THE CHRISTMAS SONG

(Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)

Music & Lyric by Mel Torme & Robert Wells, July 1945
Recorded by Nat Cole, 1946

Words and Music are copyright.

Mel Torme, It Wasn't All Velvet (New York: Viking, 1988), pp 83-84:

One excessively hot afternoon, I drove out to Bob's house [Robert Wells] in Toluca Lake for a work session. The San Fernando Valley, always at least ten degrees warmer than the rest of the town, blistered in the July sun.... I opened the front door and walked in.... I called for Bob. No answer. I walked over to the piano. A writing pad rested on the music board. Written in pencil on the open page were four lines of verse:

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sun by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos.

When Bob finally appeared, I asked him about the little poem. He was dressed sensibly in tennis shorts and a white T-shirt, but he still looked uncomfortably warm.

"It was so damn hot today," he said, "I thought I'd write something to cool myself off. All I could think of was Christmas and cold weather."

I took another look at his handiwork. "You know," I said, "this just might make a song."

We sat down together at the piano, and, improbable though it may sound, "The Christmas Song" was completed about forty-five minutes later. Excitedly, we called Carlos Gastel, 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 Nat to get into a studio to record it, but his record finally came out in the last fall of 1946; and the rest could be called our financial pleasure.

Mr. Torme has more to say about the Nat Cole recording; pick up the book to get the rest of this story.

William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1995.

To call any song "The Christmas Song" as if there were no others may seem to be a bit arrogant. But in line with the old saying "If it's true, it isn't bragging," the 1946 ballad fits quite well with the title chosen for it. The smooth, sentimental, even beautiful carol by Mel Torme (1925 - ) and Robert Wells is as fine an impression of the positive nature, friendliness, and spirituality of Christmas ever managed by an entirely secular song. Not only is it an ideal vehicle for preserving the pleasant memories of Christmas, it has a quality uncommon among popular songs, that is, a sense of depth.

This Tin Pan Alley masterpiece, also known under its more neutral first line, "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," came toward the beginning of its authors' very successful careers. (It was written, incidentally, as well as recorded by Nat King Cole, in the middle of a summer heat wave when humans were being roasted by the open fire of the sun.) Nicknamed "The Velvet Fog," Torme, from Chicago, was a nightclub, radio, and television singer as well as a composer. He also had an ongoing, indirect minor role in the 1980s television comedy series Night Court. He was the favorite singer of the main character, the unconventional young judge. Torme actually appeared on the show several times.

Wells (actually Robert Wells Levinson), from Washington State, was a multifaceted artist. He was the creator of a large variety of songs and movie scores and wrote and produced nightclub acts and television specials for a number of top performers. Included in his achievements were six Emmys and the Writers Guild Annual Award. However, nothing else done by Torme or Wells is as appreciated or esthetic as their joint holiday composition which continues to live up to its most audacious name.

William L. Simon, ed., The Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook. Pleasantville, NY: Readers Digest Association, revised 2003.

In 1946, Mel Torme known as "The Velvet Fog," made the holiday season considerably brighter with the song he wrote (with lyrics by his friend Robert Wells) about the indoor and outdoor joys of the Yuletide season. It was "The Christmas Song," also frequently called by its first line – "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire." Jack frost, carolers, people dressed up like Eskimos – these are part of the outdoor fun. Inside we have the smell of turkey roasting, tiny tots with their eyes glowing and the promise of Santa’s visit down the chimney. Nat King Cole’s 1946 recording of the song has become a perennial Christmas classic.

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