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Mel Tormé

Mel Tormé

[tawrmey]

Melvin Howard Tormé (September 13, 1925June 5, 1999), nicknamed The Velvet Fog, was an American musician, known as one of the great jazz singers. He was also a jazz composer and arranger, a drummer, an actor in radio, film, and television, and the author of five books. He co-wrote the classic holiday song "The Christmas Song" (also known as "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire") with Bob Wells.

Biography

Early years

Tormé was born in Chicago, Illinois to immigrant Russian Jewish parents whose name had been Torma. A child prodigy, he first sang professionally at age 4 with the Coon-Sanders Orchestra, singing "You're Driving Me Crazy" at Chicago's Blackhawk restaurant. Between 1933 and 1941, he acted in the network radio serials The Romance of Helen Trent and Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. He wrote his first song at 13 and three years later, his first published song, "Lament to Love," became a hit recording for Harry James. He played drums in Chicago's Shakespeare Elementary School drum and bugle corps in his early teens. While a teenager, he sang, arranged, and played drums in a band led by Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers. His formal education ended in 1944 with his graduation from Chicago's Hyde Park High School.

Early career

1=Tormé works with the most beautiful voice a man is allowed to have, and he combines it with a flawless sense of pitch… As an improviser he shames all but two or three other scat singers and quite a few horn players as well.|4=Will Friedwald|5=Jazz Singing

In 1943, Tormé made his movie debut in Frank Sinatra's first film, the musical Higher and Higher. He went on to sing and act in a number of films and television episodes throughout his career, even hosting his own television show in 1951–52. His appearance in the 1947 film musical Good News made him a teen idol for a few years.

In that year he also formed the vocal quintet "Mel Tormé and His Mel-Tones," modeled after Frank Sinatra and the Pied Pipers. The Mel-Tones, which included Les Baxter and Ginny O'Connor, had several hits fronting Artie Shaw's band and on their own, including Cole Porter's "What is This Thing Called Love?" The Mel-Tones were among the first jazz-influenced vocal groups, blazing a path later followed by The Hi-Lo's, The Four Freshmen, and The Manhattan Transfer.

Later in 1947, Tormé went solo. His singing at New York's Copacabana led a local disc jockey, Fred Robbins, to give him the nickname "The Velvet Fog", thinking to honor his high tenor and smooth vocal style, but Tormé detested the nickname. (He self-deprecatingly referred to it as "this Velvet Frog voice.") As a solo singer, he recorded a number of romantic hits for Decca (1945), and with the Artie Shaw Orchestra on the Musicraft label (1946–48). In 1949, he moved to Capitol Records, where his first record, "Careless Hands," became his only number one hit. His versions of "Again" and "Blue Moon" (the latter, performed by Tormé in a cameo on the movie Words and Music) became signature tunes. His composition "California Suite," prompted by Gordon Jenkins' "Manhattan Tower," became Capitol's first 12-inch LP album. Around this time, he helped pioneer cool jazz.

From 1955 to 1957, Tormé recorded seven jazz vocal albums for Red Clyde's Bethlehem Records, all with groups led by Marty Paich, most notably Mel Tormé with the Marty Paich Dektette. These recordings proved a creative peak for Tormé and for Paich, a leading figure in the West Coast jazz of the time.

When rock & roll music (which Tormé called "three-chord manure") came on the scene in the 1950s, commercial success became elusive. During the next two decades, Tormé often recorded mediocre arrangements of the pop tunes of the day, never staying long with any particular label. He was sometimes forced to make his living by singing in obscure clubs. He had two minor hits, his 1956 recording of "Mountain Greenery," and his 1962 R&B song "Comin' Home, Baby," arranged by Claus Ogerman. The latter recording led the jazz and gospel singer Ethel Waters to say that "Tormé is the only white man who sings with the soul of a black man." It was later covered instrumentally by Quincy Jones and Kai Winding.

In 1963–64, Tormé wrote songs and musical arrangements for the The Judy Garland Show, and made two guest appearances on the show itself. However, he and Garland had a serious falling out, and he was fired from the series, which was canceled by CBS not long afterward. A few years later, after Garland's death, his time with her show became the subject of his first book, "The Other Side of the Rainbow with Judy Garland on the Dawn Patrol" (1970). Although the book was praised, some felt it painted an unflattering picture of Judy, and that Tormé had perhaps over-inflated his own contributions to the program; it led to an unsuccessful lawsuit by Garland's family.

Other books by Mel Tormé include his novel "Wynner" (1979), "It Wasn't All Velvet" (1988) and "My Singing Teachers Reflections on Singing Popular Music" (1994).

Tormé befriended drummer Buddy Rich the day Rich left the Marine Corps in 1942. Rich became the subject of Tormé's book Traps—The Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich (1987). Tormé also owned and played a drumset that drummer Gene Krupa had used for many years. George Spink, treasurer of the Jazz Institute of Chicago from 1978 to 1981, recalled that Tormé played this drumset at the 1979 Chicago Jazz Festival with Benny Goodman on the classic "Sing, Sing, Sing".

Although a jazz and popular musician, Tormé also respected classical music, especially that of Frederick Delius and Percy Grainger.

Later career

The resurgence of vocal jazz in the 1970s resulted in another artistically fertile period for Tormé, whose live performances during the 1960s and 70s fueled a growing reputation as a jazz singer. He found himself performing as often as 200 times a year around the globe. In 1976, he won an Edison Award (the Dutch equivalent of the Grammy) for best male singer, and a Downbeat award for best male jazz singer. For a number of years around this time, his September appearances at Michael's Pub on the Upper East Side would unofficially open New York's fall cabaret season. Tormé viewed his 1977 Carnegie Hall concert with George Shearing and Gerry Mulligan as a turning point. Shearing later said:

"It is impossible to imagine a more compatible musical partner… I humbly put forth that Mel and I had the best musical marriage in many a year. We literally breathed together during our countless performances. As Mel put it, we were two bodies of one musical mind."

Starting in 1982, Tormé recorded a number of albums with Concord Records, including:

In the 1980s, he often performed with pianist John Colianni.

In a scene in the 1988 Warner Bros. cartoon Night of the Living Duck, Daffy Duck has to sing in front of several monsters, but lacks a good singing voice. So, he inhales a substance called "Eau de Tormé" and sings like Mel Tormé (who in fact provided the voice during this one scene, while Mel Blanc provided Daffy's voice during most of the cartoon).

In 1993, Verve records released the classic "Blue Moon" album featuring the Velvet voice and the Rodgers and Hart Songbook. His version of Blue Moon performed live at the "Sands" in November that year earned him a new nickname from older audiences- "The Blue Fox". The nickname was a cleverly used to describe Mel's performance after spending an extra hour with pianist Bill Butler cracking jokes and answering queries from a throng of more "mature" women who turned out to see the show. Under the shimmering blue lights at the Sands, he gained a new nickname that would endure for every future performance in Las Vegas and his last performance at Carnegie Hall. Tormé would develop other nicknames later in life, but none seemed as popular as the Velvet Fog (primarily on the East Coast) and the Blue Fox.

Tormé made nine guest appearances as himself on the 1980s situation comedy Night Court whose main character, Judge Harry Stone (played by Harry Anderson), was depicted as an unabashed Tormé fan (an admiration that Anderson shared in real-life). In the mid-1990s, Tormé gained a following among Generation Xers by appearing in a series of Mountain Dew commercials and on an episode of the sitcom Seinfeld ("The Jimmy"), in which he dedicates a song to the character Kramer. Tormé also recorded a version of Nat King Cole's "Straighten up and Fly Right" with his son, alternative/adult contemporary/jazz singer Steve March Tormé.

Tormé was also able to work with his other son, television writer-producer Tracy Tormé, in an episode of Tracy's series, Sliders. The 1996 episode, entitled "Greatfellas", sees Tormé playing an alternate version of himself - a country and western singer who is also an FBI informant.

In February 1999, Tormé was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. On August 8, 1996, a stroke abruptly ended his 65-year singing career; another stroke in 1999 ended his life. In his eulogistic essay, John Andrews wrote about Tormé as follows:

"Tormé's style shared much with that of his idol, Ella Fitzgerald. Both were firmly rooted in the foundation of the swing era, but both seemed able to incorporate bebop innovations to keep their performances sounding fresh and contemporary. Like Sinatra, they sang with perfect diction and brought out the emotional content of the lyrics through subtle alterations of phrasing and harmony. Ballads were characterized by paraphrasing of the original melody which always seemed tasteful, appropriate and respectful to the vision of the songwriter. Unlike Sinatra, both Fitzgerald and Tormé were likely to cut loose during a swinging up-tempo number with several scat choruses, using their voices without words to improvise a solo like a brass or reed instrument."

Accomplishments

Tormé was a licensed pilot and often flew a small plane to his USA gigs. At a low point in his musical career, he even pondered becoming an airline pilot.

In addition to all of Torme's charitable contributions to the jazz community over the years, Torme had an extreme sensitivity to the plight of the homeless, and in 1992 he created The Rusty Trombones for the Homeless Foundation in his hometown of Chicago.

Torme also made a guest vocal appearance on the progressive pop band Was (Not Was) 1983 album Born to Laugh At Tornadoes. Torme sang the black comedic cocktail jazz song "Zaz Turned Blue" about a man who chokes to death in a park with no one around who knew how to perform the Heimlich Maneuver. ("Zaz turned blue/What were we supposed to do?/When Zaz turned blue?")

The songwriter

Tormé wrote more than 250 songs, a number of which became jazz standards. He also often wrote the arrangements for the songs he sang. He often collaborated with Bob Wells, and the best known Tormé-Wells song is "The Christmas Song", often referred to by its opening line "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire." First recorded by Nat King Cole in 1946, it has been a holiday favorite ever since. Tormé said that he wrote the music to the song in only 40 minutes, and that it was not one of his personal favorites.

For a partial Mel Tormé discography, please see the Mel Tormé discography.

Bibliography

  • The Other Side of the Rainbow (1970), about his time as musical adviser to Judy Garland's television show
  • Wynner (1978), a novel
  • It Wasn't All Velvet (1988), the autobiography
  • Traps—The Drum Wonder–The Life of Buddy Rich (1991)
  • My Singing Teachers Reflections on Singing Popular Music (1994)

Filmography

  • Higher and Higher (1943)
  • Ghost Catchers (1944)
  • Pardon My Rhythm (1944)
  • Resisting Enemy Interrogation (1944) (documentary)
  • Let's Go Steady (1945)
  • Junior Miss (1945)
  • The Crimson Canary (1945) (drums dubber)
  • Janie Gets Married (1946)
  • Good News (1947)
  • Words and Music (1948)
  • Duchess of Idaho (1950)
  • The Fearmakers (1958)
  • The Big Operator (1959)
  • Girls Town (1959)
  • Walk Like a Dragon (1960)
  • The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960)
  • The Patsy (1964) (Cameo)
  • A Man Called Adam (1966) (Cameo)
  • Land of No Return (1978)
  • Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got (1985) (documentary)
  • The Night of the Living Duck (1988) (short subject) (voice)
  • Daffy Duck's Quackbusters (1988) (voice)
  • The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991) (Cameo)

Television work

  • The Mel Tormé Show (1951–1952)
  • TV's Top Tunes (host in 1951)
  • Summertime U.S.A. (1953) (Summer replacement series)
  • The Comedian (1957) (live drama written by Rod Serling and directed by John Frankenheimer)
  • It Was a Very Good Year (1971) (Summer replacement series)
  • Pray TV (1982) (Cameo)
  • Hotel (1983) (pilot for series) (Cameo)
  • Night Court (guest appearances 1986–1992)
  • A Spinal Tap Reunion: The 25th Anniversary London Sell-Out (1992)
  • Pops Goes the Fourth (1995)
  • Seinfeld — episode "The Jimmy" (1995)
  • Sliders — episode "Greatfellas" (1996)

Family

Spouses:

Tormé was survived by five children and two stepchildren, including:

Tormé was not related to Bernie Tormé, an Irish heavy metal guitarist who has played with Ian Gillan and Ozzy Osbourne.

References

External links

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