‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’: Nat King Cole Sings ‘The Christmas Song,’ 1957

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

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