Torme, Velvet Voice of Pop and Jazz, Dies at 73
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Mel Torme, the fluent pop-jazz singer who earned the nickname the
Velvet Fog for his smooth, soft vocal timbre, died yesterday of
complications from a stroke he suffered in 1996. He was 73 and lived in
Beverly Hills, Calif.
Mr. Torme was rushed early yesterday from his home to the University
of California at Los Angeles Medical Center, said his publicist, Rob
A supreme vocal technician whose style
encompassed everything from intimate pop
crooning to jet-propelled scat
improvisations, Mr. Torme was rivaled in
virtuosity only by Ella Fitzgerald, who
moved between the worlds of pop and jazz
with a similar ease. An innate classicist who
approached popular songs with an analytic
sense of balance and proportion, Mr.
Torme infused everything he sang with a
geniality that seemed ingrained in a voice that was incapable of making
Mr. Torme was also a prolific songwriter, drummer, pianist, musical
arranger, actor and author. His most famous composition "The Christmas
Song" (also known as "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire"), written
with the lyricist Robert Wells, became one of the most beloved of
seasonal standards after it was recorded by Nat (King) Cole in 1946.
Mr. Torme liked to recall that the song was written in just 40 minutes
a sweltering July afternoon in Los Angeles and that it had subsequently
been recorded in 1,734 versions.
The singer's several books included "The Other Side of the Rainbow"
(1970), an account of his experiences working as the musical adviser to
Judy Garland on her television shows in the 1960's, a novel, "Wynner"
(1978), and an autobiography, "It Wasn't All Velvet," published in 1988.
The Garland book, with its portrait of the troubled singer, won critical
praise but earned the wrath of her family, who unsuccessfully sued Mr.
But it was as a singer that Mr. Torme made his deepest mark. The critic
Will Friedwald, in his book "Jazz Singing," cited Mr. Torme as a pioneer
of the "cool jazz" approach, spun off from the pop crooning of the day.
"Torme works with the most beautiful voice a man is allowed to have,
and he combines it with a flawless sense of pitch," Mr. Friedwald wrote.
"As an improviser he shames all but two or three other scat singers and
quite a few horn players as well."
His standards included "Blue Moon," "It Might as Well Be Spring," "Oh,
You Beautiful Doll" and "Mountain Greenery."
Melvin Howard Torme was born on the South Side of Chicago on Sept.
13, 1925, to a working-class Jewish family. His parents were immigrants
whose name had been changed from Torma to Torme by an immigration
agent. He was a musical prodigy who sang professionally at age 4 with
the Coon-Sanders Orchestra, singing "You're Driving Me Crazy," at the
Blackhawk restaurant in Chicago for $15 a session, and he was also a
busy child actor on radio serials, appearing from 1933 to 1941 on such
network programs as "The Romance of Helen Trent" and "Jack
Armstrong, the All-American Boy."
He started writing songs at 13 and was only 16 when Harry James
scored a hit with his song "Lament to Love." While still a teen-ager, he
toured as a singer, arranger and drummer in a band led by Chico Marx
of the Marx Brothers.
In 1943, he made his movie debut in the musical "Higher and Higher,"
playing a supporting role to Frank Sinatra, who was also making his film
The same year he formed the
vocal group Mel Torme and His
Mel-Tones, a quintet that sang in
a style modeled after Frank
Sinatra and the Pied Pipers.
After his appearance in the 1947
musical "Good News" made Mr.
Torme a bobby-soxer idol, the
Mel-Tones slipped increasingly
into the background.
He was only 21 when he
appeared as a soloist at the
Copacabana in New York, and
Fred Robbins, a local disk
jockey, gave him the nickname
Velvet Fog, a sobriquet he
detested. Mr. Torme recorded
for Decca in 1945, for Musicraft (1946-48), singing with the Artie Shaw
Orchestra, and in 1949 moved to Capitol, where his first recording for
the label, "Careless Hands," became his only No. 1 hit. It was followed
by a two-sided hit, "Again" and "Blue Moon," which became one of his
best-loved signature songs. The same year, his composition "California
Suite," a jazzier answer to Gordon Jenkins's pop oratorio "Manhattan
Tower," became the first 12-inch LP put out by the label.
Mr. Torme was 30 when he met Red Clyde, the jazz producer who
founded Bethlehem Records, and decided to switch gears and move
toward jazz. From 1955 to 1957, he recorded seven albums for the
label, including "Mel Torme With the Marty Paich Dektette," a pop jazz
classic featuring a 10-member ensemble (arranged by Mr. Paich) that
combined the power of a big band with the freedom of a small ensemble.
"I wanted to embed in the minds of the public at large, particularly jazz
fans, that this syrupy, creamy bobby-sox sensation was taking the
musical bull by the horns and singing the kind of music he wanted to
sing," Mr. Torme later recalled.
But artistic integrity did not breed commercial success.
"I can't deny that I would have been pleased to have a best-seller," Mr.
Torme said, "but if you're constantly working to good rooms and to good
crowds, records are only frosting on the cake. Yet my managers kept
bugging me for the big hit, and to satisfy them, when rock erupted in the
mid-1960's, I recorded some of the worst dreck you can imagine -- to
Soon Mr. Torme found himself eking out a living playing out-of-the-way
clubs. As rock-and-roll solidified its domination of the airwaves, he
briefly considered retiring from music and becoming an airline pilot.
The next two decades were a frustrating period of dues-paying in which
Mr. Torme moved from record company to record company and often
found himself forced to record the pop hits of the day with tinny
arrangements. He managed to score a minor hit, with a blues song,
"Comin' Home, Baby," in 1962.
His reputation as a jazz singer continued to grow, based on his live
performances. In 1976 he won an Edison Award (the Dutch equivalent
of the Grammy) for best male singer, and a Downbeat award for best
male jazz singer.
The ground swell of recognition accelerated after a triumphant 1977
Carnegie Hall concert with George Shearing and Gerry Mulligan, which
Mr. Torme viewed as a turning point in his career. He later recorded five
albums with Mr. Shearing, whose cool, romantic pianism perfectly
complimented Mr. Torme's serene vocal style.
"It is impossible to imagine a more compatible musical partner," Mr.
Shearing said after hearing of Mr. Torme's death. "I humbly put forth that
Mel and I had the best musical marriage in many a year. We literally
breathed together during our countless performances. As Mel put it, we
were two bodies of one musical mind."
In 1982, Mr. Torme finally found a stable recording base in Concord
Jazz Records, for whom he made a succession of albums that established
him as an articulate custodian of a broad pop-jazz-swing tradition that
encompassed Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Duke Ellington, Benny
Goodman and the Gershwins.
Mr. Torme's career also got a lift in the 1980's through the television
series "Night Court," in which Harry Anderson's character, Judge Harry
Stone, was an unabashed fan.
Mr. Torme was married four times. His first three marriages ended in
divorce. He is survived by his wife, Ali, and five children, Steve, Melissa,
Tracy, Daisy and James Torme, all of Los Angeles, and two
stepchildren, Carrie Torme and Kurt Goldsmith.
Regular appearances at the JVC Jazz Festival and annual nightclub
engagements at Michael's Pub in Manhattan solidified Mr. Torme's
position as a musician who melded the achievements of the past into a
sweeping but personalized vision of American popular music in its golden
age as a vernacular kind of classical music.
For well over a decade, Mr. Torme's September appearances at
Michael's Pub, on the Upper East Side, unofficially opened New York's
fall cabaret season.
A typical Torme performance there might have been a salute to a pop
music giant like Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire or Benny Goodman, in which
the singer distilled his rich personal vision of a career in less than
These shows featured intricate medleys that showcased Mr. Torme's
phenomenal flexibility as both a singer and an arranger with an enthusiasm
for his subject that matched his encyclopedic knowledge. Such a medley
might string fragments from as many as two dozen songs into a virtuosic
vocal (and sometimes also drum) display that would change in mood
every few seconds as the singer glided from the most ethereal pop
crooning into the sort of machine-gun driven scat improvisations that only
Ella Fitzgerald, in her prime, could match in precision and rhythmic
These engagements compressed volumes worth of pop-jazz history and
lore into an explosion of musical energy that was as lucid as it was
"I do not believe there's such a thing as a jazz singer," Mr. Torme
declared late in his career.
"Every pop singer is influenced a little by jazz, because it's our native
art," he said. "But labeling someone a jazz, rather than a pop singer,
only a matter of degree of influence."