One of the most popular of all Christmas songs was written by one of America’s great pop singers, Mel Tormé. It begins, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. . . ." It’s called "The Christmas Song." It was written in 1945 and was turned into a seasonal classic in 1946 by Nat "King" Cole–in my book, the greatest of America’s pop singers. That song illustrates entrepreneurship: the ability to forecast the future of supply and demand, and then buy low now and sell high later. You spot the opportunity when your competitors don’t. You can therefore buy low. You sell into rising demand at the peak of the market. I can think of no song that better illustrates the art of entrepreneurship. Here is the story of that song, as written by Tormé. It began with a trip to the home of his song-writing partner, Bob Wells.
One excessively hot afternoon, I drove out to Bob’s house in Toluca Lake for a work session. The San Fernando Valley, always at least ten degrees warmer than the rest of the town, blistered in the July sun…. I opened the front door and walked in…. I called for Bob. No answer. I walked over to the piano. A writing pad rested on the music board. Written in pencil on the open page were four lines of verse:
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 finally appeared, I asked him about the little poem. He was dressed sensibly in tennis shorts and a white T-shirt, but he still looked uncomfortably warm.
"It was so hot today," he said, "I thought I’d write something to cool myself off. All I could think of was Christmas and cold weather."
I took another look at his handiwork. "You know," I said, "this just might make a song."
We sat down together at the piano, and, improbable though it may sound, "The Christmas Song" was completed about forty-five minutes later. Excitedly, we called Carlos Gastel, sped into Hollywood, played it for him, then for Johnny Burke, and then for Nat Cole, who fell in love with the tune. It took a full year for Nat to get into a studio to record it, but his record finally came out in the last fall of 1946; and the rest could be called our financial pleasure.
If you are a writer of pop songs, and you want a large, thrift-free annuity, you eventually think about writing a Christmas song. That’s what Hugh Grant’s father had done in About a Boy, and Grant had never worked a day in his life as a result. He hated the song, but he loved the royalties.
In 1945, the operational model was already there: Irving Berlin’s "White Christmas," which was written in 1940 and became an instant classic when Bing Crosby recorded it in 1942. All over the world, 1942–44, American troops listened to that song every Christmas. It reminded them of home – though not my father. He had grown up in southern California. Stationed for three years in Cairo, he hated that song. He would turn off the radio whenever he heard it after the war. For all I know, he still does.
Crosby’s version has sold over 30 million copies. Estimated total sales: 125 million copies – the biggest-selling song of all time. Not bad for a Jewish songwriter. There is nothing like the free market to encourage ecumenical celebration.
A LUCKY BREAK?
July is not the time of the year when most song writers would have sat down to write "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire." But Wells was motivated by the heat of the San Fernando Valley in an era before home air conditioning was common to write a few lines about winter’s most famous holiday season. Tormé read it, spotted the opportunity, and together they spent the most profitable 45 minutes in song-writing history.
"White Christmas" remained the most popular Christmas song for six decades. Then it faltered.
According to a 1998 press release from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), "White Christmas" remains the number one performed Christmas carol, and is the most recorded Christmas carol (over 500 versions in "scores of languages"). The other top five are "Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town," Mel Tormé’s "The Christmas Song," "Winter Wonderland," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and Leroy Anderson’s "Sleigh Ride." [Note: Calling these songs Christmas carols reveals a decided lack of cultural awareness.]
By 2003, however, "White Christmas" had slipped to the number-two position on their list of Christmas songs. The number one song was "The Christmas Song" (Mel Tormé and Robert Wells).
Think about the chain of events. Tormé walked in the door, presumably after knocking. His friend was missing. He called out his name. No answer. He wandered over to the piano. There was a writing pad with what looked like a poem written in pencil.
Wham! Why not a Christmas song? Why not, indeed?
Forty-five minutes later, stage one of their joint lifetime annuity was finished.
It is also worth considering that the title, "The Christmas Song," was still available.
They got on the phone to call around to promote it.
They called Nat Cole.
At this point, luck was fading in causational significance; personal contacts were growing. Yet even here, it was not a slam dunk. In 1945, Nat Cole was a singer and pianist with his own jazz trio. He had been recording for almost a decade. His one hit, "Straighten Up and Fly Right" (1943), was no ballad. In 1945, there was no black ballad singer singing love songs on the radio to entertain white women. It was with "The Christmas Song" that Cole made the transition to balladeer in the mind of the public. What better way to make the transition out of jazz than a Christmas song? But nobody could have guessed this in 1945. Cole recorded it in 1946.
Was this a fluke? Surely not a Jed Clampett "struck oil in mah own back yard" kind of fluke. Tormé had written his first published song in 1940. Big band leader Harry James recorded it. It made the hit parade. He was 15 at the time. By then, he had been a singer on-stage for eleven years. (You read it right.) He had been a child radio actor for seven years. He had taken up song writing at age 14.
When he wrote "The Christmas Song," he was 19. He turned 20 in September.
Just for the record, Tormé and Wells [Levinson] were Jewish. Think about that for a minute. A couple of Jewish kids sat down in July to write a Christmas song, which was recorded by a black jazz singer the next year. As a result, they all got rich.
Only in America.
Tormé never again came close to a home run. He worked as a singer, mostly of ballads, which he didn’t like. His voice was so lush that he was called "the velvet fog," which he hated, or called "the velvet frog" by his critics, which also didn’t please him. He wrote 300 songs, none of which came close to the popularity of "The Christmas Song." But, Christmas after Christmas, the royalty money rolled in. This must have consoled him. He died in 1999. The money is still rolling in, more than ever. This consoles his heirs.
Although it’s been said many times, many ways:
Merry Christmas to us.
Was he lucky? To the extent that an enormous talent stumbles across an unpredictable opportunity and takes it, yes. To the extent that it takes enormous talent to spot the opportunity and take advantage of it, luck has nothing to do with it.
I don’t believe in luck. I bundle luck together with fate and roast them both alongside those chestnuts. I do believe in opportunities that self-disciplined people stumble across as they pursue their occupations (for money) or their callings (for significance).
Usually, this doesn’t happen when you’re 19.
NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS
A week from now, when old acquaintances will be forgot as surely as the remainder Bobby Burns’ lyrics will be, some of you may be tempted to make one or more New Year’s resolutions. They, too, will soon be forgotten.
My suggestion is that you make only one resolution, and that you make it today. Take a week to think it over. Make a few notes about how you plan to achieve it, and when, and at what price. Then confirm it on New Year’s Eve if it’s worth the effort.
Here’s how I think you should think about it.
Why it is worth doing?
What happens if you don’t do it?
What happens if you do achieve it?
What will you have to give up to achieve it?
If it is worth doing, then you ought to do it. Pay the price. If you don’t have enough money or time or resources to complete it, find a successor.
Tormé’s friend Wells started the poem to cool off mentally. That is a peculiar strategy to cooling off. Why would any normal person do that? Answer: he wouldn’t. Wells was not a normal person. He was a poet, as song writers must be. But there is little likelihood that he would have achieved anything with that poem, had Tormé not walked in the door and spotted the opportunity. Once spotted, the first stage was completed in 45 minutes.
They had the skills to complete it in 45 minutes. Most people don’t. But in every field in which a person has an edge, there are opportunities. If you devote yourself to your craft, as those two did, you can achieve more than an outsider would imagine. It is a matter of disciplining yourself in your area of expertise to such an extent that you see opportunities that others miss.
We don’t know when the opportunity will arrive. For Mel Tormé, it arrived at age 19. Lesson: "Strike when the iron is hot, even it’s a fireplace iron in July."
Gene Autry’s wife wanted him to record "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer." Autry hated it. She nagged him. Finally, he consented to do a single take – no second chance. It sold over two million copies the first year: 1949. His version has sold over 30 million copies.
Fluke? Autry died one of the three or four richest movie stars in Hollywood history, the owner of the California Angels, and the author of 300 songs, including "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" (in the top five Christmas songs) and "Here Comes Peter Cottontail." But he didn’t like "Rudolph."
Where did he find out about the song? It had been sent to him by the song’s writer, Johnny Marks. That, too, is a great story of entrepreneurship. Marks’ brother-in-law Robert May had written a poem about Rudolph for his daughter in 1939. May’s wife had died that year. The poem was a way to cheer up the little girl. He worked as a copywriter for Montgomery Ward. The company bought the poem from him that year. The company then used it as a giveaway book for Christmas promotions every year. They eventually gave away over six million copies.
In 1946, Sewell Avery, the head of Montgomery Ward, gave the copyright to May. May then licensed the character. Marks set the story to music. He sent a copy to Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore. He sent one to Autry, as an afterthought. Mrs. Autry made the difference.
Marks subsequently became a one-man cottage industry of Christmas songs, writing the ghastly "Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree" in 1958 and the tolerable "The Most Wonderful Day of the Year" in 1964. That was a much-appreciated stocking stuffer for Andy Williams.
Causation is mysterious. Odd things happen when you least expect them – in July, in the first and final take in a recording studio, or even in a stable. It’s just amazing how things turn out sometimes.
Christmas is merry. But what you do with it in July may make all the difference.