Los Angeles Almanac Logo
Home | All Almanac Topics | Arts

"The Christmas Song" and a Hot San Fernando Valley Day

Mel Torme, Nat King Cole and Oscar Moore

Mel Tormé (between 1946 and 1948), Nat King Cole and Oscar Moore (1946). Both photos by William P. Gottlieb, from the William P. Gottlieb Collection at the Library of Congress.

Nat King Cole’s much beloved holiday song, The Christmas Song (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..”), was written by another crooner, Mel Tormé (known as the “Velvet Fog”), and lyricist Robert “Bob” Wells. Like another beloved Christmas song, White Christmas, the songwriters were Jewish and the song was written in the warmth of Southern California. In fact, according to Tormé, The Christmas Song was written on a sweltering July day in 1945 in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Toluca Lake. Tormé recounted that Wells concocted the initial wintery images (such as Jack Frost, Yuletide carols, and folks dressed like Eskimos) in an attempt to think himself into feeling cooler. Tormé and Wells completed the song in 45 minutes.

When the song was first recorded in New York for Capitol Records in June 1946 by Nat King Cole as vocalist (with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Johnny Miller), it became the first holiday song sung by an African American. A few months later, Cole arranged a second recording that included a small string ensemble. That second recording became a huge hit. The song has since been a popular holiday staple and has been sung by more than one hundred different singers. The Cole version, however (typically the definitive 1961 stereophonic version most often heard today), has been the most popular, consistently ranking among the top ten Christmas songs every season. In 1974, the original song version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

The Christmas Song Sung by Nat King Cole
"The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)" sung by Nat King Cole, 1961.

Sources: The Story Behind 'The Christmas Song' : NPR and How winter classic ‘The Christmas Song’ was born in the sunny San Fernando Valley - LA Daily News.

Also see: Beverly Hills, Los Angeles and "White Christmas".