Melvin Howard Tormé (September 13, 1925 – June 5, 1999), nicknamed The Velvet Fog, was an American musician, best known as a singer of jazz standards. He was also a jazz composer and arranger, drummer, pianist, and actor in radio, film, and television, and the author of five books. He composed the music for the classic holiday song "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire") and co-wrote the lyrics with Bob Wells.
Melvin Howard Tormé was born in Chicago, Illinois, to immigrant Russian Jewish parents, whose surname had been Torma. However, the name was changed at Ellis Island to "Torme." A child prodigy, he first sang professionally at age 4 with the Coon-Sanders Orchestra, singing "You're Driving Me Crazy" at Chicago's Blackhawk restaurant.
Between 1933 and 1941, he acted in the network radio serials The Romance of Helen Trent and Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. He wrote his first song at 13, and three years later, his first published song, "Lament to Love," became a hit recording for Harry James. He played drums in Chicago's Shakespeare Elementary School drum and bugle corps in his early teens. While a teenager, he sang, arranged, and played drums in a band led by Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers. His formal education ended in 1944 with his graduation from Chicago's Hyde Park High School.
In 1943, Tormé made his movie debut in Frank Sinatra's first film, the musical Higher and Higher. He went on to sing and act in many films and television episodes throughout his career, even hosting his own television show in 1951–52. His appearance in the 1947 film musical Good Newsmade him a teen idol for several years.
In 1944 he formed the vocal quintet "Mel Tormé and His Mel-Tones," modeled on Frank Sinatra and The Pied Pipers. The Mel-Tones, which included Les Baxter and Ginny O'Connor, had several hits fronting Artie Shaw's band and on their own, including Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?" The Mel-Tones were among the first jazz-influenced vocal groups, blazing a path later followed by The Hi-Lo's, The Four Freshmen, and The Manhattan Transfer.
Tormé on drums performing with Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson.
Later in 1947, Tormé went solo. His singing at New York's Copacabana led a local disc jockey, Fred Robbins, to give him the nickname "The Velvet Fog," thinking to honor his high tenor and smooth vocal style, but Tormé detested the nickname. (He self-deprecatingly referred to it as "this Velvet Frog voice". As a solo singer, he recorded several romantic hits for Decca (1945), and with the Artie Shaw Orchestra on the Musicraft label (1946–48). In 1949, he moved to Capitol Records, where his first record, "Careless Hands," became his only number one hit. His versions of "Again" and "Blue Moon" became signature tunes. His composition "California Suite," prompted by Gordon Jenkins' "Manhattan Tower," became Capitol's first 12-inch LP album. Around this time, he helped pioneer cool jazz.
In his 1994 book "My Singing Teachers," Torme cited Patty Andrews, lead singer of The Andrews Sisters, the most successful show business act of the 1940s (second only to Bing Crosby), as one of his favorite vocalists, saying, "They had more hit records to their credit than you could count, and one of the main reasons for their popularity was Patty Andrews. She stood in the middle of her sisters, planted her feet apart, and belted out solos as well as singing the lead parts with zest and confidence. The kind of singing she did cannot be taught, it can't be studied in books, it can't be written down. Long experience as a singer and wide-open ears were her only teachers, and she learned her lessons well."
From 1955 to 1957, Tormé recorded seven jazz vocal albums for Red Clyde's Bethlehem Records, all with groups led by Marty Paich, most notably Mel Tormé with the Marty Paich Dektette. When rock and roll music (which Tormé called "three-chord manure") came on the scene in the 1950s, commercial success became elusive. During the next two decades, Tormé often recorded mediocre arrangements of the pop tunes of the day, never staying long with any particular label. He was sometimes forced to make his living by singing in obscure clubs. He had two minor hits, his 1956 recording of "Mountain Greenery," which did better in the United Kingdom where it reached No. 4 in May that year; and his 1962 R&B song "Comin' Home, Baby" arranged by Claus Ogerman, which made No.13 in the UK early in 1963. The latter recording led the jazz and gospel singer Ethel Waters to say that "Tormé is the only white man who sings with the soul of a black man." "Comin' Home, Baby" was later covered instrumentally by Quincy Jones and Kai Winding.
In 1960, he appeared with Don Dubbins in the episode "The Junket" in NBC's short-lived crime drama Dan Raven, starring Skip Homeier and set on the Sunset Strip of West Hollywood. He also had a significant role in a cross-cultural western entitled Walk Like a Dragon starring Jack Lord. Tormé played 'The Deacon', a bible-quoting gunfighter who worked as an enforcer for a lady saloon-owner and teaches a young Chinese, played by James Shigeta, the art of the fast draw. In one scene, he tells a soon-to-be victim: 'Say your prayers, brother Masters. You're a corpse.' And then delivers on the promise. Tormé, like Sammy Davis Jr. and Robert Fuller was a real-life fast-draw expert. He also sang the title song.
In 1963–64, Tormé wrote songs and musical arrangements for The Judy Garland Show, where he made three guest appearances. However, he and Garland had a serious falling out, and he was fired from the series, which was canceled by CBS not long afterward. A few years later, after Garland's death, his time with her show became the subject of his first book, "The Other Side of the Rainbow with Judy Garland on the Dawn Patrol" (1970). Although the book was praised, some felt it painted an unflattering picture of Judy, and that Tormé had perhaps over-inflated his own contributions to the program; it led to an unsuccessful lawsuit by Garland's family.
Tormé befriended Buddy Rich, the day Rich left the Marine Corps in 1942. Rich became the subject of Tormé's book Traps — The Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich (1987). Tormé also owned and played a drum set that drummer Gene Krupa used for many years. George Spink, treasurer of the Jazz Institute of Chicago from 1978 to 1981, recalled that Tormé played this drum set at the 1979 Chicago Jazz Festival with Benny Goodman on the classic "Sing, Sing, Sing." Tormé had a deep appreciation for classical music; especially that of Frederick Delius and Percy Grainger.
Later career and death
The resurgence of vocal jazz in the 1970s resulted in another artistically fertile period for Tormé, whose live performances during the 1960s and 1970s fueled a growing reputation as a jazz singer. He found himself performing as often as 200 times a year around the globe. In 1976, he won an Edison Award (the Dutch equivalent of the Grammy) for best male singer, and a Down Beat award for best male jazz singer. For several years around this time, his September appearances at Michael's Pub on the Upper East Side would unofficially open New York's fall cabaret season. Tormé viewed his 1977 Carnegie Hall concert with George Shearing and Gerry Mulligan as a turning point. Shearing later said:
"It is impossible to imagine a more compatible musical partner… I humbly put forth that Mel and I had the best musical marriage in many a year. We literally breathed together during our countless performances. As Mel put it, we were two bodies of one musical mind."
Starting in 1982, Tormé recorded several albums with Concord Records, including:
- Five albums with pianist George Shearing;
- His big band work with Rob McConnell and his Boss Brass orchestra (see Mel Tormé, Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass);
- A reunion with Marty Paich, resulting in a live recording in Tokyo (In Concert Tokyo) and a studio album (Reunion).
In the 80s and 90s, Mel's trio often included pianist John Colianni, bassist Jennifer Leitham, drummer Donny Osborne, as well as famed New Zealand pianist Carl Doy.
In 1993, Verve Records released the classic "Blue Moon" album featuring the Velvet voice and the Rodgers and Hart Songbook. His version of Blue Moon performed live at the "Sands" in November that year earned him a new nickname from older audiences: "The Blue Fox." The nickname was used to describe Tormé's performance after spending an extra hour with pianist Bill Butler cracking jokes and answering queries from a throng of more "mature" women who turned out to see the show. Under the shimmering blue lights at the Sands, he gained a new nickname that would endure for every future performance in Las Vegas and his last performance at Carnegie Hall. Tormé would develop other nicknames later in life, but none seemed as popular as the Velvet Fog (primarily on the East Coast) and the Blue Fox.
Tormé made nine guest appearances as himself on the 1980s situation comedy Night Court whose main character, Judge Harry Stone (played by Harry Anderson), was depicted as an unabashed Tormé fan (an admiration that Anderson shared in real-life; Anderson would later deliver the eulogy at Tormé's funeral) which led to a following among Generation Xers along with a series ofMountain Dew commercials and on an episode of the sitcom Seinfeld ("The Jimmy"), in which he dedicates a song to the character Kramer. Tormé also recorded a version of Nat King Cole's "Straighten up and Fly Right" with his son, alternative/adult contemporary/jazz singer Steve March Tormé. Tormé was also able to work with his other son, television writer-producer Tracy Tormé on Sliders. The 1996 episode, entitled "Greatfellas," sees Tormé playing an alternate version of himself: a country-and-western singer who is also an FBI informant.
In a scene in the 1988 Warner Bros. cartoon Night of the Living Duck, Daffy Duck has to sing in front of several monsters, but lacks a good singing voice. So, he inhales a substance called "Eau de Tormé" and sings like Mel Tormé (who in fact provided the voice during this one scene, while Mel Blanc provided Daffy's voice during most of the cartoon).
On August 8, 1996, a stroke abruptly ended his 65-year singing career. In February 1999, Tormé was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Another stroke in 1999 ended his life. Torme is buried at the Westwood Village Memorial Park cemetery in Los Angeles. In his eulogistic essay, John Andrews wrote about Tormé:
"Tormé's style shared much with that of his idol, Ella Fitzgerald. Both were firmly rooted in the foundation of the swing era, but both seemed able to incorporate bebop innovations to keep their performances sounding fresh and contemporary. Like Sinatra, they sang with perfect diction and brought out the emotional content of the lyrics through subtle alterations of phrasing and harmony. Ballads were characterized by paraphrasing of the original melody which always seemed tasteful, appropriate and respectful to the vision of the songwriter. Unlike Sinatra, both Fitzgerald and Tormé were likely to cut loose during a swinging up-tempo number with several scat choruses, using their voices without words to improvise a solo like a brass or reed instrument."
Tormé also made a guest vocal appearance on the 1983 album Born to Laugh at Tornadoes from the progressive pop band Was (Not Was). Tormé sang the black comedic cocktail jazz song "Zaz Turned Blue" about a teenager who is choked as part of an asphyxiophiliac turn-on in a park ("Steve squeezed his neck/He figured what the heck") – and who may or may not have suffered brain damage as a result ("Now he plays lots of pool/And as a rule/He wears a silly grin/On his chin").
Tormé's other books include My Singing Teachers: Reflections on Singing Popular Music (1994), a biography of Buddy Rich, Traps, the Drum Wonder (1997) and his autobiography It Wasn't All Velvet (1988). He also published the novel Wynner in 1977.
Tormé wrote more than 250 songs, several of which became jazz standards. He also often wrote the arrangements for the songs he sang. He often collaborated with Bob Wells, and the best known Tormé-Wells song is "The Christmas Song," often referred to by its opening line "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire." The song was recorded first by Nat King Cole. Tormé said that he wrote the music to the song in only 45 minutes, and that it was not one of his personal favorites, calling it, somewhat dismissively, "my annuity".
- For a partial Mel Tormé discography, see the Mel Tormé discography.