It is, arguably, the most beautiful version of the most popular holiday tune: Nat King Cole singing “The Christmas Song” in his velvety-smooth baritone voice. Cole actually recorded the song four times between 1946 and 1961, but it’s the last recording that is most often played on the radio and in stores during the holiday season.
“The Christmas Song” was written on a sweltering summer day in southern California by the crooner Mel Tormé and his writing partner, Robert Wells. Tormé and Wells had been hired to write a pair of movie scores. Complaining about the heat one day, the two men began talking about winter at higher latitudes. Wells jotted down a few mental images. “I saw a spiral pad on his piano with four lines written in pencil, “writes Tormé in his autobiography It Wasn’t All Velvet. “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.”
When the song was completed, Tormé immediately thought of his friend Cole, according to Ace Collins in his book Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas. The two songwriters drove to Cole’s house in Los Angeles and played it for him. Cole liked the song, and asked the writers to hold it for him while he made arrangements to record it. Cole first recorded “The Christmas Song” with his jazz trio in New York on June 14, 1946. Later arrangements included strings and grew progressively more lush. The scene above is from the very last episode of The Nat King Cole Show, broadcast live on December 17, 1957. Cole is accompanied by Nelson Riddle and his orchestra.
For those celebrating today, we can think of no better way to send you our greetings than with this moving performance, which ends with the memorable lines:
And so I’m offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety-two
Although it’s been said many times
Many ways, Merry Christmas to you