The summer of 1945 was a hot one, with California’s San Fernando Valley feeling more torrid than many other places. Songwriter Mel Tormé had set aside some time one morning to collaborate with his writing partner, Bob Wells, at Bob’s house. But when Mel arrived, Bob was not home. The door was open, so he let himself in. He noticed that a spiral notepad had been left on the piano. On the pad in pencil were scribbled four lines – 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.
Bob returned from wherever he had been and explained to Mel that it was so hot that he had been having trouble concentrating, so he wrote down phrases associated with winter as an attempt to trick his brain into thinking it was cooler than it was.
Mel looked down at the pad and studied it and then told Bob that he thought he could make something out of it. In the middle of a scorching July, the two men then sat down at the piano and composed what is known the world over as “The Christmas Song” in less than 40 minutes.
The partners liked the way it came out and rushed over to a publishing company, who bluntly informed the duo that they were not interested in a holiday song. The guys were disappointed but not discouraged. They then drove over to crooner Nat King Cole’s house and played it for him. He asked them to play it again, but before they could get to the end, he is reported to have said, “Stop everything. That’s my song.”
The Nat King Cole Trio first recorded “The Christmas Song” at WMCA Radio Studios in New York City on June 14, 1946 and it was issued that November by Capitol Records. The song was released at just the right time, resonating with GIs returning home to their families following the conclusion of WWII. It was the first holiday standard introduced to America by an African American. It has been recorded by more than 100 artists since then, including Mel Tormé himself, but Cole’s remains the most popular version.
According to music licensing organization BMI, Inc., “The Christmas Song” is the most performed holiday tune.