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Nat King Cole – The Christmas Song

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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.

Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe,
Help to make the season bright,
Tiny tots with their eyes all a-glow,
Will find it hard to sleep tonight.

They know that Santa’s on his way
He’s loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh,
And ev’ry mother’s child is gonna spy,
To see if reindeer really know how to fly.

And so I’m offering this simple phrase,
To kids from one to ninety-two,
Although it’s been said
Many times, Many ways
Merry Christmas to you.

For as long as I can remember, Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” has been a part of my holiday season. It does not feel like the holiday season to me until I hear those first few bars of “The Christmas Song.” Even in the midst of the season’s consumerism, I still enjoy the music the most.

“The Christmas Song” was introduced to Nat in May 1946 by singer/songwriter Mel Tormé. Nat loved the song and wanted to record it in a larger setting than his trio but Capitol Records was very reluctant about having strings on the recording. Nat convinced Capitol (aka “The House That Nat Built”) to let him record “The Christmas Song” with strings. The song was released in November 1946 and reached #3 on the pop and R&B charts. Capitol reissued it every holiday season for the next 7 years, and each year it would chart in the top 5. In 1953 Nat recorded it again, this time with Nelson Riddle conducting, and, of course, with many more than the four original strings. This version was reissued for the next 8 years. Then, in 1961, Nat recorded the stereo version, with Ralph Carmichael conducting. This was the last time he recorded it, and to the present time, this is the rendition that Capitol reissues regularly.

The Christmas Song, the album, came to life in 1960 but not without some resistance. Nat was very happy with just having “The Christmas Song.” He did not want to compete with the other popular holiday music of the day. He finally gave in to Capitol’s persuasion and recorded the album which we love today. I have always been fanscinated by the rich orchestrations and the 20 angelic voices that accompanied Nat’s honey-toned baritone voice. The album was reissued in 1999 and includes “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” which were never previously issued. It also includes the carefully engineered duet on “The Christmas Song” with his daughter, Natalie, which features a host of strings and other wonderful instruments from the London Symphony Orchestra. Dick LaPalm, who traveled with Nat for 13 years, provided the excellent liner notes for the reissue which were my personal history lesson about the making of this classic album. Enjoy your music.

(Originally posted on j-notes.com)

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About James Knox

  • David

    I’m not normally real big on Xmas, musically or otherwise (my favorite yuletide carol is by Adam Sandler, hint hint), but I do appreciate brilliant songcraft when I hear it. My girl Carmen McRae did a magnificent version of Mel’s tune, which is available as a bonus track to the CD of her great 1961 Billie Holliday tribute, Lover Man. Recommended (nothing against NKC, although I prefer his jazz stuff to his pop stuff).

  • vsheridan

    nat king cole’s the christmas song, is probably the best christmas song of all time. well, at least in my heart, mind and soul.

  • BB

    I totally agree vsheridan. Every time I hear it the hair on the back of my neck still rises to the occasion. Thanks Nat for having a beautiful voice as well as taste.

  • Over the past few years, I’ve been fascinated with all the different variations of Nat’s song. The way I have it figured so far is that there are three separate versions recorded by Nat. Of course there’s the original 1946 released version on Capitol 311 (master #981), crediting the King Cole Trio, with “string choir”, with “In The Cool Of Evening” on the flip. Apparently there’s also a version without strings, but I still haven’t found evidence that it was released in 1946, or held back from release then and released at a much later date. As I understand it, it was Charles Randolph Grean who supplied the string choir.

    The third recording (master #11726) came along in 1953 on an EP (Capitol EAP 1-9026), and a single release in 1954 on Capitol F2955, flipped with “…My Two Front Teeth”. This is the one where Nelson Riddle conducted. That same version was re-released using a different flip side (“The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot”) in 1956 on Capitol F3561. Capitol’s numbering system altered slightly, dropping the “F” from the catalogue number, and continued re-issuing the song with that number (3561) from then on. Only the label styles changed with the years.

    There’s also an odd pressing on Capitol F90036 (mistakingly) crediting the King Cole Trio (as on the 1946 issue), but possibly introducing the third recording (master #11726). The flip side of this was “My Two Front Teeth”, the same as on the 1954 release. This release credited Nat “King” Cole on that side. This record supposedly dates from 1949, which would put the Riddle issue back a couple of years. Since it does credit the King Cole Trio then, Riddle’s involvement is not mentioned.

    When the song was put to stereo on the LP, as far as I can hear, Nat’s vocal and Riddle’s track remained the same. It was Ralph Carmichael’s Orchestra that was added to the already existing track to give it a stereo mix. I’ve played the two tracks side-by-side, and all of Nat’s vocals are identical (to my ears). It is only the added strings that make the difference to stereo.

  • 1946 Capitol 311 (78 RPM)
    “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)”
    (Wells – Torme)
    THE KING COLE TRIO; With String Choir
    Vocal By; King Cole

    “In The Cool Of Evening”
    (Nat Cole)

    1948 Capitol 15201 (78 RPM)
    “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)”
    (Mel Torme – Robert Wells)
    THE KING COLE TRIO; With String Choir
    Vocal By; King Cole

    2213; Z
    “Laguna Mood”
    (Nat Cole)

    1953 Capitol F90036
    E. H. Morris; ASCAP
    “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)”
    (Mel Torme – Robert Wells)
    THE KING COLE TRIO With String Choir
    Vocal by Nat “King” Cole

    M. Witmark & Sons; ASCAP
    “(All I Want For Christmas Is) My Two Front Teeth”
    (Don Gardner)
    NAT “KING” COLE, And His Trio, With The Starlighters
    Vocal Group With Instrumental Accompaniment

    1953 Capitol EAP 1-9026 THE CHRISTMAS SONG Nat “King” Cole
    1. “The Christmas Song; (Merry Christmas To You)”
    (Mel Torme – Robert Wells)
    2. “Mrs. Santa Claus”
    (Fulton – Steele – Houle)
    Orchestra Conducted by Nelson Riddle

    1. “Frosty The Snow Man”
    (Steve Nelson – Jack Rollins)
    With The Singing Pussy Cats
    2. “Little Christmas Tree”
    (Mickey Rooney)
    Orchestra Conducted by Pete Rugolo

    1954 Capitol F2955
    Edwin H. Morris; & Co., Inc.; ASCAP – 3:12
    “The Christmas Song; (Merry Christmas To You)”
    (Mel Torme – Robert Wells)
    NAT “KING” COLE; with Orchestra Conducted; by Nelson Riddle
    Vocal with; Orchestra

    M. Witmark & Sons; ASCAP – 2:30
    “(All I Want For Christmas Is); My Two Front Teeth”
    (Don Gardner)
    NAT “KING” COLE; and His Trio; with The Starlighters; and Orchestra
    Vocal Group; with Instrumental; Accompaniment

    1956 Capitol F3561
    E. H. Morris; & Co., Inc.; ASCAP – 3:12
    “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)”
    (Mel Torme – Robert Wells)
    NAT “KING” COLE; with Orchestra Conducted; by Nelson Riddle
    Vocal with; Orchestra

    Shap. Bernstein; & Co., Inc.; ASCAP – 2:31
    “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot”
    (Carr – Conner – Leach)
    NAT “KING” COLE; with Orchestra Conducted; by Nelson Riddle
    Vocal with; Orchestra

    1962 Capitol LP SW-1967 (STEREO)
    “The Christmas Song”
    (Mel Torme – Robert Wells)
    Music Conducted By Ralph Carmichael

    Above is the breakdown of issues of the song that were released in Nat’s lifetime, taken from there original sources, showing all label info. I must concede now that there were actually FOUR separate recordings of the song. After (finally!) locating my copy of Nat’s 1962 LP, I can say that that recording is all original to itself. My earlier statement was based on having only the tail end of the recording to compare to at the time. The differences are subltle, but they are there. There seems to be an error noted on the LP, where Pete Rugulo (along with Charles Grean) got credit for the arrangement, …unless he in deed arranged it and Nelson Riddle conducted.

    There was also a Mono version of the LP issued in 1962 (I don’t have it) on Capitol, which most likely contain a Mono mixdown of the Stereo. Or could they have used the Riddle version???

    The pre-supposed 1949 release is also no earlier than from 1953. That is concluded by me because of the fact that the release (Capitol F90036) contains publisher and ASCAP info on the label, something that Capitol records didn’t start doing until mid-late 1953. I would *guess* that it was issued to coincide with the EP.

    It shoud aso be noted that the latter flip side of “The Christmas Song”, “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot” was originally issued on Capitol F2616 in 1953 as the flip side of “Mrs. Santa Claus”, a track from the EP.

  • Just when I thought I had it all figured out, I can now concede that F90036 was initially issued in 1949, and, at that time, DID house the original 1946 version. Capitol introduced the 90000 series then for it’s Christmas run, and contiued re-issuing the series for the next few years. Initially, copies began with a “54” prefix before the “F” was introduced. My copy, evidently, is a 1953 issue of the series, whereas the newly recorded Riddle version was substituted for the original.

  • Eric Olsen

    that’s some serious discographical research Fred, thanks!

  • Thanks for sharing this impressive discography.

  • Natasha

    I love Nat King Coles,”Christmas song”! I just sink into the x-mas mood when ever I hear it. His voice just sooths your worries and makes you appreciate the beauty of the song and time of year!

  • me encanta la musica de nat king cole en especial la de navidad en español la cual tuve el inmenso placer de oir solo una vez en la casa de alguien que no conozco y que nunca volvere a ver quizas me gustaria por favor saber donde y como la puedo obtener ella lo compro en margarita venezuela era una trilogia del artista gracias de antemano

  • Bob

    I only heard it once, on the radio some time in the 1980’s. It was a scratchy recording of Mel Torme singing “The Christmas Song” in what sounded like a small club (you can hear people). It sounded like nothing we have come to know as the song. It was “jazzy” and scat oriented with all of those strange jazz signatures and timing.
    I would love to find out if this is available. I love the fact that this is the songwriter, and his head heard a much different song than the one that Nat King Cole interpreted.
    Anyone know about this “recording” and its availability?