Mel Torme, was a consummate musician/ singer and songwriter. His fluent style earned him the nickname the Velvet Fog for his smooth, soft vocal timbre.
Melvin Howard Torme was born on the South Side of Chicago on Sept. 13, 1925, to a working-class Jewish family. His parents were immigrants whose name had been changed from Torma to Torme by an immigration agent. He was a musical prodigy who sang professionally at age 4 with the Coon-Sanders Orchestra, singing ”You’re Driving Me Crazy,” at the Blackhawk restaurant in Chicago for $15 a session, and he was a busy child actor on radio serials, appearing from 1933 to 1941 on such network programs as ”The Romance of Helen Trent” and ”Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.”
He started writing songs at 13 and was only 16 when Harry James scored a hit with his song ”Lament to Love.” While still a teen-ager, he toured as a singer, arranger and drummer in a band led by Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers.
A supreme vocal technician whose style encompassed everything from intimate pop crooning to jet-propelled scat improvisations, Mr. Torme was rivaled in virtuosity only by Ella Fitzgerald, who moved between the worlds of pop and jazz with a similar ease. An innate classicist who approached popular songs with an analytic sense of balance and proportion, Mr. Torme infused everything he sang with a geniality that seemed ingrained in a voice that was incapable of making an unpleasant sound.
Mr. Torme was also a prolific songwriter, drummer, pianist, musical arranger, actor and author. His most famous composition, ”The Christmas Song” (also known as ”Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”), written with the lyricist Robert Wells, became one of the most beloved of seasonal standards after it was recorded by Nat (King) Cole in 1946.
Mr. Torme liked to recall that the song was written in just 40 minutes on a sweltering July afternoon in Los Angeles and that it had subsequently been recorded in 1,734 versions.
The singer’s several books included ”The Other Side of the Rainbow” (1970), an account of his experiences as the musical adviser to Judy Garland on her television shows in the 1960’s, a novel, ”Wynner” (1978), and an autobiography, ”It Wasn’t All Velvet” (1988). The Garland book, with its portrait of the troubled singer, won critical praise but earned the wrath of her family, who unsuccessfully sued Mr. Torme.
1991 brought the publication of his long-promised biography of his friend Buddy Rich, Traps, The Drum Wonder.
But it was as a singer that Mr. Torme made his deepest mark. The critic Will Friedwald, in his book ”Jazz Singing,” cited Mr. Torme as a pioneer of ”cool jazz,” spun off from the pop crooning of the day.
”Torme works with the most beautiful voice a man is allowed to have, and he combines it with a flawless sense of pitch,” Mr. Friedwald wrote. ”As an improviser he shames all but two or three other scat singers and quite a few horn players as well.”
His standards included ”Blue Moon,” ”It Might as Well Be Spring,” ”Oh, You Beautiful Doll” and ”Mountain Greenery.”
In 1943, he made his movie debut in the musical ”Higher and Higher,” playing a supporting role to Frank Sinatra, who was also making his film debut.
The same year he formed Mel Torme and His Mel-Tones, whosang in the style of Frank Sinatra and the Pied Pipers. After his appearance in the 1947 musical ”Good News” made Mr. Torme a bobby-soxer idol, the Mel-Tones slipped increasingly into the background.
He was only 21 when he appeared as a soloist at the Copacabana in New York, and Fred Robbins, a local disk jockey, gave him the nickname Velvet Fog, a sobriquet he detested. Mr. Torme recorded for Decca in 1945, for Musicraft (1946-48), singing with the Artie Shaw Orchestra, and in 1949 moved to Capitol, where his first recording for the label, ”Careless Hands,” was his only No. 1 hit. It was followed by a two-sided hit, ”Again” and ”Blue Moon,” one of his best-loved signature songs. The same year, his composition ”California Suite,” a jazzier answer to Gordon Jenkins’s pop oratorio ”Manhattan Tower,” became the label’s first 12-inch LP.
Mr. Torme was 30 when he met Red Clyde, the jazz producer who founded Bethlehem Records, and decided to switch gears and move toward jazz. From 1955 to 1957, he recorded seven albums for the label, including ”Mel Torme With the Marty Paich Dektette,” a pop jazz classic featuring a 10-member ensemble (arranged by Mr. Paich) that combined the power of a big band with the freedom of a small ensemble.
”I wanted to embed in the minds of the public at large, particularly jazz fans, that this syrupy, creamy bobby-sox sensation was taking the musical bull by the horns and singing the kind of music he wanted to sing,” Mr. Torme later recalled.
As an adult, he was nominated for a best supporting actor Emmy in 1956 for a role in ”The Comedian,” a Playhouse 90 production.The appearance reawakened his film career, and he made a series of appearances as a straight actor in usually low-budget films: The Fearmakers (1958), The Big Operator (1959), Girls Town (1959), Walk Like a Dragon (1960) (for which he wrote the title song), and The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1961). His recording career picked up in 1958, when he was signed to impresario Norman Granz’s jazz-oriented Verve Records, the same label on which such peers as Ella Fitzgerald recorded. The result was eight albums over the next four years: Tormé; Olé Tormé: Mel Tormé Goes South of the Border with Billy May; Back in Town (with the Mel-Tones); Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley; Swingin’ on the Moon; Broadway, Right Now! (with Margaret Whiting); I Dig the Duke! I Dig the Count!; and My Kind of Music. The albums were well received, especially by the jazz community, without being big sellers. But by the early ’60s, Verve was the subsidiary of a large record company, no longer an independent jazz label, and Tormé accepted an offer from what he thought would be the more sympathetic Ertegun brothers, Ahmet and Nesuhi, and their Atlantic Records label.
Unfortunately, Atlantic wanted Tormé to make more pop-oriented music. His initial effort for them, the live album Mel Tormé at the Red Hill, cut in March 1962, was what he had in mind, but Atlantic got what it wanted with the bluesy single “Comin’ Home Baby,” cut in September 1962, which gave Tormé a Top 40 hit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and earned him his first two Grammy nominations (Best Solo Performance, Male, and Best Rhythm & Blues Recording), but which he did not care for. Atlantic rushed out a Comin’ Home Baby! LP, but it did not chart.
But artistic integrity did not breed commercial success.
”I can’t deny that I would have been pleased to have a best-seller,” Mr. Torme said, ”but if you’re constantly working to good rooms and to good crowds, records are only frosting on the cake. Yet my managers kept bugging me for the big hit, and to satisfy them, when rock erupted in the mid-1960’s, I recorded some of the worst dreck you can imagine — to no avail.”
Soon Mr. Torme found himself eking out a living playing out-of-the-way clubs. As rock-and-roll solidified its domination of the airwaves, he briefly considered retiring from music and becoming an airline pilot.
In the spring of 1963, Tormé accepted an offer to serve as musical advisor for the upcoming television series The Judy Garland Show. He wrote arrangements and special material for the musical variety program, which broadcast 26 hour-long episodes beginning on Sunday night, September 29, 1963, and ending on March 29, 1964, when it was canceled.
The ground swell of recognition accelerated after a triumphant 1977 Carnegie Hall concert with George Shearing and Gerry Mulligan, which Mr. Torme viewed as a turning point in his career. He later recorded five albums with Mr. Shearing, whose cool, romantic pianism perfectly complimented Mr. Torme’s serene vocal style.
”It is impossible to imagine a more compatible musical partner,” Mr. Shearing said after hearing of Mr. Torme’s death. ”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.”
In May 1971, Tormé served as the host for an ABC documentary TV series, It Was a Very Good Year, each episode chronicling a year between 1919 and 1964. The series ran through the end of August. He returned to television in an acting role with his starring performance in the TV movie Snowman in 1974. He would continue to make occasional appearances in acting and singing roles on TV for the rest of his career. In September 1974, while appearing at the Maisonette Room in the St. Regis Hotel in New York with Al Porcino & His Orchestra, Tormé recorded a live album that was picked up by Atlantic Records and released as Live at the Maisonette in 1975. He claimed never to have seen any money from the LP, but it brought him his third Grammy nomination, not as a singer, but for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) for his “Gershwin Medley.” In 1976, he finally signed a new record contract with Gryphon Records, recording the LP Tormé! A New Album in London in June 1977. It was followed by the January 1978 sessions for Together Again: For the First Time, on which he was co-billed with his longtime friend, drummer and bandleader Buddy Rich, actually released prior to Tormé! A New Album. The Rich LP earned Tormé his fourth Grammy nomination, in the Best Jazz Vocal Performance category in 1978 (the category had been created only two years earlier), while Tormé! A New Album brought him his fifth in the same category in 1979. There was a sixth Grammy nomination, again for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, for his next LP, Mel Tormé and Friends Recorded Live at Marty’s New York City, which was released on Finesse Records in 1981 and reached number 44 in the Billboard jazz chart. Encore at Marty’s followed in 1982 on Flair Records
In 1982, Mr. Torme finally found a stable recording base in Concord Jazz Records, for whom he made a succession of albums that established him as an articulate custodian of a broad pop-jazz-swing tradition that encompassed Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and the Gershwins.
In 1992, Tormé interrupted his run with Concord to cut a holiday collection, Christmas Songs, for Telarc Records. Amazingly, it brought him his first-ever chart placing in the listings for pop albums that December. Also for Telarc, he cut the live album The Great American Songbook in October 1992. But he returned to Concord only a month later for Sing Sing Sing, recorded with an all-star quintet back at the Fujitsu-Concord Jazz Festival in Tokyo. That made for enough recordings for a while, and he stuck to live performances until May 1994, when he cut the studio album A Tribute to Bing Crosby. A year later, he reunited with Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass for Velvet & Brass.
With Tormé’s assistance, Rhino Records mounted the first comprehensive box set of his recordings, The Mel Tormé Collection 1944-1985, in 1996, and in July he recorded the live album An Evening with Mel Tormé for the A&E network. The following month, on August 8, he suffered a stroke. While he had recovered sufficiently by November to be released from the hospital, he faced continuing medical challenges for the next three years and never returned to performing. In February 1999, Tormé was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Mr. Torme’s career also got a lift in the 1980’s through the television series ”Night Court,” in which Harry Anderson’s character, Judge Harry Stone, was an unabashed fan.
Mr. Torme was married four times. His first three marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Ali; five children, Steve, Melissa, Tracy, Daisy and James Torme, all of Los Angeles, and two stepchildren, Carrie Torme and Kurt Goldsmith.
Regular appearances at the JVC Jazz Festival and annual nightclub engagements at Michael’s Pub in Manhattan solidified Mr. Torme’s position as a musician who melded the achievements of the past into a sweeping but personalized vision of American popular music in its golden age as a vernacular kind of classical music.
For well over a decade, Mr. Torme’s September appearances at Michael’s Pub unofficially opened New York’s fall cabaret season. A typical Torme performance there might have been a salute to a pop music giant like Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire or Benny Goodman, in which the singer distilled his rich personal vision of a career in less than an hour.
These shows featured intricate medleys that showcased Mr. Torme’s phenomenal flexibility as both a singer and an arranger with an enthusiasm for his subject that matched his encyclopedic knowledge. Such a medley might string fragments from as many as two dozen songs into a virtuosic vocal (and sometimes also drum) display that would change in mood every few seconds as the singer glided from the most ethereal pop crooning into the sort of machine-gun driven scat improvisations that only Ella Fitzgerald, in her prime, could match in precision and rhythmic intensity.
These engagements compressed volumes worth of pop-jazz history and lore into an explosion of musical energy that was as lucid as it was comprehensive.
”I do not believe there’s such a thing as a jazz singer,” Mr. Torme declared late in his career.
”Every pop singer is influenced a little by jazz, because it’s our native folk art,” he said. ”But labeling someone a jazz, rather than a pop singer, is only a matter of degree of influence.”
With Tormé’s assistance, Rhino Records mounted the first comprehensive box set of his recordings, The Mel Tormé Collection 1944-1985, in 1996, and in July he recorded the live album An Evening with Mel Tormé for the A&E network. The following month, on August 8, he suffered a stroke. While he had recovered sufficiently by November to be released from the hospital, he faced continuing medical challenges for the next three years and never returned to performing. In February 1999, Tormé was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He died at 73 on June 5, 1999.
While Tormé disavowed some of his recordings in his autobiography, particularly the ones made with pop intentions in the 1960s, his more jazz-styled sides seem to have met his high standards, as well as those of critics and fans. In truth, Tormé brought his considerable skills to any material he tackled, and his large body of recordings fully justifies the assessment of him as a major jazz singer of the post-World War II era.