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
And so begins the immortal holiday classic, The Christmas Song. Written by Mel Tormé (born Mel Torma in Chicago to Russian Jewish parents) and Bob Wells, it was first recorded by Nat King Cole.
There is a cool story behind the writing of this song which I was lucky enough to hear straight from Tormé's mouth back in the late 1980s. He was in town for a week-long appearance at a now defunct jazz club that was practically across the street from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The story goes that on a blistering hot day in Beverly Hills, Ca., Tormé dropped in on his buddy, the lyricist Bill Wells. It seems Wells was having trouble with the heat and on top of his piano he had written some phrases in a spiral notebook that all had to do with the cold and winter. Stuff like “Chestnuts roasting on a fire,” and “Jack Frost” and Eskimos and snowmen and such.
Wells hadn’t intended them to be lyrics; just his own way of trying to cool himself down (which most any writer would totally appreciate). Tormé saw the notebook and told his friend he was onto something and so the two of them went to work. Some 40 minutes later, they had The Christmas song or as it's also commonly called Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.
When Tormé told me the story, he added a second part on how Nat King Cole became the first person to record it. According to Tormé, he and Wells decided they had to hear someone sing the song that very moment and so they thought of Cole who lived nearby. They went over to his house and talked him into playing the song – Cole immediately loved it and got his label to let him record it.
It’s no secret that back in those days, the very best songs were almost always offered to other singers first – that is other white singers to be precise. As great a talent as Cole was, he was rarely offered first-rate songs first. However, this was one of the rare moments when he got first dibs on a really great song – and he did what any great singer does and made it his own.
Of course, I have to include one of Cole's versions in my Vox stash for today, Christmas Day. And here it is – I believe this is the third recording he made of it with Nelson Riddle’s orchestra.
Also, here's a youtube clip of Cole singing it in person. Gosh, I love youtube.
Tormé, who had his own successful singing career (he was called "The Velvet Fog"), eventually recorded the song himself in the mid-50s. It’s slightly less cheerful than Cole’s but I find I like them both. So you can check them out, I’m going traditional on y’all and including Tormé’s version too.
Incidentally, Tormé was quite the renaissance man and from all accounts a man of talent and immense intelligence. He not only was a successful songwriter (with something around 250 songs to his credit including many standards) but a talented multi-instrument musician, singer and actor (in his youth, he had a brief stint as a teen idol). His non-fiction account of his work with Judy Garland is considered one of the best books of its kind, a precurser of the so-called "tell-all" books, though his was critically praised for its seriousness. He also wrote a book about drummer Buddy Rich and a novel called Wynner in 1979.