A rock nyc Christmas Playlist # 9 – Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You”) Reviewed
Jazz fans from one to ninety two find it sacrilegious that Nat King Cole is remembered for “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)” more than for his small combo work. NKG was always cool with pop, and got on the charts over and over again, as well as being the first black performer to get his own television show. So despite “Unforgettable,” “Mona Lisa,” “Nature Boy,” “”Straighten Up and Fly Right” (his first hit in 1943), and album after album formatting an r&b tinged smooth jazz with his trio in response to the Glenn Miller big band WWII moment. The chainsmoker was dead from lung cancer before he hit 45, leaving Natalie Cole to perform a posthumous “Unforgettable” in 1991 and winning the Grammy.
Yet, still the reward for a seasonal smash is a song that is so ubiquitous it is difficult to remember that NKC was the first to record the Robert Wells and Mel Tormé (God knows, let’s hope that isn’t what the Velvet Fog is remembered for) in 1945 and I guess that explains why it isn’t a song about distance. The version we mostly remember is NKC’s 1961 fourth recording, in stereo, with a full orchestra, strings ahoy. And a bass instrumental bridge that keeps the song tough as well as lush on the strings that open the song.
The song is lushly parental, it is Christmas Eve and everywhere Nat looks his gorgeous voice floats through images of the season, Santa is a big deal for one verse, even as he ventures out in the cold evening with Jack Frost biting at your nose and instruments, piano, bass, strings, taking a couple of bars each playing on the melody.
It isn’t fair to claim the punchline “Although it’s been said many times many ways…” makes the song, it cements the feelings and it is all share with the listener and in its simple joyfulness. Recorded in March, two months after JFK’s inauguration, and the mood is the US at peace (more or less) and coming into a golden age that lasted all of two years.
“The Christmas Song” has gone past its time and place and become a moment to crystalize the traditions of the fall, always. NKG was much more than “The Christmas Song” but he was “The Christmas Song,” sliding into the “a” of a Merry Christmas.