There are singers, there are musicians, and there are standard bearers.
Mel Torme was all of these.
Like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, Torme was one of the prime interpreters of American popular song, and not just because he seemed to know most of them by his own heart. Torme, who died Saturday in Los Angeles at age 73, knew 5,000 songs well enough to sing them from the inside out. He wrote another 300, including one certifiable classic, "The Christmas Song."
Don't recognize the title? Torme always laughed when folks scratched their heads over that one. Then he'd start in on the lyrics--"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire/ Jack Frost nipping at your nose"--and impishly await the shock of recognition. "The Christmas Song," written in 1946 when he was just 21 and immortalized by Nat "King" Cole, became one of the most recorded songs in history, with dozens of new versions released every year. "My annuity," Torme called it.
Torme was himself something of an annuity, though his lifelong investment in music didn't always yield the fixed payments he clearly deserved. Still, Torme was well rewarded over a career than began at age 4--he was on the radio before he was in kindergarten--and continued with little downtime until he suffered a stroke three years ago.
Until then Torme was doing 200 shows a year, from prestigious club dates and jazz festivals to guest appearances with symphony orchestras. He seemed as perennial as his chestnut of a song, and it always appeared that singing was for Torme the easiest thing--and perhaps the only thing that mattered. With few exceptions, older singers struggle with their craft, yet even after nearly seven decades of singing, Torme's control, intonation and diction remained virtually perfect. Like Fitzgerald in her final years, Torme's voice was still pliant, his phrasing imaginative, his articulation impeccable, and his enthusiasm undiminished. A lifelong assurance was matched with richer emotional sensitivity.
"I'm still learning how to sing, how to stretch out," Torme said a decade ago during one of his frequent Washington stopovers. He'd just come from the New York Film Festival, where a Daffy Duck feature, "Night of the Living Duck," included a dream sequence in which Daffy performs in a nightclub before all the famous monsters of filmland. When Daffy finds he's lost his voice, he picks up an atomizer marked "Eau de Torme," squirts some down his throat and, suddenly, starts singing just like Torme (who did the vocals).
If only it were so easy!
If only it hadn't sounded so easy!
While the arc of Torme's long professional career reflected the inevitable fluctuations of public taste, the constancy of his craftsmanship was inviolate. It was also deceptive: The smooth silken baritone that led to Torme being dubbed "the Velvet Fog"--a name he hated and at one point contractually banned from advertising and promotion--was clearly a grand instrument. But the singer's seemingly effortless delivery and cool precision masked the complexity of his art.
A crooner who evolved into a jazz singer, Torme rarely veered far from the beat, never betrayed a lyric. Yet he could also construct complex medleys whose disparate elements were bridged by melody or rhythm or simply an amusing thematic notion. Particularly in his latter collaborations with pianist George Shearing, Torme loved to spice his performances with clever musical quotations and references that probably flew over the heads of most listeners but which clearly kept him interested and alert. The classic musician's musician, Torme could spin out gossamer whispered ballads like Ben Webster or conjure the virility of Coleman Hawkins on up-tempo cuts that inevitably ended up in those spry scats.
"Keep it fresh, sing with interest," he counseled while preaching the three C's--"consistency, concentration and credibility." His live show changed every night, and Torme insisted he never sang a song the same way twice, even such songs as "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," "Mountain Greenery" and "Lulu's Back in Town," all of which stayed in his songbook for decades.
Torme first stepped onstage at Chicago's fabled Blackhawk nightclub when the leaders of the Coons-Sanders Orchestra noticed him in his mother's lap, singing along to one of their numbers. Torme sang "You're Driving Me Crazy," parlaying the opportunity into a regular Monday night broadcast appearance (at $15 a week).
By age 9 he'd become an actor in various Chicago radio series, all the while working in vaudeville and learning how to play the drums. At 15, band leader Harry James was so taken by Torme's singing and drumming that he invited him on the road, but child labor laws kept the youngster in school.
In 1942 Torme's family moved to Los Angeles, where he enrolled at Hollywood High School and joined the Chico Marx Band as a drummer, arranger and singer. By the age of 18 he'd formed Mel Torme and the Mel-Tones, one of the most innovative vocal groups of the '40s. It sounded like a vocal swing band, thanks to Torme's patterning the vocals like the saxophone section of a big band. Torme always had tremendous resources beyond his voice. He was a fine pianist, an outstanding drummer and a sharp arranger. His vast knowledge of harmony and his impeccable sense of timing later served him well as an improviser.
By 1946, Torme was ready to embark on a solo career. His soft, husky voice--which the singer attributed to an imperfect tonsillectomy--turned him into a bobby-soxer idol--complete with his own fan clubs (Mel's Belles, Mel's Angels)--though Torme never had the looks of a matinee idol.
It was during this era that Torme picked up the Velvet Fog sobriquet from a hype-addled deejay (other nicknames included "Mr. Butterscotch" and "The Kid With Gauze in His Jaws"). His recordings for Capitol sold well--including "California Suite," Capitol's first long-playing album. He left that label in 1955 after years of battling over material and creative freedom, signing with the small jazz label Bethlehem.
"If you're going to fail, do it with style," Torme joked of his transition, but while the sales numbers may have been downsized--his only Top 40 hit in the rock era was 1962's "Comin' Home Baby"--his opportunities expanded dramatically. It's doubtful the longevity that marked Torme's career would have been possible had he not presciently moved to jazz more than 40 years ago.
By the late '70s, Torme seemed more popular than ever. His voice matured and darkened, taking on new luster and depth. The singer began working with Shearing, an elegant collaboration that seemed to bring out the best in each of them--and earned them several Grammys as well. "We have a genuine friendship, and I think it absolutely transmits itself on the stage and beyond the music," Torme explained in 1984.
Because he made so much music so well, and for so long, it was easy to overlook Torme's accomplishments beyond that arena. For instance, in 1951 he hosted the first afternoon talk show on television. He wrote six books, including the 1970 bestseller "The Other Side of the Rainbow" (an incisive behind-the-scenes chronicle of Torme's year as musical director for Judy Garland's prime-time variety show); several novels; the 1988 autobiography "It Wasn't All Velvet"; "Traps: the Drum Wonder," a biography of his lifelong friend drummer Buddy Rich; and 1994's "My Singing Teachers," honoring his influences.
There were the 20 (mostly forgettable) films early in his career and a lot of television, from an Emmy-nominated "Playhouse 90" role in 1957 to appearances on "Night Court," "Seinfeld" and even MTV's "Beach House." The silver-haired songster even starred in a Mountain Dew commercial a few years back, hilariously vamping on "I get a kick out of Dew."
But if Torme poked fun at his image, he never trifled with his gifts or compromised his material. And he never rested. "When you rest, you rust" was a mantra for Torme. To the end, he regarded his career as a work in progress. In "My Singing Teachers," he wrote, "I am going to keep on doing it 'til I get it right."
And he would have, too. Certainly Mel Torme was never going to run out of material. And he never ran out of spirit or grit. He just ran out of time.
(To hear a free Sound Bite of "Careless Hands," call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8157; for "The Christmas Song," press 8158; and for "The Best Is Yet to Come," press 8159.)
CAPTION: "I'm still learning how to sing," Mel Torme said a decade ago, but the man known as "Mr. Butterscotch" seemed to know more about his craft than most of his peers.
CAPTION: Mel Torme, going strong in 1978.