30 Days Out (from Christmas): Calling up Mel Torme’

It was December, 1994 and I was looking for a holiday story. I was working at KTRH Radio in Houston at the time and I had the idea of putting together a montage of artists who had performed “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” to celebrate the song’s 50th anniversary. But in the end, I didn’t think that would do the song justice, so I had the bright idea of calling up one of the song’s composers, the incomparable Mel Torme’. I had interviewed him the year before when he played with the Houston Symphony and had his home number,  so I figured he wouldn’t mind if I gave him a ring.

George: Hello, Mr. Torme’. This is George Kovacik from KTRH Newsradio in Houston.

Torme: Who is this? How did you get this number?

I explained myself and after figuring out I wasn’t trying to steal his first born, he was gracious enough to give me a few minutes and tell me about how one of the greatest Christmas songs of all-time was born.

Torme’ said the tune was penned with buddy Bob Wells on a blistering hot day in Los Angeles in the summer of 1944. The two were trying to keep cool by thinking cool thoughts. He says he began to write down words like “Jack Frost” and “Chestnuts roasting” and “yuletide carols” to get in the winter mood. About 45 minutes later, the song was done and some 66 years later we are still listening to it. I asked Torme’ who he thought recorded the best version and he said hands down, Nat ‘King’ Cole.

Cole and his trio first recorded it in 1946 and then Cole himself recorded it three more times with the string arrangement most commonly heard today. Torme’ recorded the song four times himself. At the end of our interview, Mr. Torme’ thanked me for calling him and told me to call him anytime. What a difference 10 minutes makes. Working in news wasn’t easy or profitable, but talking to guys like Mel Torme’ sure made it worth it.

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