Jazz giant wrote more than 300 songs
Jazz and pop singer Mel Torme, whose crooning vocals led to the unwanted nickname “the Velvet Fog,” died Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 73.Torme, who had suffered a mild stroke three years ago, died of complications from that stroke after being rushed from his Beverly Hills home to the UCLA Medical Center, according to his publicist, Rob Wilcox. The publicist said Torme’s wife, Ali, and five children were at his side when he died. He began singing professionally at the age of 4 and went on to have a performing career of almost 70 years. Although he never achieved the career heights of his peers and suffered a professional setback during the advent of rock, he eventually acquired a substantial following and appeared continually in clubs and jazz concerts over the latter part of his life. His voice, which earned him the nickname “the Velvet Fog” from New York deejay Fred Robbins, actually improved with age. So did his technique and his command of the jazz/pop idiom. Except for Ella Fitzgerald, Torme was probably the most daring and successful practitioners of “scat” improvisational singing. He received a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences at the Grammy Awards last February. Torme also wrote more than 300 songs, the most famous of which, “The Christmas Song” (aka “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”), became a holiday standard immortalized by Nat King Cole. A proficient drummer, he often sat in on the instrument with bands and orchestras. In addition, he appeared in several movies, on television (working behind the camera, as well, on some occasions), recorded dozens of albums (he approved of only a few later ones) and even published books. The most famous was a brutally honest but appreciative recollection of Judy Garland, “The Other Side of the Rainbow” (1970). He was born Melvin Howard Torme in Chicago on Sept. 13, 1925, and reportedly sang his first complete song before he was a year old. When he was 4, his parents took him to the Blackhawk restaurant to watch the Coon-Sanders band perform. Torme sang along at his table; during intermission, he was invited by band drummer Carlton Coon to sing a number with the band. His rendition of “You’re Driving Me Crazy” earned him a steady Monday night gig at $15 a week. Torme continued to sing with such locals as Louis Panico, Frankie Masters and Paul Ash, mostly at neighborhood theaters. In 1933, he won a children’s division radio audition at the Chicago World’s Fair and from there won roles on radio soap operas like “Song of the City,” “Romance of Helen Trent” and “Little Orphan Annie.” He also developed a great ear for mimicry and would impersonate major stars of the day, such as Gary Cooper. At 15, he was almost signed by Harry James, who eventually decided against it, as touring with the underage Torme would have entailed hiring a full-time tutor. But he did record one of Torme’s original compositions, “Lament to Love,” which became a minor hit. Through drummer Ben Pollack, Torme landed in Los Angeles, where he toured with Chico Marx’s band for one year, until it broke up. But an RKO executive saw him perform and championed him for a role in the Frank Sinatra musical “Higher and Higher” (1943). Over the next five years he appeared in “Pardon My Rhythm,” “Let’s Go Steady,” “Good News” and “Words and Music.” Torme was asked to take over an L.A. vocal group, the School Kids; redubbed the Mel-Tones in 1943, they became his backup singers and were eventually signed by the Decca label. During these years Torme also recorded separately on Musicraft Records and sat in on drums with the likes of Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton and Tommy Dorsey. Appearing as a soloist at the Copacabana at 21, Torme was convinced he would conquer New York. But the reviews ranged from generous to scathing, and Torme retreated to England, where appreciation of his technique was already strong. When he returned to the U.S. in the early ’50s, he emphasized the jazz aspect of his singing and began to appear regularly on TV as a singer and actor. His 1957 drama “The Comedian,” starring Mickey Rooney, earned him a best supporting actor Emmy nomination. He also took on some gangster-style roles in films like “Girls Town” and “The Big Operator.” Las Vegas emerged as an important entertainment venue in the early ’60s, and Torme fit right into the large clubs. By then he was recording for Capitol, Coral and Bethlehem; he would eventually add Columbia and Atlantic to the list. With lyricist Robert Wells, he wrote “The Christmas Song.” A major Nat King Cole hit, it has been recorded by at least 500 other performers. His only self-sung hit was the minor “Comin’ Home, Baby” in 1962. With rock ‘n roll dominating the ’60s, Torme’s style went out of fashion. He worked as a writer and adviser for “The Judy Garland Show” on CBS. He also wrote scripts for television, including the series “Run for Your Life” and “The Virginian.” He turned one script into a novel, “Wynner,” which was a bit of a poison pen note to Hollywood and show business. (In 1955 he had published a Western novel, “Dollarhide,” under the pseudonym Wesley Butler Wyatt.) Easing into the ’70s, Torme exec produced the CBS special “The Singers” and hosted an ABC documentary series, “It Was a Very Good Year.” Then his career took an upswing. His 1970 single “Games People Play” became a moderate hit, and his vocal technique evolved, giving him a greater range and clarity. He attributed it to singing from the diaphragm, rather than from his head, as he had for most of his career (the “velvet” in his voice may have been the result of partially regrown tonsils after a childhood tonsillectomy). By the mid ’70s, there was a major jazz revival in the U.S., and Torme was one of the beneficiaries, playing at clubs with big bands, singing at the Newport and other prominent jazz festivals, and even performing with symphonic orchestras in major cities. The Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall hosted him to sold-out houses, with guests ranging from Carmen McRae to Anita O’Day and Woody Herman. During his early ’80s appearances at Marty’s supper club in New York, he recorded “Mel Torme and Friends” on the Finesse label. Over his career, he recorded about 50 albums. Torme had a large gun collection, and was a licensed pilot, writing for aviation magazines from time to time. His temper and temperament evolved over the years, he claimed, thanks in part to therapy, though he was unable to succeed at three of his four marriages, the first to actress Candy Toxton (1949-1955), the second to model Arlene Miles, which lasted for a decade starting in 1956, and the third to British thesp Janette Scott (1966-1977). Torme is survived by his wife, Ali, and five children — Steve, Melissa, Tracy, Daisy and James. Memorial services were not immediately announced.