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The Story Behind 'The Christmas Song'

Mel Tormé in Piccadilly, London, 1956.
John Franks
Getty Images
Mel Tormé in Piccadilly, London, 1956.

In 1946, Nat King Cole became the first recording artist to wrap his lush vocals around what would become a standard of the holiday season, "The Christmas Song." But that song was written by a different crooner: Mel Tormé.

NPR's Noel King spoke with Mel Tormé's youngest son, James — an accomplished jazz singer himself — to get the story behind the creation of this Christmas classic.

According to James, it was on a hot, oppressive summer day in 1945 that his father, Mel, went over the house of one of his writing partners, Bob Wells.

"Wells was nowhere to be seen," James says, "But there was a spiral pad at the piano. There were four lines scribbled down on it in pencil."

Those four lines were: "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."

When Bob Wells eventually appeared, he told Mel that he had been trying to do everything to cool down on that hot day. Wells said, "I thought that maybe if I could just write down a few lines of wintry verse, I could physiologically get an edge over this heat."

James Tormé is a jazz singer and the youngest son of his father, Mel.
IVI Entertainment and Nora / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
James Tormé is a jazz singer and the youngest son of his father, Mel.

Forty-five minutes later, the lyrics of what would be "The Christmas Song" were finished.

Click the audio link to hear how Tormé and Wells got "The Christmas Song" in the hands of Nat King Cole, how the song has evolved over the past 70 years and what James Tormé has learned from his father's legacy.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
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