Oddly, as much of a Christmas-music aficionado as I like to think myself, I didn’t grow up knowing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Purely coincidentally (and not, say, because my parents thought it was too suggestive to have it available to the impressionable minds of their children), it didn’t appear on any of the various Christmas albums we owned. And I can’t be sure, but I think that it didn’t get as much seasonal airplay on the radio in the ’70s and ’80s as it does now — maybe because it’s not a Christmas song, per se, and didn’t catch on as such until later, or maybe it was considered just a bit too suggestive to fit in well with the other Christmas music fare. But with the advent of streaming and Pandora and other social music sharing, the song has certainly hit its stride as it shows up on more and more holiday playlists. Or maybe I’m just imagining all that to excuse my somehow not being aware of it until I was at least in my twenties.
There are so many versions of the song, it’s hard to know where it started. Well, I’ll tell you: it was written by Frank Loesser, the same songwriter responsible for the Broadway musicals Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. He wrote it in 1944, but in 1949 it first appeared in public, winning an Academy Award (!) for Best Original Song when it appeared in a 1949 movie, Neptune’s Daughter (featuring Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalbán, it was one of Williams’s very popular “aquamusicals”).
I won’t even begin to list all the versions that have been done of this song, but I will say that there are quite a few that are sung much too straight for such a comedic song. It needs to be done with pizzazz and plenty of smirk, and as far as I’m aware, no one to this day has done that better than Sammy Davis, Jr. and Carmen McRae, when they recorded it in 1958 for their duet album, Boy Meets Girl. Davis plays up the good-natured smarminess and playful whininess, while McRae plays it mostly straight, with a knowing wink (and a couple of moments when she can’t help but laugh). She’s the perfect counterpoint to Sammy’s goofiness, eventually falling prey to Sammy’s charms (as the song would require, of course). As much fun as they’re clearly having in the song, it wouldn’t be nearly as good if they weren’t both such talented singers, and the great jazzy instrumental backing ties the ribbon on the whole package. All in all, it’s about as enjoyable a version of the song as you could hope for.
On that note, I really can’t stay, but…