For years now on most Fridays I begin class not with a grammar or writing exercise but with a music lesson as a way to broaden my students’ musical knowledge by playing for them some of the great singers and composers of the 20th century, artists I know they don’t have on their iPods. Why waste their time playing the latest Taylor Swift song from “1989” when I can introduce them to an entertainer born in 1899?
Around this time of year I usually do my Mel Tormé lesson. When I ask my students if they have heard of him or know “The Christmas Song,” not an arm goes up. However, when I play Nat King Cole singing the opening words “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” smiles and nods appear.
What especially gets my students’ attention is when I inform them that Tormé was their age when he wrote his first hit song. Then I tell them the story of how he visited his then songwriting collaborator Bob Wells at his house in Toluca Lake on a 100-degree day in 1945.
As a way of escaping the stifling heat (the house had no air conditioning), Wells decided to cool himself off by writing a poem about Christmas. Those 25 words ended up becoming the beginning lines to “The Christmas Song,” completed after just 45 minutes.
That composition has remained a part of the holiday soundtrack after 69 years and counting.
Following my own advice to my students about contacting famous people who they admire, I reached out to Daisy Tormé, one of Mel’s five children, and an actor and a singer in her own right, who frequently hosts KCET’s special programming. I wanted to find out how special her family Christmases were considering her father had a great deal to do with making the season bright.
It is something that the public easily forgets when it comes to celebrities, that after their work is done, they go back to being husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. And to Daisy, Mel was a daddy first, “the best dad.”
She has cherished memories of Christmas with her father who would purposely not schedule any work during the holidays in order to spend time with his family. She describes “The Christmas Song” as “an American Song, magical for all of us.”
Wall Street Journal’s drama critic Terry Teachout describes “The Christmas Song” as “one of the most harmonically complex songs ever to become a hit.” Still, if it weren’t for Christmas songs heard on the radio and in the stores this time of year, how many people under the age of 50 would know who Mel Tormé or Bing Crosby were? It is a shame how quickly artists who were once extremely popular over the course of decades can be quickly forgotten.
To further illustrate this, Daisy related a story about her father who was at the storied Farmer’s Market when carolers strolled by singing “The Christmas Song” which they knew he had written though ignorant that he was a renaissance man in the industry: songwriter, singer, actor, musician.
After joining the singers in finishing the song, one of them told him that he “wasn’t that bad of a singer.” When Tormé said that he had recorded a few records in his time, the young man asked, “how many?” “Ninety.”
One of the main reasons why the song resonates so deeply is the line “and so I’m offering this simple phrase to kids from one to ninety-two,” an unusual use of first person point of view where the songwriter directly addresses the listener.
Daisy wistfully reveals that “every time I hear the song, I get emotional because it is like getting a hug from my father.”
And while Tormé never did make it to “ninety-two” having passed away in 1999 at age 73, his song has been around for almost as long as he was—and will certainly go on as long as people wish to hear beautiful music at Christmas time. To quote Messrs. Tormé and Wells, “Merry Christmas to you.”