Nat King Cole & “The Christmas Song”

Long-time associate of the late singer/pianist talks about the genesis of this holiday classic

In early May of 1946, the King Cole Trio, with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Johnny Miller, was appearing at The Trocadero in Hollywood. One night after the last set, a then 21-year-old Mel Torme came up to the bandstand and told Nat Cole that he had a new song that he was eager for him to hear. After the last few customers left, Mel sat down at the piano and performed “The Christmas Song” for Nat and the guys. Nat loved it immediately and he sat down at the piano and ran it down a couple of times. Years later, Nat told me that it was that very night that Oscar Moore played the "Jingle Bells" coda. Interestingly, Nat used this same ending every time he recorded the song.

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Capitol Records Archives

Nat King Cole

As much as Nat liked the song, he told Mel that it would be wrong to record it with just The Trio, that it deserved a bigger showcase. Carlos Gastel, who was managing both Nat and Mel at the time, tried to persuade Capitol Records to use a few strings just for this one song. No luck. NO STRINGS!

On June 14, 1946 while appearing at Kelly's Stable in New York, the Trio went into the studios of WMCA radio to record “The Christmas Song.” As soon as he heard the first playback, Nat knew it was wrong. He was determined to have his way; displaying a rare instance of stubbornness. Nat convinced Capitol to let him re-record it, this time with a string section.

On August 19, 1946 Nat went back into the same WMCA studio for his first-ever orchestral recording. By the way, the “string section” consisted of four string players, a harpist, and a drummer. A modest orchestral roster, to be sure, but a beginning, an augur of things to come for Nat Cole. The session turned out perfectly, and became a watershed recording in his career. Contrary to what many think, this was an entirely new session, not just the addition of some strings to the June 14th date.

Nat's first recording of “The Christmas Song” hit the record stores (remember them?) the third week of November 1946, and the response was incredible. One week later it reached the #3 spot on pop, and rhythm and blues charts, an uncommon crossover, and a portent of what would ultimately become Nat's boundless appeal. This was the recording that Capitol reissued every holiday season for the next 7 years, and each year it would chart in the top 5. Any wonder that Capitol Records was elated?

In August of 1953, Nat recorded it again, this time with Nelson Riddle conducting, and, of course, with many more than four strings. This version was reissued for the next 8 years. Then, on March 30, 1961 he recorded the stereo version with Ralph Carmichael conducting. This is the last time he recorded it, and to the present time, this is the rendition that Capitol reissues regularly. Given that the song is
seasonal, it had no such restraints where Nat's fans were concerned. It always blew me away to hear someone from the audience shouting, "The Christmas Song...The Christmas Song."

The duet with daughter Natalie, so brimming with love and devotion, was recorded in July of 1998 in England with the London Symphony Orchestra. I've often conjured up a vision of this huge orchestra in London's Abbey Road Studios, standing by for the downbeat and Natalie looking up and saying, "Dad, you always wanted more strings. Well, this is really more strings!"

2011 marks the 65th year that we're treated to Nathaniel's classic recording, and it remains, by far, the most-played of all Christmas records. The original 1946 recording was inducted into The Grammy Hall
of Fame in 1974.

Merry Christmas, and enjoy the magic of the Season.

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