Mel Torme (AP Photo / Osamu Honda)
Mel Tormé, who would have turned 85 today, wrote in his autobiography that he wished he had been born 10 years earlier so that he might have enjoyed a long, lucrative career as a big band singer, just like the more well-known Frank Sinatra. The rest of us can be glad he wasn’t. Had Tormé’s wish been granted, the world might have been denied decades of entertainment from one of the greatest 20th century showbiz polymaths in a career that spanned everything from vaudeville to grunge rock.
Tormé liked to say that he never had a career, only a series of odd jobs, and he was only half-joking. Born in Chicago in 1925 as the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he began performing at the ripe old age of four on national radio when he did a solo singing turn with the Coon-Sanders Orchestra on "You’re Driving Me Crazy" (he would later have a hit with the same tune in 1947). As a child actor, he became by his own estimation one of the busiest in the business, appearing hundreds or even thousands of times from 1933-1941 in popular broadcasts like Little Orphan Annie and Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.
Tormé would continue acting throughout his life – appearing in movies with the likes of Frank Sinatra, winning an Emmy nomination for his work with Mickey Rooney in the Playhouse 90 broadcast of The Comedian, starring in commercials in the 1990s – but music was his first and best love. Emulating Chick Webb, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, by age 14 he was already touring as drummer with a band led by Chico Marx (yes, that one). His first successful foray into songwriting came at age sixteen when he penned "Lament to Love," recorded by Harry James.
After moving to California, he formed his first jazz vocal group, the Mel-Tones, who played with heavyweights like Artie Shaw and Bing Crosby. Their success eventually led to Tormé going solo in 1947. Already a budding teen idol with bobbysoxers for his appearance in the musical Good News, Tormé was encouraged by his manager at the time to abandon his more sophisticated jazz leanings in order to concentrate on romantic crooning. It was not the last time during his career that Mel Tormé would take advice that went against his own musical tastes, but it proved the most commercially successful period for Tormé as a recording artist, giving him his only number one hit with "Careless Hands." In 1949, his "California Suite" became the first 12" LP record released by Capitol Records, and it was a smash. His popularity would eventually land him his own, short-lived CBS afternoon talk show.
Around this time his smooth vocal stylings also earned the moniker he’d spend much of his life trying to escape, when a New York radio DJ dubbed him "The Velvet Fog." (Tormé felt the name referred to a style of singing he’d only briefly practiced during his syrupy crooning years, but eventually he was able to embrace the sobriquet enough to put jokey license plates on his car reading "EL PHOG.") Despite attaining commercial success, by 1955 he yearned for greater artistic control.
"I just called a halt," he later said. "I'd had enough of these bloody, creamy, boring ballads and this froggy, foggy kind of singing." He instead signed with Bethlehem Records and produced seven records that many view as his artistic pinnacle.
Sadly, this era of artistic freedom was not to last. By the late 1950s, rock 'n' roll was taking over the airwaves and its popularity forced Bethlehem Records to close up shop in 1957. Once hot, jazz performers were increasingly relegated to smaller and smaller clubs. Tormé initially hated rock 'n' roll, blasting its musical simplicity and tuneless, blunt singing conventions (he’d later soften a bit, professing a fondness for Steely Dan and Todd Rundgren). His misgivings, however, did not stop him from attempting – with mostly disastrous results – to try his hand at rearranging popular rock songs on his own records. He would later characterize these recordings as "the worst dreck imaginable." With his singing career in a tailspin, he briefly considered retiring from the music business altogether to become an airline pilot.
The pilot story must be largely apocryphal, for no matter how badly Tormé’s recording career had stalled out during the '60s, he had plenty of other work to fall back on. He’d co-written "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…"), and the beloved 1945 recording by Nat King Cole was surely still generating plenty of royalty checks. As a songwriter, Tormé was always in demand, penning over 250 original tunes during his lifetime. He was hired as a musical advisor for The Judy Garland Show, a calamity he chronicled in his first non-fiction book, The Other Side of the Rainbow with Judy Garland on the Dawn Patrol. He also wrote articles on the movie business, WWI aircraft and gun collecting (he had one of the world’s largest collections of Colt .45s). A lifelong writer, he additionally published two works of fiction – the Western Dollarhide (written under the pseudonym Wesley Wyatt) and Wynner, the story of a big band leader in Las Vegas.
Though he had trouble selling records in the '60s, his reputation as a live performer never waned, particularly in Europe where jazz was often appreciated more than it was in the U.S. By the '70s, he’d collected a number of prestigious international awards. Another turning point in his career would be his triumphant 1977 Carnegie Hall concert with pianist George Shearing. Tormé would go on to record five well-received albums with Shearing in a second or even third artistic flowering, depending on which critic you ask.
The 1980s saw him introduced to a whole new audience through the sitcom <i>Night Court</i>, whose protagonist Judge Harry T. Stone idolized the singer. Tormé would make several guest appearances on the show, and in the '90s he also starred in a series of Mountain Dew commercials targeted at young consumers. In 1995, the man who’d once famously dismissed rock music as "three chord manure" appeared on a bill with punk icons The Ramones and grunge pioneers Mudhoney. He described the audience as one of the greatest he’d ever had.
When asked about retirement, Tormé responded, "You rest, you rust." He never did either one, his output only stopped by a stroke in 1996 while in a studio recording a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald. His long series of odd jobs had finally come to an end, but the songs and performances he left behind will still be entertaining audiences for generations to come.