This is part 19 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.
When one hears the baritone crooning of the late Nat King Cole belting out “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…” one thing you probably are not thinking about is a 90 plus degree July day. That is as it should be. Christmas carols shouldn’t remind us of summer. But in truth, as I have researched for this series, I continually find it is not an uncommon discovery to find some of our favorite Christmas songs were actually written during the summer.
“The Christmas Song” also commonly known as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” is the “poster child” of Christmas songs written in July. In fact, those opening lines of the song were an effort of one man, trying to get inside his own head, in an effort to cool off on one of the hottest days in Los Angeles history. Such efforts were one of the few ways to beat the heat in 1945, long before most places had anything resembling air conditioning.
The late jazz musician, also known as “The Velvet Fog,” Mel Torme (also an accomplished song writer, actor, script writer and pilot) was to meet with fellow songwriter, the late Bob Wells, to work on the music for two upcoming movies. When Torme arrived he saw a spiral notebook laying on top of Wells’ piano. Scribbled on the exposed page of the note book were, “Chestnuts roasting…Jack Frost nipping…Yuletide carols…Folks dressed like Eskimos.”
When Torme saw the words he questioned Wells. Wells didn’t see them as song lyrics. He was just attempting to cool off from the brutal heat. It really didn’t work but what did work was what was going on in Torme’s mind. They pushed aside the music for the two movies and started working on both the lyrics and music for this new song. In forty minutes time the song was written.
Excited about what they had, they jumped in the car and drove to the home of Nat King Cole. Cole and Torme were good friends, and unannounced visits to the homes of his friends was not uncommon and even during the days of segregation, Torme never let a little thing like skin color bother him.
Upon entering Cole’s home, Torme went straight to Cole’s piano and played-sang the song. Cole was impressed and wanted the opportunity to record the song before anyone else did. Cole sensed a Christmas classic. He was right.
After the initial recording, Cole recorded the song a second time with a full orchestra within a matter of weeks. The second version was released in October of 1946. Ironically, the first recording was never released until 1989 when it was (accidentally) included on the various-artists compilation Billboard Greatest Christmas Hits (1935–1954). Cole went on to record the song again in 1953 and in 1961. It is the 1961 version we hear most often today.
Many others have recorded the song over the years. The unofficial count is, there have been at least 122 recordings (by top line musical performers) of “The Christmas Song” since it was written in 1945. From Andy Williams to Randy Travis to Hottie and Blow Fish to Big Bird and the Swedish Chef (of Muppet fame) and many more. I know I cannot forget the inspired version of the song the late Natalie Cole sang with her (even at that time) late father through some inspired technical magic. It is my favorite rendition of the song.
It all started by a guy just trying to figure out a way to cool off. Though not his intention, he inspired someone else. Together, in the heat of July they shared the song with an unlikely, but popular singer and together they created a Christmas classic. The song also helped clear the way for African-American performers to move into the mainstream of Christmas music.
Have you ever, unknowingly at least at the time, done something that inspired someone else? If so, what was it? Share your times in the comments below.
Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.