Song of the Season: Baby It’s Cold Outside

by M.C. Antil on December 14, 2016

frank-loesser-5Frank Loesser’s particular genius was that he could put conversational English to music, whether it was the everyday English of colorful, street-educated hustler types (Guys and Dolls) or the English of ambitious and manipulative three piece suit types (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying).

For today’s song of the season, I bring you a tune that is lyrically dripping in that conversational dynamic, the original version of Loesser’s secular classic, Baby It’s Cold Outside.

A tune Loesser originally composed, not for Broadway or the movies, but so that he and his wife, actress Lynn Loesser, would have a call-and-answer song to entertain guests at Hollywood Christmas parties. This recording is exactly how the couple may have sounded at one of those affairs, with him playing a simple piano and talk-singing the male part (the “wolf,” as his original lyrics denoted), and his wife playing the vulnerable, increasingly tipsy and ever-so slightly less resistant object of his affections (the “mouse” part on Loesser’s original score).

frank-loesser-1I know there have been more popular versions over the years, most notably Dean Martin’s, which he sang with a woman whose identity, sadly, has been lost to time. But the list also includes such unique duets as Dinah Shore and Buddy Miller, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting, Ray Charles and Betty Carter, and most recently, Zooey Deschanel and Leon Redbone.

But this is the one that, for my money, best captures the song’s brilliance.  First, it is accompanied solely by a slightly ragged piano, as though the wolf and mouse are actually alone in the guy’s apartment.  Secondly, I love how the composer sings the wolf part in a slow, smarmy and seductive whisper.  But mostly, what sets this version apart is an incredible vocal performance by Lynn Loesser.

In her hands Baby It’s Cold Outside gets completely turned on its ear. And, as a listener, you find yourself focusing less on the wolf and more on his pretty young prey. Because Loesser is not just singing the song, she’s acting it. Listen to how she changes her focus and tone in the couplet, “The neighbors might think. Say, what’s in this drink?” You can almost see her wide eyes narrowing as she suddenly shifts her focus from the window and the judgmental world outside to the loaded concoction from which she’s just taken a dangerous first sip.

photo posted on post-gazette.comLoesser makes the mouse so many things over the course of two minutes you can’t help but be as drawn in as she is. In her hands, the young female at the heart of the song is smart, she’s a good daughter, she’s curious, she’s strong, she’s coquettish and sexy, she’s principled, she’s got a touch of a wild streak, and above all, she’s an unsullied and unplucked girl-next-door. In short, Lynne Loesser gives a vocal performance that still, after all these years, sets this original apart from all the others.

Please enjoy today’s song for the season, a holiday classic that not only helped define Frank and Lynn Loesser’s sometimes stormy Hollywood marriage, but signaled its end as well. Because years later, Lynn would tell friends that, when she learned that Frank had finally, after so many years, licensed Baby It’s Cold Outside to MGM, she knew in her heart their marriage was over.

Previous post:

Next post: