One of the classic Tin Pan Alley duets, "Baby It's Cold Outside" has become a holiday favorite, but it was originally a party song written by Frank Loesser for him and his wife, Lynn, to perform for the purpose of entertaining guests. The Loessers knew their way around a song: Frank composed Guys and Dolls and many other musicals; Lynn, a former nightclub singer, co-produced the musical The Most Happy Fella, which Frank wrote.
In 1949, "Baby It's Cold Outside" was used in the movie Neptune's Daughter, where it was performed twice; once with Ricardo Montalban trying to persuade Esther Williams to stay, and again with Betty Garrett trying to detain Red Skelton. The song won the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year.
Frank Loesser wrote this song in 1944 for a housewarming party he and his wife were throwing after moving into the Hotel Navarro in New York. Their rendition proved very successful and the couple continued to perform the song at parties they attended in New York and Hollywood. Their son John Loesser recalled to The Palm Beach Post December 7, 2010: "It was something that songwriters did in those days. If you were invited to a party, you were expected to sing for your supper. Oscar Levant, Roger Edens, Harry Warren – they all did it. But the song was a private social piece for parties. My mother just loved both the song and the fact that it was hers. And it kept them in champagne and caviar."
Eventually, MGM offered Frank Loesser good money for the song, and used it in Neptune's Daughter. However his wife was not impressed. "He went home and told my mother and she was furious," John recalled to The Palm Beach Post. "You sold our song for Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban!," she complained to her husband. "I felt as betrayed as if I'd caught him in bed with another woman," she complained to their children.
For a long time afterwards, Lynn would simply sigh, "Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban!"
This song is a point-counterpoint between a man and a woman, each with very clear goals: She wants to go home, he wants her to stay. In the end, it's not clear what happens, as they join together to sing the chorus.
The song is generally heard as whimsical fun, but the guy's persistence is a little troubling. When she asks, "What's in this drink?" it makes you wonder if he's trying to get her drunk - or worse.
To keep it from sounding predatory, the female voice in the song is usually a strong one, making it clear that it is her decision.
Several recordings of this song emerged in 1949, the most popular of which was by Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer, backed by the Paul Weston Orchestra. Whiting was a popular singer of the era, but Mercer was better known as a lyricist - he later penned the words to "Moon River
." Their version went to #4 on the Billboard chart that year, but renditions by Dinah Shore & Buddy Clark, Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Jordan, and Don Cornell & Laura Leslie all charted that year as well.
Oddly, it was the summer of 1949 when the song was hit: Every chart entry happened between May and August. Neptune's Daughter
, which popularized it in film, was released that June.
After a wave of recordings in 1949, the song didn't get much attention until 1957, when Mae West and Rock Hudson performed it in a steamy duet at the Academy Awards ceremony. This induced more covers, including a version by Ray Charles and Betty Carter that went to #62 in the US.
There was only a smattering of new recordings in the '70s and '80s, but Bette Midler and James Caan gave it new life when they sang it in the 1991 movie For The Boys (it plays over the end credits). Robert Palmer & Carnie Wilson and Vanessa Williams & Bobby Caldwell are some of the '90s pairings.
In the 2000s, "Baby, It's Cold Outside" found its way onto many Christmas playlists, with the song recorded in every conceivable format. Lady Antebellum hit #103 with their version in 2008, the Glee Cast reached #57 in 2010, and Haley Reinhart & Casey Abrams made #120 in 2011.
In 1999 Tom Jones
and Cerys Matthews covered this, reaching #17 in the UK singles chart. Cerys Matthews was the lead singer of the Welsh band Catatonia, who had several hits in the late 1990s including "Mulder And Scully" and "Road Rage
." Either Matthews had a deep admiration for her fellow Welsh vocalist, or there was some clever marketing going on. Her previous single release before this duet had been a recording with the Liverpool band Space, the Top 10 hit "The Ballad of Tom Jones."
This song appears twice in the 2003 movie Elf. First, Zooey Deschanel sings it with Will Ferrell, then a version by Deschanel and Leon Redbone plays during the closing credits Redbone was also the voice of Leon the Snowman). The Deschanel/Redbone version renewed interest in the song and got a lot of airplay on Christmas playlists. A few years later, Deschanel got her sing on again when she joined M. Ward in the duo She & Him.
In Elf, James Caan plays Buddy's naughty-list dad who has to be coerced into singing loud for all to hear (it's the best way to spread Christmas cheer). In 1991, he sang "Baby It's Cold Outside" for the movie For The Boys.
Various parodies of this song reverse the scenario, with the guy trying to get the girl to leave. This was done in a 2013 Saturday Night Live skit where Jimmy Fallon tries to get Cecily Strong out of his apartment after a tryst. "So, should I call you a cab," he sings, to which she replies, "Oh, but it's cold outside."
Idina Menzel and Michael Bublé took this song to #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart in 2014. The video quickly racked up 10 million YouTube views despite neither singer appearing in the clip - child actors Emily Carey and Harry Collett acted out the song in an elegant hotel setting. The song appeared on Menzel's album Holiday Wishes.
Also in 2014, Seth MacFarlane and Sara Bareilles took the song to #10 on the AC chart after performing it at the Rockefeller Center tree lighting ceremony.
The Minnesota musicians Josiah Lemanski and Lydia Liza did a reinterpretation of this song in 2016 with the lyrics altered to make the storyline more consensual. Instead of pressing her to stay, the guy replies with lines like "Hoping you get home safe" and "Text me at your earliest convenience."
They wrote the song in about 45 minutes and recorded it the same day. They put it online and the local NPR radio station The Current started playing it. CNN had the couple on for an interview and it snowballed in the press, renewing the debate (and larger cultural context) of whether or not the original version is threatening to women.
In 2018, some radio stations, including WDOK in Cleveland, dropped this song in response to the #MeToo movement. Earlier in the year, Bill Cosby was sent to jail, accused of sexual assault by a number of women who claimed he drugged their drinks. With that story in the headlines, the "hey, what's in this drink?" line carried a criminal connotation. "Bill Cosby ruined it for everybody," Frank Loesser's daughter, Susan, said.
Many stood by the song, which became a political wedge. To show their support, the Louisville, Kentucky radio station WAKY played five different versions for two consecutive hours on December 16, earning plaudits from listeners and lots of free publicity. Some stations that pulled the song, including KOIT in San Francisco and KOSI in Denver, ended up reinstating it after listener backlash.
The controversy earned the song a lot more plays, and on December 22, Dean Martin's version ranked at #10 on Billboard's Digital Song Sales chart.
In 2019, John Legend and Kelly Clarkson took on this song in a version with lyrics where the guy is supportive and respectful, never pressuring her to stay. Clarkson sings the original lyrics, but Legend offers completely different rejoinders, always keeping his cool and sometimes providing comic relief:
My mom will start to worry
- I'll call the car and tell him to hurry
My brother will be there at the door
- He loves my music, baby, I'm sure
But maybe just a cigarette more
- That's something we should probably explore
In this setting, Legend is giving her an easy exit, but she's not taking it.
Legend wrote the new lyric with Natasha Rothwell, a writer/actress known for her work on the TV series Insecure. He and Clarkson performed the song on The Voice, where they were judges. Legend knew not everyone would get the joke. He posted on Twitter when the song was released: "A welcome update or 'PC Culture run amok & destroying everything great in the history of music?' You decide."