The mind-numbing stupidity of the news of the day prompts me this morning to take a look back at Mel Tormé. I think Tormé was simply one of the all-time great American artists, too little known and vastly underappreciated. Permit me this salute in the interest of frolic and detour for a few hours and in the hope that I might interest you in deepening your familiarity with his work. Do you know the way to Mel Tormé?
Tormé was born in Chicago on September 13, 1925 and died at age 73 in 1999 in Los Angeles at the end of an incredibly fruitful career. The wonderful Allmusic Guide take on Tormé by William Ruhlmann testifies to 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.
By the age of four, Tormé was singing professionally with the Coon-Sanders Band at Chicago’s Blackhawk Hotel. In his memoir It Wasn’t All Velvet, Tormé situates the commencement of his career at the end of the Roaring Twenties:
Flagpole sitters were still doing their dizzying thing, daredevils walked tightropes between buildings twenty-five stories high, and ex-World War I aviators were flying surplus Jennies under the Brooklyn Bridge. Novelty was the key to success and a kid in short pants and a beret belting out pop tunes with a famous band fit right in with the nutty goings-on that attended the collapse of Wall Street and the subsequent Great Depression.
Tormé’s singing demonstrates incredible musicality, 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 occasionally backed Tormé in the 1940’s. Tormé’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; Fitzgerald was certainly one of his favorite singers.
Tormé’s wit is on display in his musical gift to the geometry student, “Pythagoras, How You Stagger Us,” a song that dates from the early period of Tormé’s singing career documented on Proper Records’ four-disc collection Jazz and Velvet (now supplemented by The Quintet & Beyond).
Tormé continued to perfect his craft as a jazz singer throughout his career. He was not only an incomparable stylist, he got better as he got older. In 1956, for example, he recorded two brilliant albums with the Marty Paich Dek-tette that are now collected on the aptly titled The 1956 Torme-Paich Legendary Sessions. He was backed by the Paich Orchestra on 1960’s Tormé Swings Shubert Alley. “All I Need Is the Girl” (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, music by Jule Styne, from Gypsy) is a highlight.
In 1988 Tormé reunited with Paich at the Fujitsu Concord Jazz Festival in Japan for a live set that is still available on disc. The video below from that date includes a magnificent rendition of the Ted Koehler/Harold Arlen composition “When the Sun Comes Out.” Listen to the gloss he puts on “on my windowpane” at 2:38.
It may be only a slight exaggeration to say that Tormé never really found a sympathetic producer or record company until 1982, when he commenced a collaboration with Concord Records that resulted in something like the music of the spheres. I love The Best of the Concord Years, a two-disc compilation that whets your appetite for all the rest. When I wanted to get to know his work, this is where I started and I recommend it without reservation. It is superb, from beginning to end. “Hi-Fly” is the opening number on that Concord compilation.
As you can hear in “Hi-Fly,” Tormé’s work with Shearing on Concord is full of beauty and hijinks. In the liner notes to the two-disc collection of Tormé’s highlights on Concord, Shearing writes that in the Ellington medley he’s playing “I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart” while Tormé is singing “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Shearing comments: “We had to stay sober while recording this one!” (video below).
Tormé ended his career on the many high notes reflected in the Concord recordings. The several live recordings from this era (not all on Concord) are also noteworthy. Mel Torme and Friends Live at Marty’s (originally released in 1981), for example, shows Tormé in especially fine form. The video below gives us Tormé with Janis Ian on Ian’s “Silly Habits.”
In the video of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” below, Tormé is still operating somewhere near the height of his powers, accompanied by John Colianni in concert in 1994.
Toward the end of his memoir, Tormé writes: “Timing is everything, particularly in the music business.” Torme’s career came to an end with the stroke he suffered in August 1996. His last recording was An Evening with Mel Torme, recorded the month before his stroke. His final recorded song turned out to be Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.” Here it is, a tribute to a bygone era in more ways than one.
Timing may indeed be everything, but Tormé’s career is also a reminder of the fact that even genius occasionally requires persistence combined with raw talent to produce the full flowering of great gifts. The video below gives the last word to Ella and Mel at the Grammys in 1976 — Andy Williams had introduced them as “the first lady of song and the last word in talent” — with a teachable moment.