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Nat King ColeNo record other than Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" symbolizes Christmas music to the average shopper more than "The Christmas Song" by Nat King Cole (read more). The song - actually subtitled "Merry Christmas To You" but widely recollected as "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire" for it's unforgettable first line - was cowritten by no less a celebrity than singer/drummer Mel Torme. The merry old Cole roasted Torme's hardy holiday chestnut no less than three times: first with a small combo in 1946; then with Nelson Riddle and orchestra in 1954; and finally in 1961 in a similar, stereo version. Each rendition - all on Capitol Records - has its charms. Purists prefer the first, but it's the last, sweetest one that has endured in hearts and minds.

Not coincidentally, that is also the version that shows up on just about every Christmas compilation known to man. Cole, however, had been reluctant to record a full Christmas album, fearful of stealing thunder from his greatest hit. He finally relented in 1960, releasing his now-long-forgotten The Magic Of Christmas (with a cover depicting two white children...), orchestrated by Ralph Carmichael. In 1963, two years after the stereo version of "The Christmas Song" had been released, Capitol added that track to most of Cole's existing holiday album to create The Christmas Song, a perennial best-seller reissued innumerable times. The sad fact, however, is that most of The Christmas Song is pretty dull - not nearly as brilliant and warm as the title tune, though tastefully arranged and sung. Regardless, this venerated album is considered a classic of the genre, and most fans will have no qualms about laying their money down for a genuine piece of history. I sure didn't.

Nat King Cole On CD, Capitol has reissued Cole's most celebrated LP at least three times (see below), first in 1990 with the original track listing and cover. More notable is the label's crisply remastered 1999 version featuring a new cover and several bonus cuts (including a creepy duet overdubbing Nat's daughter, Natalie, with her long-moldering father). Even better, though, is Capitol's stellar 2005 upgrade, with an amended cover, detailed annotation, and yet more bonus tracks. Among these is a real surprise: Nat's melancholy "Happy New Year," a 1962 recording written and arranged by Gordon Jenkins that was first released on the posthumous LP Nat Cole Sings The Great Songs! (1966).

The latter edition is the obvious choice, but all iterations of the classic album fail to collect a number of wonderful holiday tracks - most of them geared towards children - that Ol' King Cole waxed over the years. Known mainly as a crooner, Cole could swing like crazy, and he had a wonderful, big-hearted sense of humor, too. Hearing Cole's sly, straight-faced reading of "All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)" will be a real eye-opener for listeners only acquainted with his romantic ballads. And, songs like "Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot" may be drippy, but they're incredibly sweet. "I'm so sorry for that laddie," Cole opines, "he hasn't got a daddy." Ouch!

Nat King ColeBecause of these overlooked songs, I strongly recommend Christmas For Kids: From One To Ninety-Two (an improved rendition of an earlier CD, Cole, Christmas, And Kids). This broader collection is a stronger album overall than The Christmas Song - though it's far from perfect, omitting singles like "Buon Natale" (available on Christmas Cocktails) and key album tracks like "Caroling, Caroling." One day, perhaps, Capitol will cram Cole's complete Christmas catalog onto one convenient package. Until then, the King's subjects will have to purchase both Christmas For Kids and Christmas Song - and more.

Postscript. In 2008, Target stores marketed NBC Sounds Of The Season: The Nat King Cole Holiday Collection featuring contemporary stars (Shelby Lynne, Los Lonely Boys) singing electronically-created duets with Cole. This is necrophilia in its rankest form. Avoid at all costs.

Much better, however, is Capitol's 2009 compilation called The Christmas Song, but with a different cover than the original album and 20 tracks taken from a variety of sources. At first glance, this is the best Cole Christmas album yet. Though far from complete, it contains probably the best balance of tracks from the 30-plus he recorded. Still, if you own the earlier CD's, you needn't bother. [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth) (1949)
  • Buon Natale (Means Merry Christmas To You) (1959)
  • Caroling, Caroling (1960)
  • The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You) (1961)
  • A Cradle In Bethlehem (1960)
  • Frosty The Snowman (1950)
  • Happiest Christmas Tree (1959)
  • Happy New Year (1962)
  • Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot (1953)
  • Little Christmas Tree (1950)
  • Mrs. Santa Claus (1953)
  • Take Me Back To Toyland (1955)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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