Mel Torme, 73, a quintessential crooner of classic jazz numbers and pop ballads whose warm and smoothly flawless baritone resulted in his being nicknamed "The Velvet Fog," died June 5 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He died of complications from a 1996 stroke.
Mr. Torme, who had been performing since age 4, had also arranged numbers and had played both the drums and the piano. He also wrote about 300 songs, about half of those with Robert Wells. Their tunes included the immensely popular 1946 Christmas carol "The Christmas Song," which invited the listener to imagine "chestnuts roasting on an open fire/Jack Frost nipping at your nose."
If Mr. Torme began his career as a crooner, he had always been attracted to jazz. He largely left pop music behind in the mid-1950s to devote himself to jazz. Critics maintained that he was an underrated swing and scat jazz singer, and they marveled at his artistry in juxtaposing two melodies simultaneously. His casual, improvisational style almost disguised the vast repertory of his jazz and pop songs.
Over the years, he was to collaborate with a Who's Who of American contemporary music. He sang with Bing Crosby, Artie Shaw, Margaret Whiting, Peggy Lee, Buddy Rich, Carmen McRae, Gerry Mulligan and Barry Manilow. He wrote for such icons as Judy Garland and Nat King Cole -- for whom "The Christmas Song" was an immense success. Mr. Torme also worked with such arrangers as Billy May and Johnny Mandel.
Of his passion for jazz, singer Ethel Waters once said, "Mel Torme is the only white man who sings with the soul of a black man."
Upon learning of Mr. Torme's death, singer Jack Jones said, "He was one of the supreme jazz singers of all time, with vocal dexterity matched only by Ella Fitzgerald. He had the best sense of timing and a lot of heart in his work."
Mr. Torme received Grammy awards for best male jazz vocalist for albums in 1982 and 1983, both featuring George Shearing on piano. In February, he was presented with a Grammy for lifetime achievement.
He seemed to tour eternally, giving concerts and shows and singing on nearly every major television variety show -- it was said his act included 5,000 songs. A man of many talents, he also had his own TV talk show for a time and appeared in several movies and television films. His role in a 1956 "Playhouse 90" production, "The Comedian," resulted in his receiving an Emmy nomination for best supporting actor.
In later years, he seemed to take immense pleasure in spoofing himself. He made appearances (as himself) in the "Naked Gun" comedies, in the 1988 cartoon movie "Daffy Duck's Quackbusters" and in an episode of TV's "Seinfeld." He also made several appearances on TV's "Night Court," in which the show's leading character, a judge portrayed by actor Harry Anderson, all but worshiped the singing of Mel Torme.
Mr. Torme, who lived in Beverly Hills, Calif., was born in Chicago, where his father, a Russian immigrant, ran a dry goods store. By age 4, Mr. Torme was singing in a restaurant, and he went on to a childhood in vaudeville. While still a youth, he was performing on radio programs such as "The Romance of Helen Trent" and "Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy."
As a high school student, he sold a song, "Lament of Love," to the great Harry James. In 1942, he was an arranger and singer with the Chico Marx Band when he was "discovered" by Hollywood. In his first movie, "Higher and Higher," which was filmed in 1943, the cast included another young singer, Frank Sinatra. The movie was forgettable, as were all of Mr. Torme's 1940s film efforts.
Also in the 1940s, he performed with his backup band, the Mel-Tones. The group, along with legendary jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw, had a huge 1946 hit with the Cole Porter song "What Is This Thing Called Love?"
In the 1950s, as he attempted to shift his act from pop to jazz, he continued to appear in grade B films. In 1962, he had his only Top 40 hit single, "Comin' Home, Baby." Then, in 1963 and 1964, he was chief music writer for the ill-fated television series "The Judy Garland Show." In 1970, shortly after the actress-singer's early death, he published "The Other Side of the Rainbow," a saga of Garland's tragic decline into prescription drug dependence.
In the 1970s, Mr. Torme published a novel, "Wynner," about the life of a singer-actress, and also wrote for magazines. He also acted and sold scripts to such series as "The Virginian" and "Run for Your Life."
By the mid-1970s, his singing career, now devoted mostly to jazz, was hitting its stride. With his success as a singer, he gave up plans he had made in the 1960s to leave show business and become a pilot.
He was a huge success at the 1978 Newport Jazz Festival and saw his 1981 album, "Mel Torme and Friends," become a hit. He became a popular fixture at such gatherings as the JVC Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall, the Playboy Jazz Festival and the Jazz at the Bowl series at the Hollywood Bowl. In all, he cut nearly 50 albums.
In 1996, Rhino released "The Mel Torme Collection: 1944-1985," a four-CD, 92-track box of his work. It appeared to rave reviews with promises of another set to come.
Mr. Torme, who was not fond of the "Velvet Fog" nickname and who was not a fan of his own early work, knew what he liked: standards with sophisticated lyrics as well as a great tune.
"Absolutely the lyric to me is 95 percent of what a song is," he said. "The singer is portraying a playlet to the audience, involving the audience in what he is saying. If the melody is attractive, that's frosting on the cake. The lyric is the cake."
An undoubted example of great lyrics was "The Christmas Song." The lyrics were achieved in a most unusual way. It seems that Mr. Torme dropped in on his co-author, Robert Wells, on one of the hottest days of the year. Mr. Torme spotted a notebook atop the Wells piano with four lines of writing. Wells told Mr. Torme that he was trying to cool off by recalling images of winter, but it was not working.
The four lines began "Chestnuts roasting . . . Jack Frost nipping . . . Yuletide carols . . . Folks dressed up like Eskimos."
Mr. Torme later recalled, "Forty minutes later, that song was written. I wrote all the music and some of the lyrics. I've racked my brain to remember which lyrics I wrote. It doesn't matter."
His marriages to actress Candy Toxton, model Arlene Miles and actress Janette Scott all ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife, Ali Severson, a lawyer he married in 1984, who lives in Beverly Hills; and five children from his first three marriages.
CAPTION: Said Mel Torme of his art: "The singer is portraying a playlet to the audience."