Mel Tormé and an all-star cast this weekend in a radio series designed for The Armed Forces and their fledgling Radio Service in 1944. Much as I run Post-War Bop, FreeJazz and Post-Bop, there is a treasure trove of Big-Band era broadcasts that scream out for a listening. This is the backbone material from which most all the experimenting came from.
Melvin Howard Tormé was born in Chicago, Illinois, to immigrant Russian Jewish parents whose surname had been Torma. A child prodigy, he first performed professionally at age 4 with the Coon-Sanders Orchestra, singing “You’re Driving Me Crazy” at Chicago’s Blackhawk restaurant.
He played drums in the drum-and-bugle corps at Shakespeare Elementary School. From 1933 to 1941, he acted in the radio programs The Romance of Helen Trent and Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. He wrote his first song at 13. Three years later his first published song, “Lament to Love,” became a hit for bandleader Harry James.
From 1942 to 1943 he was a member of a band led by Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers. He was the singer, drummer, and also did some arrangements.
In 1943, Tormé made his movie debut in Frank Sinatra’s first film, the musical Higher and Higher. His appearance in the 1947 film musical Good News made him a teen idol.
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.
He was discharged from the Army in 1946, and soon returned to a life of radio, television, movies, and music. In 1947, he started a solo singing career. His appearances at New York’s Copacabana led local disc jockey Fred Robbins to give him the nickname “The Velvet Fog” in honor of his high tenor and smooth vocal style. 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 Records 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 songs. His composition California Suite, prompted by Gordon Jenkins’s “Manhattan Tower,” became Capitol’s first 12-inch LP album. Around this time, he helped pioneer cool jazz.
He had a radio program, Mel Torme Time, which appeared on the short-lived Progressive Broadcasting System in the 1950s.
From 1955 to 1957, he recorded seven vocal jazz albums for Red Clyde’s Bethlehem Records, all with groups led by Marty Paich, most notably Mel Tormé and the Marty Paich Dek-Tette. He became known for his arranging skills, and with his other talents earned the respect of musicians.
In his 1994 book My Singing Teachers, Tormé cited Patty Andrews, lead singer of the Andrews Sisters, one of the most successful show business acts of the 1940s, 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.”
Though he spent most of his career singing jazz, Tormé had a deep appreciation for classical music, especially that of Frederick Delius and Percy Grainger. Rock and roll he considered “three-chord manure”.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Tormé covered pop tunes of the day, never staying long with one label. He had two minor hits: his 1956 recording of “Mountain Greenery,” which did better in the United Kingdom where it reached No. 4; and his 1962 R&B song “Comin’ Home Baby”, arranged by Claus Ogerman, which reached No. 13 in the UK. 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 by Quincy Jones and Kai Winding.
In addition, the show also featured Georgie Auld, Frances langford and Tony Romano. This was the Swing side of Jazz in the mid-1940s, which many considered to be the stepping-off place for Jazz evolution in the late 40s and 1950s on.