Mel Tormé - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


           Jazz-pop song stylist Mel Tormé was a little bitty cat, but his talent, drive and ambition always operated on an Olympian scale. A child prodigy in Depression-era Chicago vaudeville, accomplished drummer, music arranger, songwriter, masterly scat singer, dramatic radio, film and television actor, six-time author and biographer, Tormé's marvelously prolific recorded output spanned six decades. An avowed disciple of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, Tormé's coolly distinctive manner of phrasing and delivery quickly earned him a lasting nickname--the Velvet Fog--and rarely has any disc jockey concocted a more singularly illustrative moniker. With a vocal tone that would shift from a low, husky timbre to light, bright clarity, Tormé's interpretive prowess was dazzling and his scat style always displayed a fluid, honey-coated aggression and high-geared spontaneity that rivaled even that of Ella Fitzgerald. His soft touch, quick wit and unbounded enthusiasm colored every artistic undertaking, and lent these (whether a song lyric, book chapter or vocal performance) a striking, perpetually fresh quality. Mel Tormé was, unequivocally, a one of kind a talent.


            Born Melvin Howard Tormé on September 13, 1925 in Chicago, Illinois, Tormé's mother recalled that he sang his first song, in its entirety, at the frighteningly early age of ten months. So persistently did the tot croon along to music on the family radio that his parents took him to see the boy’s favorite, the Coon-Sanders Orchestra (who broadcast weekly from the nearby Blackhawk Hotel ballroom) in person when he just four; from the bandstand, Joe “the Old Lefthander” Sanders noticed the kid and brought him up--the pre-schooler wound up singing there for the next six months. He was just getting warmed up. By five, he was performing in local vaudeville revues; at nine, he won a contest, for kiddie radio talent, at the Chicago World’s Fair that resulted in numerous roles in radio dramas (the gig fell apart after his voice changed). When he was fifteen years old, Tormé took his newly composed “Lament for Love” to trumpeter-bandleader Harry James, for whom he also auditioned as a drummer; James passed on the teen traps-man but he did record Tormé’s song several months later. James’ version of “Lament for Love” made the  Top Ten in the summer of 1941, and the youthful dynamo was beginning to get noticed. Leaving Hyde Park High School at sixteen, Tormé and his kit landed on the riser behind comedian-pianist Chico Marx’s big band (yes, that Chico Marx). Tormé was introduced to life on the road, and apparently dug it, as he stayed there for the next fifty years. 


            After Marx broke up the band in 1943, Tormé went to Hollywood, did a small part in musical flick Higher and Higher (which also featured another notable up and comer, Frank Sinatra) and even remembered to earn his high school diploma. With an assist from bandleader Ben Pollack, he formed vocal group Mel Tormé & the Mel-Tones, did a few more movie bit parts and in 1944, made his first recordings, with the Mel-Tones, the 78rpm disk of  “White Christmas” b/w “Where or When,” released by minor league indie label Jewel. Soon, they were doing radio work and, at Decca, session back up vocals, including a studio date with Tormé’s idol, Bing Crosby (prettying up Der Bingle’s version of “Day by Day”). At this point, Tormé was being managed by Hollywood big-shot agent Carlos Gastel, who repped a goldmine of a stable that included Peggy Lee, Nat Cole and Nellie Lutcher. Gastel pressed the singer to go out on his own, and a reluctant Tormé made his solo bow at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theater in 1946 (he also conspicuously continued to work and record with the Mel-Tones, on and off, for quite a few years). Not long after, the Nat Cole Trio cut another of Tormé’s compositions, “The Christmas Song” (as in “chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . .”) which stormed up the charts to number three in December 1946 and remains one of American pop’s premier Yuletide favorites (the song was subsequently recorded by almost 2000 other singers).


            1947 was a big year for Tormé as a solo performer. He opened his first solo Los Angeles engagement at swank nitery, Bocage, then headed east for a similar turn at New York’s even swankier Copacabana for a successful stint that resulted in his own Mel Tormé Show on NBC radio. Gastel next secured a contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer and Tormé was frequently on the studio lot shooting classic titles like Good News and Rodgers & Hart bio-pic Words and Music. Again, thanks to Gastel, Tormé signed with Capitol Records in 1949, scored a number one hit, “Careless Hands,” practically out of the gate; he soon fell to work on his ambitious concept set California Suite (1950 Capitol), which also made history as the first full-length album issued by the Johnny Mercer-owned label (the semi-flexible vinylite which the format required was a brand spanking new development; Columbia, for example, did not release a ‘Long Player’ until early 1952). The advent of the LP was just what Tormé needed, and despite a heavy schedule of club dates and  an ever-increasing  roster of television program host duties--CBS’s thrice weekly Perry Como Show summer replacement TV‘s Top Tunes (co-starring Peggy Lee), weekday celebrity interview-er The Mel Tormé Show, followed by  Summertime USA another 1953 replacement series, with pop singer Teresa Brewer-- Tormé managed to racked up more than a few Top Twenty charts entries (“Again,” Blue Moon” “Four Winds and Seven Seas,” “Bewitched”) but when his contract expired in late 1952, Capitol let him go. The move was hardly a surprise, as a hot, new breed of youthful belters like Frankie Laine, Johnnie Ray, Tony Bennett, Eddie Fisher, had taken over and rendered even Sinatra (whom Columbia had famously dropped that same year) impotent; it would be a full year before Tormé recorded again, and brief stint with Decca subsidiary, Coral, proved only moderately successful. Despite the well received Gene Norman Presents Mel Tormé Live at the Crescendo Club (1955 Coral), which yielded a Top Ten UK hit with the single "Mountain Greenery," the Tormé potential was still largely untapped. Leaving Coral, he really got into the groove at small jazz label Bethlehem Records, and the results were spectacular. Teamed with Marty Paich, a pianist-arranger of rare sensitivity, Tormé unleashed a series of superb albums, starting with It's a Blue World (1955 Bethlehem), a set of moody ballads that found the thirty year singer at the top of his game.


            Tormé was operating at a whole new level, reaching a well-chilled jazz altitude that enabled him to deliver expressive, sophisticated performances of striking degree (and also helped define the burgeoning West Coast Cool school of jazz). The fact that he had been singing many of the same Tin Pan Alley chestnuts since his childhood, afforded Tormé an intimate familiarity with the material which he shrewdly exploited and expanded upon. Tormé was entering the greatest artistic period of his career and over the course of seven albums for Bethlehem, between 1955-1957, most of them were recorded with Marty Paich's Dek-Tette orchestra which established Tormé as a legitimate jazz force. A switch to Norman Granz' prestigious Verve label in 1958 kept the creative ball rolling, and the singer cranked out an impressive eight albums in a four year period. Among theses releases were his electrifying Ellington-Basie homage, I Dig the Duke I Dig the Count (1960 Verve), and the swinging Back in Town (1959 Verve) which reunited him with old chums the Mel-Tones. Tormé's pitch-perfect vocals and proclivity for flights of untrammeled, spontaneous scat combustion endeared him to jazz heads around the world--and that was not an easy audience to satisfy.


            He was also touring the world more then ever before, packing in SRO crowds from Sydney to London, and still pursuing his other life-long obsession--acting. After eight years away from the camera, he gladly accepted dramatic roles in such potboilers as The Fearmakers, The Big Operator, Girls Town, Walk Like a Dragon, and The Private Lives of Adam and Eve. But music, of course, was his passion and after he left Verve for Atlantic, the cachet he had earned amongst jazz aficionados was somewhat vexingly squandered by record producers Ahmet and Neshui Ertegun, who insisted Tormé take on straight pop material (at the time, they were unsuccessfully attempting the very same thing with Aretha Franklin). Tormé, who had famously tagged rock & roll as "three chord manure" was reluctant, but misgivings aside, the 1962 pop-blues single, "Comin' Home Baby," made the Top Forty in both the US and Britain.  After he moved to Columbia in 1965, the trend continued with his nightmarish Right Now! (1966 Columbia), a bubblegum atrocity that featured covers of “Secret Agent Man,” and Simon & Garfunkel clunker “Homeward Bound” (reissued by Legacy in 1998, the album is a fascinating exercise in futility).


            Tormé increasingly concentrated on performing, with recording primarily viewed by the singer as a means to keep his profile high enough to command adequate bookings, and after a fruitless return to Capitol in 1968 (which resulted in what Tormé called two “wonderfully forgettable” albums), his focus was squarely on singing live and television and movie work. An instantly recognizable, downright ubiquitous presence, Tormé finally re-ignited his recording career in the mid-1970s with a series of jazz sets that renewed his creative forces. Live at the Maisonette (1975 Atlantic), followed by Tormé! A New Album (1977 Gryphon). His collaboration with the tempestuous big band drummer Buddy Rich, Together Again: For the First Time (1977 Gryphon) finally got him in the right direction, with a fast-moving, hard swinging sound that served him well for the rest of his life. Another live set, An Evening With George Shearing & Mel Tormé (1982 Concord) began a close collaborative alliance with the British jazz pianist, whose light touch and restrained manner of playing perfectly suited the Velvet Fog. That album finally earned the singer a Best Jazz Vocal Performance Grammy (he had previously been nominated half a dozen times in the category) and he won it again the following year for the Shearing-Tormé classic Top Drawer (1983 Concord). At Concord, Tormé had complete command of his creative path in the studio, and he relished the opportunity, issuing album after album, many them positively brilliant: the appropriately titled Reunion (1988 Concord) again teamed him with Marty Paich and an updated Dek-tette, that resulted in a world tour and the live Concert Tokyo album (1988 Concord). In the 1980s Torme became some what of a pop culture touchstone, as he was referenced dozens of times in the popular sitcom Night Court (he was the lead character's favorite crooner), even making guest appearences on a few episodes.


            Tormé’s career remained in high gear--if not overdrive--and his appearances through the 1990’s were uniformly high voltage, fast-paced romps, full of spontaneity--he could launch into a spur of the moment Johnny Mercer medley and stretch it for over half an hour. Even after almost fifty years of constant use, his pipes were in gorgeous condition and a Tormé show was always nothing less than spectacular, and he rarely played a date that was not a certifiable SRO. Tormé seemed unstoppable, until August 8, 1996 when a stroke knocked the wind out of him. Though he recovered well enough to be sent home, sadly,  he would never again perform and died, age 73, on June 5, 1999.



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