By THE ENTHUSIAST
First and foremost, you have to admire the chutzpah inherent in naming your Christmas song "The Christmas Song." Other carols, one gathers, are mere pretenders to the yuletide throne. This is the one. A band called the Raveonettes called the songwriter’s bluff in 2004 when they released a tune of the same name with completely different music and lyrics. It’s well worth a listen, by the way, especially if you’re fond of downbeat rockabilly Christmas songs. And who isn't?
Like so many holiday classics, "The Christmas Song" was written in the heat of summer. When Mel Tormé stopped by the home of his writing partner Bob Wells in Toluca Lake, California one sweltering day in July 1945, Bob was nowhere to be seen. But Mel saw a notebook on his desk with a few fragmentary lyrics – "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." When Bob eventually walked in, Mel asked him what in the world he was up to. "It's so blistering hot here, and I thought it would be fun to see if I could write something about a totally different season, the winter season, Christmas season, and see if I could mentally, virtually cool off," Bob said. “Not only have you also cooled me off,” Mel replied, “but I think you’ve got a song here!”
Land Speed Record
The two of them then went on to complete the song in less than an hour. The attentive reader will recognize this insouciant speed as all too common (see "O Holy Night," "The Christmas Waltz," et al.), and it drives The Enthusiast bonkers. Outside of a platinum mine, the residuals from a popular Christmas song are the surest source of income on Earth (as per Nick Hornby’s About A Boy). The Enthusiast has spent far longer than an hour attempting to pen just one lousy evergreen holiday classic. The Enthusiast has not done so. It’s enough to bring out a Bah, Humbug from even the most enthusiastic lyricist manqué.
You Can Go Your Own Way
"The Christmas Song" is a rarity in that it has no chorus. Rare, too, is the fact that the title does not appear in the lyrics. Oh, Bob and Mel, you rebels, you!
The Velvet Fog
Mel Tormé! The Enthusiast is an avid fan of The Velvet Fog. Will Friedwald said it best, writing in Jazz Singing:
Tormé works with the most beautiful voice a man is allowed to have, and he combines it with a flawless sense of pitch... As an improviser he shames all but two or three other scat singers and quite a few horn players as well.
Decades ago, when the young Enthusiast was working at Tower Records just off Castro Street in San Francisco, Mr. Tormé once browsed for a while in his section. It was a Christmas wish come true just to stand in the Baroque & Classical aisle side by side for a time, and The Enthusiast belted out "The Christmas Song" all the way back to his flat in the Haight later that night.
Number nineteen in a series.
19 December 2020
The Enthusiast (email@example.com) is the pen name of critic Michael Collins. He reports back only on what’s good, never what’s bad. He is currently imbued with the holiday spirit.