Yesterday was the eightieth anniversary of the birth of jazz singer Mel Torme. Torme died at age 73 in Los Angeles at the end of an incredibly fruitful career. The wonderful Allmusic Guide entry on Torme by William Ruhlmann suggests the variety of his gifts:
[G]iven the breadth of his talents, he might have been a bandleader since, in addition to singing, he was also a drummer good enough to have gotten offers to go on the road as early as his teens, a songwriter responsible for one of the perennial Christmas standards, and an arranger who wrote the charts for much of the music he performed. Amazingly, this is still only a partial list of his accomplishments, which also included acting in more than a dozen feature films and on radio and television; hosting radio and TV shows; and writing television dramas, numerous articles for periodicals including Down Beat and The New York Times, and six published books of fiction, biography, and music criticism.
Everyone knows that “The Christmas Song” was written by Torme in Los Angeles on a sweltering summer day. But how many know that he was Jewish to boot? I didn’t, until I read the AMG entry. It’s art!
As a singer, his musicality was based on consummate taste, perfect time, and great harmonic gifts. Early in his singing career he teamed with Peggy Lee’s future husband Dave Barbour, who was a member of the quartet that backed Torme in the 1940’s, and Torme’s strengths as a vocalist seem to me to share much in common with Lee’s. His range, control, and scatting ability, however, put him somewhere in the vicinity of Ella Fitzgerald’s neighborhood at the apex of the craft.
You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Torme tear through popular music’s gift to the geometry student, “Pythagoras, How You Stagger Us,” a song that dates from the early period of Torme’s singing career. But Torme never really found a sympathetic producer or record company until 1982, when he began a collaboration with Concord Records and George Shearing that resulted in something like the music of the spheres.
His work with Shearing is full of beauty and hijinks. In the liner notes to the collection of Torme’s highlights on Concord, Shearing writes that in the Ellington medley he’s playing “I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart” while Mel is singing “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Shearing comments: “We had to stay sober while recording this one!”
Torme ended his career on the many high notes reflected in the Concord recordings. His career is a reminder of the fact that even genius occasionally requires sheer persistence to be superimposed on raw talent to produce the full flowering of great gifts.