Nat King Cole: “The Christmas Song” Story

It has been gracing the radio airwaves this time of year since the late 1940’s, and with those “chestnuts roasting on the open fire” once again this year, we thought we’d give you the history of “The Christmas Song.”

Although most closely associated with the great baritone voice of Nat King Cole, this Christmas classic was actually written by Mel Torme in the blistering heat of the summer of 1944. Torme didn’t record the song until 1948, as he thought it had little chance of getting airplay. The King Cole Trio clearly saw the potential of this great piece of holiday magic,and recorded it twice in 1946, taking it to #7 on the pop charts that year.  This second version was with strings and remained popular until Nat cut it again in 1953, this time with The Nelson Riddle Orchestra.

The 1953 version had a 12 year run, when Nat’s label, Capitol Records, requested a stereo version. The swingers of the early 1960’s were now beginning to prefer long-play 33 1/3 albums (LP’s), which contained 12 songs rather than just singles.  Nat walked into the Capitol studios, sat down, lit a cigarette and cut the stereo version in one take, and that is the one we still hear today. Other tunes have sold more copies, but Nat’s gets more airplay. “The Christmas Song” is actually the most played holiday classic of the past 50 years. It is the perfect record for the holiday season as it is warm, easy to listen to, appeals to all generations and people never seem to get tired of it. Truly a gem in the world of music.

A recent CD compilation of Nat’s velvet voiced Christmas classics features 3 versions of “The Christmas Song,” including the 1961 classic cut, another with Nat himself speaking a holiday greeting as the intro, and a posthumous duet with daughter Natalie Cole. Visit for a complete listing of all of Nat’s great musical catalog.

More from Bill Dudley

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