7 June 1999
Mel Tormé, jazz singer and songwriter, died on June 5 aged 73. He was born in Chicago on September 13, 1925.
One of the most popular and influential jazz singers of the postwar era, Mel Tormé was given some sage advice in 1947 by his then manager, Carlos Gastel: "You will never be the mass star you want to be, Torment" - his peculiar mode of addressing his client - "but there is a vast majority of people out there who will always support your work."
In a singing career that lasted for more than 65 years, Tormé mastered a repertoire of some 5,000 songs. "I see lyrics when I sing - flowers and Central Park and autumn leaves and blue skies and Garbo's face," he once explained. Unlike many of his crooning contemporaries, Tormé was an accomplished songwriter and arranger who wrote much of his own material. And if he had not been bountifully blessed as a singer he might have enjoyed a distinguished career as a jazz drummer; Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton all tried to hire him as such.
Melvin Howard Tormé was named after the film actor Melvyn Douglas (his younger sister was named after Myrna Loy). His father, William Torma, a Russian immigrant whose name was mistakenly altered by an official on Ellis Island, owned a dry goods store, but also tried working in a dress factory, fashioning jewellery, and various other jobs. Tormé's mother, Betty, demonstrated new sheet music at Woolworths and by the age of four Mel had already learnt a number of songs by heart.
That year Tormé was taken by his parents to the Blackhawk restaurant where the Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawk Orchestra were performing. Spotted singing at the table by Carlton Coon, Tormé was invited up to sing a song with the band ("You're Driving Me Crazy") and thereafter he became a regular Monday night feature at $15 a time. At the age of six he joined a children's revue which played in neighbourhood theatres and at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933 he won the children's division of a radio audition contest with a Jolson song and a recitation. Over the next seven years, until his voice broke, Tormé became one of the busiest child actors in Chicago, known for his prodigious mimetic skills - he could do all sorts of accents and film star impersonations.
At his first school, Shakespeare Grammar, he was frequently roughed up by an Irish boy, but when he broke the boy's nose and knocked him downstairs he was suspended for a week. He was left alone after that. Tormé had already started to learn the drums, and by the time he went to Hyde Park High, where he added the accent to his surname, he was writing songs. At the age of 15, he was auditioned by Harry James, singing one of his own songs called Lament to Love and was invited to join the James band on tour. Although this invitation was later withdrawn on the grounds of impracticality (he would have had to be accompanied by a full-time tutor), Tormé's "Lament to Love" was recorded by Harry James, then by Les Brown, Sonny Durham and Lanny Ross, making the hit parade and staying there for several weeks.
Tormé's next break came when he was heard singing by the drummer Ben Pollack, who happened to be assembling a band for the comedian Chico Marx. Some months later Pollack sent him the money for the journey to the West Coast, where he was taken on as a singer and vocal arranger in August 1942, just before his 17th birthday. He stayed with the band for a year, until it broke up, and served as its drummer in the last few months. After winning a small film role in Higher and Higher (with Frank Sinatra), Tormé took over a vocal group called the School Kids, from Los Angeles City College, and rechristened them as Mel Torme and the Mel-Tones.
During the war he served in the Army and upon discharge resumed his career with the Mel-Tones, recording with Artie Shaw ("I Got the Sun in the Morning") and Bing Crosby ("Day by Day"). The year 1946 saw a songwriting hit for Tormé when Nat "King" Cole became the first artist to record his The Christmas Song. The song, with its famous opening line, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire", was written on a sweltering July afternoon and has subsequently proved a perennial: 1,734 versions have since been recorded. Under their own name, the Mel-Tones also recorded "It's Dreamtime" (1947).
In the early days of his solo performing and recording career, Tormé was dubbed "The Velvet Fog", a shorthand description of his then crooning style, which predominantly consisted of head tones. The tag had been created by the New York disc jockey Fred Robbins, who also called him "Mr Butterscotch" and "The Kid with the Gauze in His Jaws", and who whipped up a bobby-socks following for Torme shortly before he arrived in New York to play the Copacabana in 1947.
Despite the atmosphere of anticipation, his appearances there were deemed a failure. That same year, however, Tormé joined Capitol as a solo artist and in 1949 he had his first No 1 hit with Careless Love. This was followed by the two-sided "Again" and "Blue Moon", which became one of his best-loved signature tunes. Another song, "Comin' Home Baby", was a surprise hit for him in 1962.
The "Velvet Fog" tag stuck with him long after he had refined his voice into a precisely modulated baritone that emanated from his diaphragm. Otherwise, some of the earlier recordings can, to many tastes, seem a little mannered and showy. In 1954 he scored a British hit with his spirited and jazzy rendition of Rodgers and Hart's "Mountain Greenery", but 1954 was a significant landmark in Tormé's recording career for another reason, witnessing his first live album, Mel Torme at the Crescendo.
From then on he alternated between studio and live albums with mixed success, though it was as a live performer that he truly excelled. "I love singing in a small room with people on top of me," he told an interviewer. "Once, in a small room in San Francisco, I noticed this beautiful couple in front of me. They had their heads together, they were holding hands, they were listening. I caught their eye, and it became a private three-way performance, and before it was over tears had spilled out of my eyes."
During the 1960s, he performed less and worked for much of the time as a television producer (he had earlier been the host of the first daytime talk show). He had unhappy periods recording for Atlantic and Columbia. Then from the mid-1970s he returned to the cabaret and concert circuit, this time clearly defined as a jazz singer, and built up a firm following.
In the 1980s and early 1990s he teamed up with his friend George Shearing, the blind British jazz pianist, for a series of live albums characterised by technical virtuosity, musical wit and personal charm: the 1982 album An Evening with George Shearing and Mel Tormé won him a Grammy for best vocalist. "If I change a note in a chord," Shearing observed, "he will answer with an altered note - his ears are that finely tuned."
Tormé had put on weight in his later years and his neck and throat had sagged into a pelican pouch, though this feature served only to ensure a relaxed and resonant tone. He suffered a severe stroke in 1996 which left him immobilised and unable to continue singing.
His final live recording, at the Disney Institute in Florida only a few weeks before his stroke, found Tormé on impressive form, especially for someone who had just turned 70, with no cracks in his mellifluous tone, his scat singing still an example of dazzling dexterity, and his controlled falsetto confidently on display in the final phrase of his opening number, "Just One of Those Things". It included his famous version of Jerome Kern's "Pick Yourself Up", during which he offers an interlude of vocal-piano counterpoint in tribute to J.S. Bach. His last studio recording, also in 1996, was with the Boss Brass, a Canadian ensemble.
As well as recording and performing, Tormé also wrote books. He published a western called Dollarhide (1955) under the pseudonym Wesley Butler Wyatt; The Other Side of the Rainbow (1970), a poignant memoir of his time working with Judy Garland on her television show; Wynner, a novel about a popular singer; and in 1988, his autobiography It Wasn't All Velvet. He was a devotee of two modern classical composers, Percy Grainger and Frederick Delius, and would invariably recognise the musical quotations from Delius tone poems that George Shearing would mischievously weave into his accompaniment. Although he wrote as many as 300 songs, only The Christmas Song became a standard alongside those which he sang so feelingly.
Married four times, Tormé had five children by his first three wives (one former mother-in-law is Dame Thora Hird). He is survived by his fourth wife, Ali, by his children and two stepchildren.
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