Possessing a sweet, sonorous croon – which earned him the rather unusual nickname “The Velvet Fog” – Mel Torme was also an accomplished music lover who wrote over 250 songs, including the everlasting holiday feast, “The Christmas Song”. If that wasn’t enough, Tormé was also a talented musician who could play drums and piano, starred in 22 films, and was an ubiquitous presence on television between the 1950s and 1990s. He could also fly an airplane and, to top it off, was a best-selling author; as well as the writing of a successful thesis entitled It wasn’t just velvet in 1988, he wrote much-loved biographies of his friends, Hollywood star Judy Garland and virtuoso drummer Buddy Rich, and even published a novel.
But despite his many accomplishments outside of the music world, Mel Tormé is best known for his prodigious talent as a singer and songwriter. Although he recorded for a multitude of different labels during his long professional career, this selection of Mel Tormé’s finest tunes focuses on what was arguably his most satisfying time as a recording artist. ; a productive period at Verve Records between 1958 and 1962 which produced eight studio albums.
The formative years
Melvin Howard Tormé was born in Chicago in 1925 to a family of Russian Jewish ancestry. (The original family name was Torma, which a US immigration officer misspelled as Torme when his father entered America: the name stuck). Young Mel was immersed in music from an early age – his mother played the piano and his father sang, but not professionally – and according to his autobiography, he sang his first full song at just ten months old. At the age of four, young Mel, who had become addicted to jazz from listening to the radio, was singing professionally every Monday night at Chicago’s Blackhawk restaurant as a special guest of the Coon-Sanders Orchestra, a local Windy City ensemble. .
Singing with the band for six months led to his love affair with the drums and by the age of eight he was playing in his school’s drum and bugle corps. At the same age, he successfully auditioned as a child radio actor and appeared in a multitude of plays and shows. (He also won a scholarship to an acting school). When his voice broke at age 13, his radio work began to dry up, but Mel began to hone his drumming skills after his maternal grandfather bought him a drum set. He also started writing songs on his mother’s piano. By the age of 16, Tormé had released his first song, “Lament To Love”, which became a hit for bandleader Harry James in 1941. A year later he was playing drums and singing in the group of Hollywood comedian Chico Marx – of Marx Brothers fame – and in 1944 led his own group, a pioneering jazz vocal harmony quintet called The Mel-Tones.
By 1946, Tormé had signed a recording contract with Capitol Records, topping the US pop charts with “Careless Hands”, which became the basis for a successful solo career. It was during this time that he acquired his nickname, “The Velvet Fog”, which was coined by a New York DJ called Fred Robbins who was renowned for his catchphrases. According to Tormé in his autobiography, Robbins introduced him on his radio show as “the kid with gauze in his jaws”. Mr. Butterscotch. The Velvet Fog himself, Mel Torme!
LP recording stints for various labels in the 1950s helped Tormé establish itself as “Windy City’s” answer to Frank Sinatra, although he infused his vocal performances with more jazz content than “Ol’ Blues Eyes”, which included scatting – a skill Tormé learned from his friend, Ella Fitzgerald.
Verve Records was founded in 1956 by a jazz impresario Norman Granz, initially as a vehicle to showcase the talent of his protege, singer Ella Fitzgerald, and take her into the mainstream. Mel Tormé joined his friend at the label in 1958, hoping they might record a duet together, although a collaboration between them did not materialize. Nonetheless, the eight albums Tormé recorded at Verve featured his voice in a range of settings, from ballads to swing and Latin numbers to vocal tunes harmonized with the Meltones.
For many, his velvet voice with its smooth contours and warm, caressing sound could be heard at its best on the ballads, which highlighted his talent as a storyteller through his nuanced emotional delivery. Torme, his stellar debut album for Verve, conducted by Granz with fabulous arrangements by Marty Paich, contained a haunting rendition of the funeral ballad, “Gloomy Sunday”, a suicidal lament for lost love associated with Billie Holiday. The jazz side of Tormé is also highlighted on his delicate interpretation of the jazz pianist Monk Thelonieux“Round Midnight”, where the voice is counterpointed by a tinkling blues piano.
Tormé’s third lunar-themed album Verve, swing on the moon, his second LP from 1960, included two romantic ballads arranged by Russell Garcia that showcased the smooth, mellow tones of his voice; a lush remake of “Blue Moon,” his Top 20 US hits for Capitol Records from 1949, and the atmospheric “Moonlight In Vermont,” which begins with an acapella vocal and contains descending string passages.
Tormé reunited with his old band The Meltones on “Hit The Road To Dreamland”, from his 1959 album, Back in town. The Sleeping Lullaby finds Tormé’s lead vocal backed by tightly harmonized sounding pillows sung by Sue Allen, Tom Kenny, Ginny O’Connor and Bernie Parke.
Although Mel Tormé’s caressing voice suited languorous ballads, he could also deliver catchy songs with an easy swing. his album Alley Shubert Swings – named after New York’s famous theater district – reunited him with Marty Paich, who had been Tormé’s arranger on four LPs he recorded for Bethlehem Records and whom the singer described as “a masterful writer for strings and winds”. Paich, leading a Dektette (a ten-man combo inspired by Gerry Mulligan’s groundbreaking jazz ensemble) conjured up an elegant arrangement for the light swing “Too Close For Comfort” and a variety of tones and textures. on “Old Devil Moon,” which begins as a ballad and turns into a snap of fingers with interlocking brass harmonies. There’s a palpable bebop tinge to a crackerjack number called “Too Darn Hot,” where Tormé’s well-balanced sound contrasts with the band’s sizzling energy.
Another uptempo barnstormer is “Down For Double”, from the 1962 LP, I dig the duke, I dig the count, which finds Tormé trying out a classic Count Basie number for size. The singer’s last Verve album, 1962 my kind of music, recorded in its entirety in London, also featured some cool swingers, including the rousing “A Shine On Your Shoes”, a Sinatra-esque track arranged by famed UK arranger/bandleader Geoff Love.
After releasing his first song at 16, Mel Tormé quickly became a prolific songwriter who amassed 250 royalties, the most famous of which was Yuletide’s favorite, “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire )”, which he wrote on a hot summer day in 1945 with Robert Wells. Tormé recorded it several times, offering a lush version recorded in London with arranger Wally Stott on the album, my kind of music.
The same album included two other songs written with Wells that Tormé had previously recorded; the heavily covered “Born To Be Blue,” now considered a jazz standard, which Tormé first waxed in 1946 and was covered by Ray Charles and Chet Baker; and the more obscure “County Fair,” an episodic number that begins mysteriously and morphs into a knee-pounding Broadway-style number. (Tormé first recorded it in 1951 on his MGM LP, Mel sings).
The Latin side
Mel Tormé was often called a crooner, but his Verve albums showed he was more versatile than previously believed. His 1959 album, Ole Torme, his second for Verve, was a Latin-themed project that saw him collaborate with Sinatra arranger Billy May on 12 songs that ranged from rock and roll-meets-swing to raucous “At The Crossroads (Malagueña )” to “Baia”, which allowed Tormé to sing and swing at the same time.
Arranger Marty Paich brought a tangy Latin twist to Tormé’s dynamic rendition of “Whatever Lola Wants,” a 1955 song about an evil femme fatale who appeared on Alley Shubert Swings. (Interestingly, Frank Rossolino’s trombone solo includes a quote from bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie “A Night In Tunisia”).
A different Latin hue colors Tormé’s rendition of the dreamy “It Happened In Monterey”, a Frank Sinatra favorite that most singers usually interpret as a ballad, but with The Meltones, Tormé and arranger Marty Paich turn it into a richly harmonized slice of Latin midtempo. Jazz.
The pianist and composer Duke Ellington was one of Mel Tormé’s idols and later became his friend. (Sometimes Duke allowed Tormé to play drums onstage with his band). Tormé had covered Ellington tunes on some of his early albums, but in 1962 he offered a more substantial tribute to the Washington DC bandleader with I dig the duke, I dig the count, a record that also pays homage to another jazz aristocrat, Count Basie. Aided by svelte arrangements by West Coast maestro Johnny Mandel, Tormé turns Ellington’s signature song, “Take The ‘A’ Train,” into a smooth piece of punchy swing but shows more urgency on the bluesy “I ‘m Gonna Go Fishin.’ Best of all is the sublime “Don’t Get Around Much Any More,” where Tormé combines his subtle phrasing with a simmering rhythm of big-band swing.
After his Verve adventure ended in 1962, Tormé recorded for a succession of labels, big and small, but with little commercial success; a victim of jazz’s waning popularity at a time of pop and rock dominance. From the end of the 1970s, Tormé’s career experienced a welcome second wind; a resurgence that was aided by several 80s collaborations with the pianist Georges Shearing, a reunion with Marty Paich’s Dektette and a 1992 duet album with British singer Cleo Laine. Unfortunately, Tormé’s career ended prematurely in 1996 when he suffered a stroke. a second three years later committed suicide, just months after receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Although he has many strings to his bow, it wouldn’t be fair to say that Mel Tormé was a jack-of-all-trades; he was a master at everything he did, whether it was flying a plane, writing a song, or acting in a movie. Arguably his greatest skill, however, as these 20 Best Mel Tormé Songs show, was singing, which he did extremely well.
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