For years he was called "the Velvet Fog"; now he's billed as "the Ultimate Vocalist of American Music." But what Mel Torme really is, vocally, is a saxophone -- or, better, saxophone section: tenor, alto, baritone, popping from one register to another, one tempo to another, one color or timbre to another as he roams through the decades and composers and moods.
In 60 minutes onstage he goes through or glances off nearly 60 songs, making mini- medleys as he goes: songs on spring, songs with "baby" in their titles, Fred Astaire songs, Gershwin songs, bittersweet songs of autumn and age -- you name it. Half a century in the singing business has taught him thousands of songs, from oldies like "A Shine on Your Shoes" and "I Found a Million-Dollar Baby (In a Five-and-Ten-Cent Store)" to "Stardust" and "La Marseillaise" and "Flying Down to Rio" and music from "Arthur." And the thing is, while he's up there you float along on what seems a stream of consciousness, rocking to random recall.
But don't you believe it. This is the man who -- four decades ago, in his late teens -- organized and led the Meltones in their flights of harmony, writing every note of every part for all five voices on every song. Like his matter and mugging, his reveries up and down the scale -- as if he'd lost the melody or the lyrics -- are scored and scripted and studied.
Not that there's no imagination at work in his show -- there is, and to spare; but there isn't any idling or dawdling or self-indulgent wandering. The years, or musician's training, or self-discipline, or some combination of those, have seen to that. After all, by the age of four he could chirp the chorus of "You're Driving Me Crazy" well enough for the Coon-Saunders Band to hire him to sing at Chicago's Blackhawk Cafe.
Now, at $15 a set, your cover charge is the same as his pay for that first engagement, but some things haven't changed: A few years back he told an interviewer that "I want people to walk out after my show and say, 'Dammit, I was entertained!' " That's still the feeling you take away from an hour in the same room with him. MEL TORME -- At Charlie's Georgetown this Friday, Saturday and Sunday; sets at 8:30 and 10:30.