'The Christmas Song' turns 65

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The Independent Culture

It's the best-selling Christmas tune of all time and for more than six decades has evoked images of Santa Claus, roasting chestnuts, and, of course, Jack Frost nipping at your nose.

Yet ironically given its vivid imagery of an idyllic winter wonderland, "The Christmas Song" - which celebrates its 65th anniversary this year - was penned on a blazing hot summer's afternoon in Los Angeles.

Jazz legend Mel Torme and Bob Wells dashed off the iconic tune in less than a hour on a sweltering day in 1944, as Wells attempted to "stay cool by thinking cool," according to the popular legend.

The tune was first recorded by Nat "King" Cole in 1946, whose multiple versions of the song remain the best known, and has since been covered by more than 100 artists including Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and Christina Aguilera.

Today veteran music manager Dale Sheets - who represented Torme for 35 years - is the keeper of "The Christmas Song" flame, and every year weighs dozens of requests from companies or artists seeking to use the song.

For Sheets, the secret of the song's longevity lies in its message that Christmas is a time of year for everyone to enjoy.

"I think it's the overall feeling that the whole family can be involved in it," Sheets told AFP. "It appeals to the basic idea that Christmas is a time of the year when there is something for everyone."

Sheets says the song came about almost by chance when Torme visited Wells at his home in the suburb of Toluca Lake in July 1944.

"Mel went to Bob's house on one of the hottest days of July. He went into the living room and noticed on a spiral pad some random words that Bob had written out: 'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.'

"When Bob came into the room Mel said 'What are you trying to do here?' Bob said 'I'm trying to think of something cool. It's such a blazing hot day here. I've had a swim in the pool, I've had a cold shower, I've tried everything.'

"And Mel said 'Gee I think we can do a song out of this.' So they started writing and 40 minutes later they had 'The Christmas Song.'"

The rest was history.

Although vocalist Torme later recorded his own version, the song was first offered to Cole, who quickly co-opted it, according to Sheets.

"Mel and Bob took the song directly to Nat Cole, and Nat Cole said quite clearly 'This is my song' and it went from there," Sheets recalls.

Cole recorded it for the first time at WMCA Radio Studios in New York in June 1946, but it was his fourth recording at Hollywood's Capitol Studios in 1961 that is probably the best known version of the song.

The tune has since become a staple of holiday albums and in 2006 surpassed "White Christmas" as the highest-selling Christmas song of all time.

"Just about any artist who is recording a Christmas album today requests to use it on their CD," Sheets said. "The list seems to get longer every year."

This year the song features prominently in a US television advertising campaign for Target, although Sheets admits that every request to use the tune is strictly vetted.

"If the song is being used in a motion picture or television commercial we always request to see exactly what the context is," Sheets said.

"Mel and Bob were both sticklers about the kind of atmosphere or scene in which the song would be presented. If it's not a tasteful scene, one not in keeping with the stature of the song, we deny it."