Mel Torme

Biography

Mel Tormé (1925–99) was easily the greatest of all scat singers this side of Ella Fitzgerald. At the same time, he amounted to one of the finest dramatic interpreters of the great American popular song to emerge after Frank Sinatra. No other singer can embody the tenderest poetry of Cole Porter or Ira Gershwin one minute and then, one song later, ditch the words altogether to fly off into the scatosphere.

Melvin Howard Tormé got his start as a child entertainer who sang in nightclubs and on the radio in his native Chicago; he also learned to play piano, drums, and compose. His career as composer took off shortly before he got his first big break as a singer: Harry James recorded his "Lament to Love" (when Tormé was fifteen), and the next year comedian Chico Marx and impresario Ben Pollack hired Tormé as boy singer for the big band they were forming. In 1943, the young star made his first of many film appearances in Higher and Higher, and shortly after that he introduced his own vocal group, the Mel-Tones. Easily the most musical jazz-pop singing unit of the 1940s, the group specialized in ingenious harmonies, witty song juxtapositions, and relentless swing, all of which soon became trademarks of Tormé’s solo work.

When Tormé disbanded the Mel-Tones for a career as a solo singer, he was, for a time, packaged as a crooning rival to Frank Sinatra, nicknamed the Velvet Fog. However, by the turn of the 1950s, Tormé had decided the pop star’s life wasn’t for him. He longed to control his own musical destiny, and launched a series of now-classic jazz vocal albums for such concerns as Coral and Verve Records.

These discs covered the entire spectrum of jazz and classic pop, celebrating the Swing Era (Musical Sounds Are the Best Songs and I Dig the Duke/I Dig the Count), the great songwriters (My Kind of Music), show music both contemporary (Broadway, Right Now!) and classic (Swings Shubert Alley), a live album ("Live" at the CrescendoWith the Marty Paich Dek-tette ), a collection of ballads (Tormé), a reunion of the Mel-Tones (Back in Town), a Latin album (Olé Tormé), and even a collection of songs about the moon (Swingin’ on the Moon). Tormé’s usual collaborator was the brilliant orchestrator Marty Paich, about whom he said, "I immediately knew where he was coming from and I understood that he was a complete arranger, not just a jazz arranger."

Tormé is so inimitable that no one has tried to flat-out copy him, but any number of younger artists have learned plenty from him, particularly Betty Carter, Mark Murphy, Cassandra Wilson, Bobby McFerrin, and Kurt Elling. The late Steve Allen said: "Since nobody else has ever had that sound, there was no point in trying to sound like Mel Tormé. But, as I’ve often said, Mel could, literally, give singing lessons to all the other good singers."

Will Friedwald

Excerpted from: Mel Torme’s Finest Hour