Ironically, one of the most famous modern-day Christmas songs was written on a hot summer’s day in sunny California.
With over 50 years in show business, Mel Torme influenced many singers, sold millions of records, acted in dozens of movies and television shows, wrote several best-selling books, and arranged music for some of the top performers in the business. He also wrote music.
And that’s where our story begins.
One hot July day, Torme decided to go visit his friend, Robert Wells, a lyricist. But it was so hot outside, Wells couldn’t concentrate on writing a song for an upcoming movie. Instead, he was making a list of all the things that reminded him of cold winters in New England. Torme looked at the list and noticed four lines jotted down on the pad of paper – “Chestnuts roasting … Jack Frost nipping… Yuletide carols … Folks dressed up like Eskimos.” Wells explained that he was trying to cool off with the power of positive thinking by listing winter activities. However, Torme realized that Wells had the beginnings of a song and persuaded his friend to work on it instead of what he was supposed to be writing. Within 40 minutes, the song was complete.
Wanting to show off their creation, the two men drove to Nat ‘King’ Cole’s house.
Nat ‘King’ Cole, an African-American singer, was internationally known for his smooth, mellow voice. So, during an era when America was almost completely segregated, his music broke through barriers. After hearing Torme play the song, Cole loved it and wanted to record it before anyone-else did. Within days, the song was re-arranged to suit his vocal range and style. Released in October of 1946, the song proved to be so popular that it stayed in the Top Ten for almost two months. It continued to hit the charts in 1947, 1949, 1950, and 1954. And to this day, despite the many artists who have covered this song, The Christmas Song remains a Nat King Cole classic.
At the time, no-one thought about it, but Cole’s version of Torme’s song became the first American Christmas song to be introduced by an African-American. This success opened the way for other African-American performers to give their interpretations of holiday classics. For the first time, the black community had the opportunity to hear their favorite stars perform the carols that they loved as deeply as other Christians. Christmas was no longer “for whites only.”
Have the Merriest of Christmases!