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Song of the Week #162 – “The Christmas Song”

Written by admin on December 23, 2013 – 10:06 am -

Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song

Nat King Cole’s festive standard “The Christmas Song” is Song of the Week on Classic Pop Icons.

Cole first released the song on single in 1946, backed with “In the Cool of Evening”, and it would become one of the song’s most closely associated with the star.

The temptation is to assume that songwriters Bob Wells and Mel Tormé wrote the song in the midst of winter while in festive mood, but it was in fact written at Wells’ Toluca Lake house during a hot July afternoon in 1945. Wells had penned a few lines about Christmas and cold weather in an effort to distract himself from the heat. Impressed with the opening lines, Tormé sat at the piano and began trading ideas. The song came together in super quick time, as recalled by Tormé in his 1988 autobiography “It Wasn’t All Velvet”:

“We sat down together at the piano, and, improbable though it may sound, ‘The Christmas Song’ was completed about 45 minutes later. Excitedly, we called Carlos Gastel [Cole’s manager], sped into Hollywood, played it for him, then for Johnny Burke, and then for Nat Cole, who fell in love with the tune. It took a full year for him to get into a studio to record it, but his record finally came out in late fall of 1946; and the rest could be called our financial pleasure.”

The opening line, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” came to Wells as he recalled how during his childhood in Boston he would buy roasted chestnuts from Christmas street vendors. From there, the song names just about every important Christmas tradition, including carols, turkey, mistletoe, and Santa with his sleigh and reindeer. It’s a cheery, positive song, which concludes with the singer offering his seasonal good wishes to “kids from one to ninety-two”. With the festive lyrics accompanied by such a well crafted and appealing melody, and Nat King Cole’s impeccable, velvety vocal, it’s no surprise that the song has stood the test of time.

The King Cole Trio’s first released version in 1946 was not the first recording. Cole requested a re-recording of the song in 1946 after he was made aware that he had made an error in singing “To see if reindeers really know how to fly” – it should have been “reindeer”. The second recording, this time including a small string section, was a hit on both the pop and R&B charts. This version of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1974.

Cole also recorded the song in 1953 and 1961. The 1953 version featured a full orchestra arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, and the 1961 stereo version featured an orchestra conducted by Ralph Carmichael. The latter version was recorded for “The Nat King Cole Story” album, which featured stereo re-recordings of Cole’s earlier hits. The recording would also feature on the 1963 album “The Christmas Song”.

Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song album

It’s the 1961 stereo version of “The Christmas Song” that you are most likely to hear on the radio and which tends to be featured on the Christmas compilation albums.

“The Christmas Song” (1961) – Nat King Cole


“The Christmas Song” was written by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé. The pair wrote many other successful songs together in the 1940s, including “Born to be Blue” and “County Fair”.

Recording date/location

Nat King Cole’s first recording of “The Christmas Song”, which was not released at the time, was recorded on June 14, 1946 at WMCA Radio Studios, New York City. The hit 1946 version was recorded at the same venue on August 19, 1946.

The third recording was made on August 24, 1953 at Capitol Studios, Hollywood, and the fourth version at the same venue on March 30, 1961.


The June 14, 1946 recording features the Nat King Cole Trio, namely:

  • Nat King Cole- vocal/piano
  • Oscar Moore – guitar
  • Johnny Miller – bass.

The August 19, 1946 recording features the Trio, along with a drummer, harpist, and four string players conducted by Charlie Grean.

The August 24, 1953 recording features orchestration arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle.

The March 30, 1961 recording features orchestration arranged by Charles Grean and Pete Rugolo, and conducted by Ralph Carmichael.

Chart performance

The King Cole Trio’s “The Christmas Song” peaked at number seven on Billboard’s Best-Selling Popular Retail Records chart for the week ending December 20, 1946.

King Cole Trio - The Christmas Song Billboard chart

Cover versions

The performing rights organisation, BMI, states that “The Christmas Song” is the most performed Christmas song of all time, so we’d be here until next Christmas if discussing every cover version. Here’s just a few examples…

“The Christmas Song” – Mel Tormé – and Judy Garland

Mel Tormé recorded several versions of his most successful composition. Here’s a fun duet with Judy Garland from her 1963 Christmas television special, complete with a new verse.

“The Christmas Song” – Connie Francis

Connie Francis’ clear as a bell diction and warm tone make this an appealing cover from her 1959 album “Christmas in My Heart“.

“The Christmas Song” – Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin’s 1964 cover was released on single but didn’t trouble the charts. It’s a good listen though, with enjoyable soulful phrasing from Aretha. It would later appear on the 2006 album “Joy To The World“.

Nat King Cole’s 1961 recording of “The Christmas Song” is available on the expanded edition of “The Christmas Song” album. Both 1946 recordings and the 1953 recording are featured on the 18-CD box set “The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio”. The latter is rare now and very pricey, but can be picked up more economically as an MP3 set, particularly in the UK where it’s currently at a very low price.


Nat King Cole – The Christmas Song (CD)

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The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio (349 songs)

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