It was a sweltering hot July afternoon in 1945 when Mel Tormé showed up for a writing session at the Toluca Lake house of his lyric partner Bob Wells. Mel let himself in and called out for Bob. No answer. He walked over to the piano, and there, resting on the music board, was a pad of paper with four lines of a 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 Wells finally walked in the room, dressed in tennis shorts and a T-shirt, Tormé asked him about the little poem.
“It’s so damn hot today, I thought I’d writing something to cool myself off,” Wells replied. “All I could think of was Christmas and cold weather.”
The “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” image was a memory from Wells’ childhood in Boston, when there’d be vendors on street corners at Christmas, serving up paper cones full of roasted chestnuts.
“I think you might have something here,” Tormé said.
Sitting down at the piano, he flashed on a melody idea for the opening lines. Wells grabbed his pad and pen, and the duo was off and running like a bobsled down a snowy hill.
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, but his record finally came out in late fall of 1946; and the rest could be called our financial pleasure.”
Though he’s not always mentioned in the same breath as legendary male vocalists such as Frank Sinatra, Cole and Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé was every bit their equal (his ability to scat sing was second to none). Ethel Waters once said that Tormé was “the only white man who sings with the soul of a black man.” And Bing Crosby called him “the most fantastic musical performer I’ve ever seen.” A former child radio actor and vaudeville performer, Tormé had several hits, including “Careless Love” and “Comin’ Home Baby.” But he did much more than sing. He wrote over 300 songs, played piano and drums, arranged for orchestra, acted in movies and television, penned a couple of best-selling biographies (The Other Side of the Rainbow, his book on Judy Garland, is especially insightful) and even found time to fly airplanes as a commercial pilot. And though his low-key recording of “The Christmas Song” isn’t nearly as well known as Cole’s, it’s worth seeking out for its fireside intimacy.
Cole would record the holiday standard four more times in his career. In the first pressing of the King Cole Trio’s 1946 version, he sang the last line of the bridge: “To see if reindeers really know how to fly.” The song had already become a seasonal hit when Tormé and Wells pointed out the grammatical error.
“Nat, a true gentleman, and a dogged perfectionist, stewed over this mistake,” Tormé recalled, “and sure enough, at the end of another recording session, with the same-sized orchestra at hand, he rerecorded our song, properly singing ‘reindeer.’ The second version is virtually identical to the first, but those early first pressings have become collectors’ items.”
In 1953, Cole recut the song with arranger Nelson Riddle, then again in 1960. This last version, with his voice at its smokiest, is the one that has become the definitive holiday standard. The opening line alone is one of the most recognizable moments in the huge canon of seasonal music.
It wasn’t mentioned at the time, but Cole’s version of “The Christmas Song” was the first holiday standard ever introduced by a black American. It opened the door for Lou Rawls, Ray Charles and many others to record their own takes on yuletide classics.
Tormé and Wells penned over 200 more songs together, including standards “Born to Be Blue” and “Magic Town.” Beyond his songwriting, Wells went on to have a successful career as an Emmy-winning television producer and writer. He died from cancer in 1998. Though in later life Tormé was best known for his lounge-lizard character on TV’s Night Court, he continued to write, perform and record until a stroke robbed him of his voice in 1996. He died from complications of the stroke in 1999.
—By Bill DeMain
Category: Behind The Song