquitous, so I will not present it yet again here.
The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) It Wasn’t All Velvet, by Mel Torme’ (1988) Viking, pages 83-84.
(2) Liner notes to the 1991 Mosaic set of CDs The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio, written by Will Friedwald, page 28.
For a few other wonderful songs of the season, check out these:
For an example of Nat Cole’s artistry as a jazz pianist, check this out: https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/09/23/the-smell-of-money-george-shearing-and-nat-king-cole/
And for an example of arranger Pete Rugolo’s artistry in a completely different mood from “The Christmas Song,” check this out: