The Christmas Song, Like No Other Christmas Song
By David McGee
Danny Kaye and Nat King Cole: Merry Christmas to you
Christmas is illegal without Nat King Cole, right? Surely it would violate the laws of this land for a season to pass without the reassuring tones of the man with the smoky grey voice blessing us with a comforting "Merry Christmas...to you," his annual benediction reaffirming warm tidings of home, family and seasonal traditions, unsullied by cynicism, untouched by post-modern angst. No, Christmas is impossible to imagine without Nat King Cole gliding coolly through the classic sentiments penned by Robert Wells, set to music by Mel Torme, beautifully orchestrated by Charles Grean and Nat's favorite arranger Pete Rugulo, with Ralph Carmichael conducting, and further enhanced by Nat's own succinct, tasty piano solo. "The Christmas Song" is, pure and simple, "The Christmas Song," like no other Christmas song.
The version of "The Christmas Song" most played today is the one described above, recorded in 1961 and issued as the title track of Nat's first Capitol Christmas album. But in the same way Sinatra revisited and reconsidered some of his Christmas and pop classics over the course of his career, so did Nat periodically reconfigure "The Christmas Song." In fact, the 1961 recording was his third and last treatment. The original version was cut in 1946, when Nat and his King Cole Trio (guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Johnny Miller joining Nat) were tearing it up in jazz circles. Torme, then a struggling 21-year-old songwriter who was a long way from being recognized as "The Velvet Fog" for his distinctive vocal stylings, approached the trio following their last set at the Trocadero Club in Hollywood, sat down at the piano and played the newly composed "The Christmas Song." Nat fell for it instantly. But the execs at Capitol Records balked when he asked for a string section to accompany him on record. The initial recording was made on June 14 in the WMCA radio studios in New York, but after listening to the track Nat made a stand, demanding he be allowed another run at it, this time with strings. Relenting, Capitol brought in Charles Grean to do an arrangement. Grean was not Nat's first choice; he had asked for Russ Case, but Case was under contract to RCA Records. In his stead Case sent his assistant Grean, who assembled four string players, a harp player and a drummer with brushes in hand. The ensuing single was an instant hit, peaking at #3 on both the Pop and R&B charts. Grean made wonderful use of limited tools, writing a string chart that made the ensemble sound larger than it was in the keening opening section but softer and more chamber-like as the song developed, employing occasional swoosh and jitter flourishes for effect, always keeping the strings at a discrete distance behind Nat's personable reading, which had a light swing to it. In the middle instrumental interlude, both Nat and Johnny Moore stepped up with bluesy solos on piano and guitar, respectively, in the romantic style the Trio had trademarked; and at the end, Moore added his own signature fillip by quoting a few bars from "Jingle Bells," which became a permanent part of the song. For the next seven years Capitol issued the 1946 recording as a single, and each year it rose into the pop chart's Top 5. Then in 1953 Nat recorded a new version with Nelson Riddle conducting a substantially larger orchestra, and that record supplanted the '46 recording as Nat's annual holiday single. Eight years later, 1961, came the third and now most familiar version, with Ralph Carmichael conducting a Grean/Rugolo chart. You've heard it: the lone guitar chord at the outset, the strings entering with a lush roar, and then the quiet that settles in with the guitar and piano behind Nat's vocal, until the strings assert themselves before the first verse is even finished. Rugulo's arrangement is the most dynamic of all, deploying the strings in dramatic ascending and descending arcs to complement the narrative's emotional flow, with striking, intermittent ritardando sections that allow the guitar and piano to establish a more intimate mood before the strings reappear, bright and energetic. By 1961 Nat was singing the song in measured, deliberate terms; it's a beautiful vocal, but some of his King Cole Trio fans groused about missing the subdued swing he lent the original. Theirs is not a baseless complaint, but it is very hard indeed to speak ill of this most familiar Yuletide appreciation.
Nat King Cole and the Trio (from left, behind Nat, bassist Johnny Miller and guitarist Oscar Moore) working out at the Silver Fox, 1940 (William P. Gottlieb, Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress)
This background seems appropriate in light of the 2005 reissue of The Christmas Song album. Once a classy 14-song 1963 holiday release (itself an update of Cole's 1960 The Magic of Christmas album, with the addition of the title track and the exclusion of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," a wonderful rendition that remained in the can until its inclusion on 1990's Cole, Christmas, & Kids collection), it is now a classy and more complete 22-track CD reissue replete with both the 1946 and 1961 iterations of "The Christmas Song"; a technologically induced duet of the song with daughter Natalie; a haunting and previously unissued Gordon Jenkins-penned lament, "Happy New Year," not a celebration but the brooding, lacerating internal monologue of a man utterly alone at year's end, having parted ways with his lover, appraising the night's revelry with corrosive scorn for "the gay ones" celebrating in "their silly little hats" and blowing "their stupid little horns," while "the sad ones sit alone before the fire and sip a glass of lonely wine." Needless to say, the subsequent "I wish you a happy new year!" is as acidic a greeting as could be imagined. The tolling bells sound funereal and the swirling, Latin-tinged arrangement suggests both inner turmoil and impending doom. As the final cut on the album, it takes the listener to the dark side of "The Christmas Story," where the journey began, and closes out an otherwise festive celebration with a haunting, unsettling harbinger of a desultory future.
Nat King Cole, 'The Christmas Song'
But in between the bookends of "The Christmas Song" and "Happy New Year," Cole treats us to a most satisfying romp through the jolly seasonal ornaments of a string-happy "Deck the Halls," a triumphant "Joy To the World," and a high-spirited "Caroling Caroling" with its sumptuous choral voices and sprightly string arrangement, all surrounding a batch of sacred carols that Nat and Carmichael treat with dignity and grandeur—"O Come All Ye Faithful" is a big, beautiful exhortation powered by brass and strings; couched in a warm string arrangement, the solo violin introducing and reappearing in "O Little Town of Bethlehem" conjurs a poignant, lonely sound, but Nat's ensuing vocal is redolent with the feeling of hope engendered by the appearance of the bright star; "O Holy Night" finds Nat singing with heart tugging deliberateness as the strings moan low behind him, imbuing the performance with great beauty. Inserted into the tune stack of the original album are two songs Nat recorded at the 1960 sessions that were omitted from the 1963 release: a whimsical treatment of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and a solemn, majestic reading, opening with a burst of peeling brass and opening up into a full choir-strings-brass arrangement, of "O Come All Ye Faithful"—one of the most magnificent of all productions here, it's amazing it was left off The Christmas Song.
Those who have read this far might be wondering about the Nelson Riddle version of "The Christmas Song" mentioned above but not included on the expanded edition of The Christmas Song. It exists, on the out-of-print Cole, Christmas, & Kids collection. This delightful baker's dozen of carols and standards is stitched together from previously unreleased Christmas recordings Cole made between 1947 and 1960, with the bulk coming from sessions with Pete Rugulo and Nelson Riddle in the 1950s. The earliest track, in the penultimate position on the CD, is a lovely treatment of Brahms' Lullabye, with strings and woodwinds, recorded in August 1947; no session personnel are listed. In contrast to the generally serious mood of The Christmas Song, Cole, Christmas, & Kids presents more lighthearted fare, such as the album opening "All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)," from a 1949 Capitol session teaming the Trio and The Starlighters vocal group. With Pete Rugulo, Cole is joined on "Frosty the Snowman" by the orchestra along with some chirpy voiced singers called The Singing Pussycats, who may have been the high-pitched model for David Seville's Chipmunks later in the decade; released in 1951, this single peaked at #9—go figure. The B side of "Frosty," from the same session, is a far more satisfying Cole performance, of Mickey Rooney's (yes) tender "The Little Christmas Tree," recipient of a soothing reading from Cole, as Rugulo crafts an arrangement marked not only by its low-key strings and warm vocal group harmonies, but also by the atmospheric use of music box-like chimes throughout. You know you've arrived at the Nelson Riddle portions of the disc from the unmistakable sound of a sumptuous string arrangement introducing "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot." It's a slight song, sentimental and nostalgic, with a recitation for Nat serving as the song's bridge, but Riddle's arrangement is never less than captivating. More whimsical is "Mrs. Santa Claus," which opens with a pizzicato string passage and proceeds at a lighthearted stride, Nat singing over a singsong pop soundscape, his vocals supported by a group of trilling female singers. Then there's the Riddle version of "The Christmas Song." Surprisingly, it hews closely to the 1946 version, opening with a swooning, pure Riddle string part before settling into small combo mode with the strings discreetly intersecting the lyrical phrases and providing a dreamy backdrop for Cole's romantic vocal, which, like the 1946 reading, is less studied than it would be in 1961. Working with Dave Cavanaugh and His Orchestra in 1959, Nat went global on an Italian-flavored Yuletide romp, "Buon Natale (Means Merry Christmas To You") and cut another rollicking novelty, "The Happiest Christmas Tree," a bopping trifle with an infectious spirit. The album is rounded out with the Ralph Carmichael-arranged versions of "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" now restored to print on the expanded The Christmas Song. Say this for Nat King Cole: he got the best out of his arrangers, and his arrangers the best out of him. If his Christmas catalogue is rather spare—and it is—it's also one of the most important, one of the benchmarks by which pop-oriented Christmas music is measured. The man and his music exude class.