Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire: Christmas in July

roasting chestnuts

The background of “The Christmas Song” is probably the most amusing story of all Christmas music because it was written in the intense heat of a July in Southern California. We have the song today because of two men, Mel Torme and Robert Wells. Mel was a famous entertainer who grew up in show business and became an actor and songwriter. Robert was also a songwriter and good friend of Mel’s.

Mel tells the story:

I saw a spiral pad on his piano with four lines written in pencil. 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.”

Ace Collins gives us the rest of the story:

It had been chestnuts that started Wells’s strange train of thought. He had seen his mother bring in a bag of them to stuff a turkey for dinner. Wells was thrown back to the days when he saw vendors selling chestnuts on New York City street corners. Yet while Wells was after nothing more than an attempt to “think cold,” Mel caught a glimpse of a song in the phrases he had written. With the temperature in the nineties and both men sweating through their clothes, they got to work on what was to become a Christmas classic. It took just forty minutes. The assigned movie title songs were pushed aside as Wells and Torme climbed into a car and drove away to show off their latest song…

From the moment Torme stopped in at Cole’s Los Angeles home and played “The Christmas Song” on his piano, Nat loved it. Sensing the song was a classic, he wanted to record it before Torme could offer it to anyone else. Within days, Cole had rearranged the song to suit his voice and pacing, and cut it for Capitol Records. His instincts about the song’s potential were right. Released in October of 1946, the song stayed in the Top Ten for almost two months. Nat’s hit charted again in 1947, 1949, 1950, and 1954. Though “The Christmas Song” would ultimately be recorded by more than a hundred other artists—including Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, and even Mel Torme himself—none could ever break Cole’s “ownership rights.” The song was instantly and forevermore a Nat King Cole classic.

No one thought about it at the time, but Cole’s cut of Torme’s song became the first American Christmas standard introduced by an African American. The success of that cut helped open the door for Lou Rawls, Ray Charles, and Ethel Waters to put their own spins on holiday classics. It gave black audiences a chance to hear their favorite stars sing the carols that they loved as deeply as all other Christians. Thanks to “The Christmas Song,” for the first time in the commercial marketplace, Christmas was not reserved for “whites only.”

The story is that Cole wanted to record the song before Bing Crosby had a chance to make it into another hit following “White Christmas.” Crosby had already done that to Bob Hope when he tried to make a hit Christmas song. Although this song was written to help Wells think about winter whenever I hear this song I always imagine the hot weather of SoCal in July.

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