'The Christmas Song' by Nat King Cole: The making of the evergreen seasonal classic

30 November 2023, 15:13

Nat King Cole- Afraid of the Dark – documentary trailer

By Mayer Nissim

"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..."

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Nat King Cole is up there as one of the ultimate Christmas hitmakers.

There are many stars out there who have a classic Christmas song in their back catalogue that gets rolled out, year after year.

But there are precious few who absolutely own the season with as many seasonal standards as Nat King Cole.

The current tally shows that in the last decade, he's scored a whopping EIGHT different charting songs on the Billboard Christmas chart.

They include 'O Holy Night', 'I Saw Three Ships, 'Joy To The World', 'Deck The Halls', 'O Come All Ye Faithful, 'Little Christmas Tree' and 'Caroling, Caroling'.

And 'The Christmas Song' is his ultimate cracker, finding its way into the top ten year after year after year. Read on for everything you ever wanted to know about the star at the very top of Nat King Cole's impressive tree of seasonal hits.

Who wrote 'The Christmas Song'?

Nat King Cole - "The Christmas Song"

Like so much of the Christmas canon, 'The Christmas Song' was written by Jewish songwriters – being penned by Robert Wells and singer Mel Tormé in 1945 – in the blazing heat of July to be precise.

Tormé takes credit for writing "all the music and some of the lyrics" but it was Wells who kicked the whole thing off.

"In the summer of 1945, the year before the song's release, it was a very hot, sort of an oppressive summer that summer," Mel's son James told NPR years later.

"And my father went to the house of his then-writing partner, a guy called Bob Wells. And Wells was nowhere to be seen. But there was a spiral pad at the piano.

Mel Tormé - The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) (Official Audio)

"There were four lines sort of scribbled down on it in pencil - 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."

He added: "And when Bob Wells eventually appeared he said, you know, Mel, I have tried everything to cool down. I've been in my pool. I had a cold drink. I've taken a cold shower. I'm nothing but hot.

"And I thought that maybe, you know, if I could just write down a few lines of wintery verse I could psychologically get an edge over this heat."

"So my dad sort of looked at Bob, looked back down at the spiral pad, and then looked back at Wells and said, I think there's something here. And about 45 minutes later – no more than that – the song was born."

What is 'The Christmas Song' about?

Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)

In truth, the lyrics of 'The Christmas Song' didn't develop all that much from the (Xmas) Shopping List of seasonal clichés scribbled down by Bob Wells in his doomed attempt to feel cold.

It's often subtitled "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" after its opening line, or by the closing refrain of its chorus "Merry Christmas to You".

In full, that chorus goes: "And so I'm offering this simple phrase / To kids from one to 92 / Although it's been said many times, many ways / Merry Christmas to you".

Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You) (Lyric Video)

And that's what the song's about... rounding up everything that reminds us of Christmas, and just offering us the most straightforward of seasons greetings.

The song is so simple and so single-mindedly Christmas-focused in fact, that Van Heusen, Mel and Bob's publishing company just weren't interested in it, so they decided to pass it over to their good pal Nat King Cole.

When was 'The Christmas Song' released, and where did it get in the charts?

Nat King Cole – The Christmas Song
Nat King Cole – The Christmas Song. Picture: Alamy

'The Christmas Song' was first recorded and made famous by Nat King Cole, who recorded it not once, not twice, not thrice but FOUR TIMES over his career.

The first recording came back in 1946, with the song recorded on June 14 – another summer session – by the stripped-back King Cole Trio: Nat on vocals and piano, Oscar Moore on guitar and Johnny Miller on bass.

This version actually stayed on the shelf for 40 years till it slipped out on a Christmas compilation.

Nat King Cole (and Natalie Cole) at their Christmas tree
Nat King Cole (and Natalie Cole) at their Christmas tree. Picture: Getty Images

It was the second version recorded a couple of months later on August 19 of the same year, that was the first to hit shelves. The Trio again recorded it, but this time with the support of drummer Jack 'The Bear' Parker, plus a string choir of four string players and a harpist arranged and conducted by Charlie Grean.

A third recording came in August 1953, with a new King Cole Trio lineup of Nat with pianist Buddy Cole, guitarist John Collins and bassist Charlie Harris, with drummer Lee Young, harpist Ann Stockton and orchestral arrangement from Charlie Grean, Pete Rugolo and Nelson Riddle.

The second and third recordings established the song, with the covers rolling in as soon as 1946 (we'll get to them later), but the song didn't race up the charts with either release. It was the fourth and final recording that made the song the hit we all know and love today.

Nat King Cole at the piano
Nat King Cole at the piano. Picture: Getty Images

Recorded even earlier in the year – in March of 1961 – this version was the first to be recorded in stereo, and if you're listening to the song on Gold or elsewhere in the run up to Christmas, it's likely this version you're hearing.

On this version tapes for that year's The Nat King Cole Story album, Nat is backed by many of the same players as his 1950s take, with John Collin, Charlie Harris and Lee Young returning, with Hank Jones on piano.

This version of the song still only peaked at 65 on the Billboard Hot 100 on its initial release, but it has grown in stature year after year, and has even reached the top 10 in recent years in the streaming era.

You can also find 'The Christmas Song' on the 1963 album of the same name – a reworked version of 1960s The Magic of Christmas album, where it replaced 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen'.

Who has covered 'The Christmas Song'?

Michael Bublé - The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) [Official HD]

Who hasn't covered 'The Christmas Song' would be an easier question to be quite honest.

One of the earliest known covers came in November 196, with a recording by Les Brown and his Orchestra with a vocal chorus from Doris Day.

A year later Bing Crosby released 'The Christmas Song' with Ken Darby Singers and John Scott Trotter and His Orchestra.

The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting Over An Open Fire) (Official Video)

Since then we've had the likes of (deep breath) Tony Martin, Patti Page, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Ella Fitzgerald, Connie Francis, Peggy Lee, Paul Anka, Les Paul, The 4 Seasons, Frankie Avalon, Andy Williams, The Miracles, Bobby Vinton, Sammy Davis Jr, Aretha Franklin, The Drifters, PJ Proby, Julie Andrews, James Brown, Pat Boone, Lena Horne, Barbra Streisand, Lou Rawls, Stevie Wonder, Glen Campbell, Tony Bennett, The Jackson 5, The Temptations, John Denver, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Vera Lynn, The Osmonds, Carpenters, Engelbert Humperdinck, Rosemary Clooney, Des O'Connor....

And that's all before 1980s!

Just a few of the biggest names who have added their names to that not-even-slightly-exhaustive list since then includes Cliff Richard, Neil Diamond, Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera, Etta James, Justin Bieber the new King of Christmas, Michael Bublé.