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A Golden Voice from A Golden AgeCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Torme, MelThe death of Mel Torme closes another chapter on a golden age of American popular song. Torme belonged to a school of singers who fused pop and jazz in highly sophisticated fashion, and he stands alongside the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra in importance. His gorgeous vocal timbre, agile phrasing and unfailing sense of swing made him one of the great popular singers of the century, and he played a major role in elevating pop crooning into a serious art.
If his main fame rightly rested on his genius as a singer, Torme also made his mark in several other fields. He was a well-known child actor in popular radio programmes, and went on to make contributions as a screen actor and television presenter, including hosting one of the first ever daytime talk shows on American television.
He was also a songwriter, in which capacity he is best known for his perennial classic The Christmas Song, written in the sweltering heat of a July afternoon in Los Angeles, but evoking the spirit of the occasion like few other songs. Although he worked with some of the best arrangers of the era, he arranged his own music almost exclusively from the early-60s onward (or worked collaboratively with an arranger), and was always ready to take a turn behind the drums, which he played with a flashy bravado that would have done justice to his close friend, Buddy Rich, but without the latter's genuine virtuosity.
Torme also wrote a number of books, including The Other Side of The Rainbow (1970), a warts and all account of working as musical adviser for Judy Garland's television shows in the Sixties which led Garland's estate to sue him, albeit unsuccessfully. His other books included Wynner (1978), a novel; Traps -- The Drum Wonder (1992), a biography of Buddy Rich; and his own autobiography, It Wasn't All Velvet (1988).
The "velvet" reference in the title referred to a nickname bestowed on him early in his career by the New York disc jockey Fred Robbins. Robbins dubbed him both The Velvet Fog and Mr Butterscotch, but it was the former which stuck. Torme hated it, but it haunted him throughout his career.
He was born Melvin Howard Torme into a working-class Jewish family whose name was originally Torma, but was changed, as with so many European immigrants, by an immigration official at Ellis Island (the singer later added an accent to the "e" because he thought it looked classy).
He showed any early aptitude for singing, and made his professional debut at the grand old age of four with the Coon-Sanders Orchestra at the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago. The leader spotted him singing along in the front row with his parents and invited him on-stage; he became a popular Monday night feature with the band, and pulled down $15 for his troubles.
He graduated to radio as a child actor in network programmes, and began writing songs at the age of 13, scoring a hit three years later when Harry James recorded his Lament to Love. He moved into pop crooning in his own right as a teenager, and toured as singer, arranger and drummer in a band led by Chico Marx, the musical member of the The Marx Brothers.
He made his debut as a film actor in a supporting role alongside another debutant, Frank Sinatra, in Higher and Higher in 1943, the year in which he formed his group Mel Torme and His Mel-Tones, a rather sugary vocal quintet modelled on Sinatra's Pied Pipers. He led the group for several years, but his emergence as a "bobby-soxer" idol in the post-war years, sparked by his role in the musical Good News in 1947, quickly made the group redunant.
He enjoyed a huge following for his light, feathery baritone, and recorded for a number of different labels, including Jewel (1944), Decca (1945), Musicraft (1946-48), Capitol (1949-53) and Coral (1953-54). As the Fifties progressed and the crooning style was eclipsed by the emergence of rock and roll, he began to move into a more jazz-oriented style of singing. Torme always maintained that there were no pure jazz singers, and doubted if such a thing were really even possible other than in the realms of scat singing (which he did superbly).
It was, he argued, a matter of "the degree of influence" which jazz exterted on a given singer. In his case, that influence was considerable, and increasingly obvious from the mid-50s onward. The significant twist in his career, which had slipped into the doldrums in a pop context, arrived when he signed to Bethlehem Records in 1955, and began to record with arranger Marty Paich and a ten-piece band.
He worked on extending his range at both the top and the bottom of his voice, and adopted a more robust but still very beautiful style (Will Friedwald, in his authoritative study Jazz Singing, described Torme's voice as "the most beautiful voice a man is allowed to have").
Torme's phrasing and rhythmic sense proved to be steeped to the hilt in jazz, and he recorded a number of classic albums for Bethlehem (1955-7) and Verve (1958), including the great Mel Torme Swings Schubert Alley, with the Paich Dektette, and I Dig The Duke! I Dig The Count!, with Johnny Mandel. After a five year gap, he signed to Atlantic (1962-63), and then to Columbia (1964-66), and after a further gap, to Capitol again (1969-70). In an interview with this writer in 1992, Torme admitted he was not happy with his recorded legacy up until that point.
"I can literally pinpoint the first record that I was really proud of as a singer, and that was an album called Live At The Maisonette in 1974. Now, I am proud of the Marty Paich records from the mid-50s because the arrangements are brilliant, but I just wish the singing was better.
"I wish I had evolved and matured more when I got to the point of making those records, but I didn't have enough control of my vibrato, and while my range was okay for a popular singer, it was a little bit limiting. I didn't explore the possibilities enough at that time, although I worked hard to stretch that range later."
The singer is far too harsh in his judgement on his efforts, and many of those records are not only among the finest of his career, but the finest of the era. It was not until his association with Concord Records, begun in 1982, that he really felt comfortable with his recording situation.
Torme readily admits to recording many songs totally unsuited to his style at the insistence of various record labels in the past, but at Concord he found the freedom to do what he wanted. His albums for the label included a re-kindling of his association with Marty Paich and work with arranger Rob McConnell, but achieved a peak of empathy -- what he described as "two bodies in one musical mind" -- in his collaborations with pianist George Shearing.
The singer's treatment of the standard repertoire was a highly distinctive one, although his propensity for jazz, and for experimenting with different treatments of a song, landed him in trouble with one of his idols, Richard Rodgers. The famous composer had very firm ideas on how his songs should be sung, and took exception to what he saw as Torme's cavalier treatment of Blue Moon at a rehearsal.
"I never sing anything the same way twice, and that led to me being crossed off Rodgers's list", Torme recalled. "Years later, when David Frost did a television tribute to him, Rodgers wouldn't have me on the show because he felt I had taken liberties with his music."
As it happens, Torme was in good company on the inflexible Rodgers's reject list, sharing it as he did with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. Like those singers, he was most comfortable singing standards, leavened with his own compositions and a smattering of contemporary songs by the likes of Donald Fagen, Janis Ian, Billy Joel or Stevie Wonder.
For the most part, though, he felt that modern pop songs did not suit his style, and argued that it was almost always a mistake for mature singers to try to keep up with the youth market. Nor was it necessary -- he had a huge audience for his work in the last two decades of his life, and continued to sing with undiminished control and an immaculate sense of phrasing.
Torme suffered a serious stroke in 1996, and his death followed from complications of that stroke. He is survived by his fifth wife, Ali, five children, and two stepchildren.