Great Songs: The Christmas Song

Song written by: Mel Tormé and Bob Wells

Song performed by: Nat “King” Cole, and everyone else

When I was about 15 or 16 years old my parents took me out one night to a place called Anton’s in Washington D.C. It was a very fancy, upscale restaurant and jazz lounge. We were going to see Mel Tormé. This may sound a bit odd, as if they were dragging me there because they wanted to go but had no regard for me, but no. It was pretty much for me.

At the time I had been taking guitar lessons for about a year, and was just learning about jazz from my guitar teacher. I basically knew nothing about nothing when it came to jazz, but I knew just enough to appreciate what was going on. These days, of course, I know enough to realize what a privilege it was to be able to see Mel Tormé perform, especially in an intimate setting like that. And of course I am old enough to realize what great parents I have for them to do that for me.

Alas, I don’t remember many details about the show, to be honest. I remember Tormé doing a sort of tribute to Ella Fitzgerald that featured a bunch of scat singing, which I usually can’t stand, but hearing him do it I didn’t mind so much – I’d even go so far as to say I really enjoyed it. Maybe it was the quality of his voice – the velvet fog, you know. I remember Tormé’s piano player was a motherfucker (jazz-speak translation: “a really good musician”). I remember the crowd calling out tunes, most of which I didn’t know (I only knew a handful of jazz tunes at that point). Tormé picked one of them and started singing, only to be stopped by the band – they didn’t know the tune. So he kept right on singing, calling out chord changes as he went. I remember being amazed by this and learning later that he had perfect pitch.

And I remember him playing “The Christmas Song”. Actually I recall that he didn’t really seem all that keen to play it. The owner of the club handed him a note about 2/3 through the set. Tormé read it to the audience: “If you think you’re getting off that stage tonight without playing The Christmas Song then you’re out of your mind and I’m not paying you.” It may have been a gag for the crowd, who knows. But he launched into it, a somewhat loose rendition, changing a few of the lyrics just for fun (“Yuletide carols being sung by a choir/And thoughts of girls ripping off my clothes…”).

As great as Tormé was, his is not the best recording of this song. That distinction of course goes to the original version performed by Nat “King” Cole (there were actually two “original” recordings – the first without strings, the second with. The second is the one that became a huge hit). I remember an interview I saw with Tormé where he said after he wrote the song, he knew it could only be sung by Nat. Who knows whether it was his decision or not, but whoever decided it, I’m glad they did. It’s such an iconic, singular performance that whenever I hear “The Christmas Song” performed by anyone else, no matter how great, it just doesn’t sound right. It’s not just his super smooth voice, but also his phrasing. Listen to it and check out how he alternates between hanging back behind the beat, and being right on top of it. He really makes it swing.

“The Christmas Song” was the first song that ever made me think, really think, about songwriting. I’ve known the song since childhood, of course – everybody has. But it wasn’t until those teenage years that I learned that Tormé had written it (along with Bob Wells).The story of its writing is a great little tale – Tormé and Wells sitting by the pool in summer, thinking up wintry things to try to keep cool. But it wasn’t the story that made me pause and think – it was just the simple fact that someone, anyone, had actually sat down and written this song. I’d never thought of songs that way before. This one in particular seemed like it had just always, well, been there, part of the fabric of time and nature and universal experience. But no, someone created it, out of nothing. And it was that thought, that a person (or persons) could create something so meaningful and lasting, that stuck with me. It was an incredibly powerful idea, one that changed the way I thought about and listened to music for the rest of my life.

In the end what this song stirs in me most is gratitude. I am grateful for this song, for its timeless beauty, and for the memories I associate with it. I am grateful that I was able to see Mel Tormé while he was alive and still in great form, and I am grateful that my mom and dad had the understanding to take me there.

Happy Holidays everyone.

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