Jazz Institute of Chicago

Mel Tormé

Mel Tormé
By Steve Voce

This article first appeared in The Independent of London.

Mel Tormé was the most gifted and creative musician amongst all of the jazz singers, be they Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Cleo Laine or Frank Sinatra. Apart from the impeccable lustre of his singing, he was an inspired composer, an outstanding drummer, an accomplished actor, a gifted author and a dedicated jazz fan who knew as much about the music as most of its historians. He began his jazz record collection when he was twelve.

My Uncle Art was a very well known lawyer in Chicago. He handled the famous and a few of the infamous. And one of his clients in Chicago was a sweet man—probably mob connected—who had one of the biggest jukebox operations in Chicago. You’d go to his jukebox warehouse and there were tons of records. He said, "Do you like music, kid? Go, look and take. See what you want."

Tormé helped himself to free records from the warehouse by Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington and others and had the nucleus of a collection of 78 rpm records that he kept until his death.

When he was given the records Tormé’s ambition was to lead a big band. But his career began long before that when he was four.

My favourite toy was the radio. I had my trains and my tinker toys and all that. But at an incredibly tender age, I fell in love with the radio, and with music.

The Coon-Sanders Orchestra was an orchestra listened to all the time on the radio because they broadcast early. I used to sing all their arrangements around the house. One night for a treat my mother and father took me to the Blackhawk where they were playing. I’m sitting there in the front row, a droll little boy in a sailor suit. They see me singing along with the band. And finally Joe sanders or Carleton Coon walked over and said, "This little boy seems to know everything we do." My mother says, "Oh yes, he listens to the radio." On a whim they got me up to the mike. I sang You’re Driving me Crazy. And it went over very, very well.

And they said, "What about bringing little Melvin in here on Monday nights and we’ll make him a Monday night feature? We’ll give you $15 and dinner for all the family each Monday"—which was really important, because the Blackhawk was one of the finest restaurants in Chicago. I did that for six months.

The work led to other jobs with local bands and Tormé then sang in child vaudeville groups for two years. After winning a singing contest when he was eight with an imitation of Al Jolson he began doing radio work, and became one of the busiest child actors. Chicago was to radio what Broadway was to the theatre and Hollywood was to film. By the time he was 15 Tormé, by now an accomplished drummer, had also begun composing songs. His drumming was heard by Harry James who, in 1940, offered him a job in his band.

Before Tormé could leave school James had suffered a financial setback and couldn’t afford to hire any more men. Tormé’s school mates jeered at him because they thought the offer had never been made. Just when everyone had decided that his connection with James had been totally invented, the trumpeter decided to record Tormé’s composition Lament To Love. It rose to number seven in the Hit Parade. "By then it was too late," he said. "My schoolmates had put me through hell. When your school and your friends are your whole life, it’s pretty big stuff."

Chico Marx played piano in and led a fine swing band. When his drummer George Wettling left in August 1942 Marx hired Tormé to replace him. He also wrote arrangements and organised a vocal group for the band. Although there was a recording ban on at the time and Tormé didn’t make any records with the band, it provided a shop window for his talents.

Tormé proved better than anyone at writing for a vocal group did and his quintet settled down as The Mel-Tones.

Artie Shaw liked my singing as a solo artist. When I formed the Mel-Tones he was very fond of that, too. Consequently we made a lot of records with him, but never worked for him, although many people seem to think we did. We were just with the same record company.

They were so naturally talented that sometimes I didn’t have to do any arranging at all. They could begin singing a song, perhaps while riding in a car, in perfect five-part harmony. Writing for such a group is like writing for a saxophone section in a band.

Tormé had an acting role in the film ‘Higher And Higher’ (1943) and The Mel-Tones appeared in two musicals aimed at teen-agers, ‘Pardon My Rhythm’ (1944) and ‘Let’s Go Steady’ (1945).

By now Tormé had decided that the music of Duke Ellington was the Holy Grail. In the middle 40s Ellington used to make weekly hour-long broadcasts sponsored by the American Treasury Department, from restaurants around the United States. Tormé bought a Recocut, a primitive machine that made 16 inch transcriptions on glass. He recorded most of the Ellington broadcasts and, since the record ban was in place at the time, his discs remain a prime source of Ellington history. Generously he gave them away to a man who wanted to issue them, and now all Ellington collectors share the benefit. Not everyone appreciated this action.

I was mortified to find that Duke’s rather minimally-talented son Mercer had made a remark to the effect of, "What right has Mel Tormé got to be making money out of my dead father?" I was thoroughly shocked, and it taught me a lesson. Do not be altruistic towards your fellow man on all occasions, because sometimes it just doesn’t work out. To this day I have not spoken to Master Ellington, nor do I intend to.

By 1946 Tormé was much in demand as a drummer by the name bands.

Tommy Dorsey was the most relentless. He was having troubles with his drummer Buddy Rich, and they never really got on again.

(Rich and Tormé later became very close. Tormé wrote a book ‘Traps, The Drum Wonder’ (1991) about his friend).

And Gene Krupa wanted me as his deputy. Stan Kenton drove me batty. I used to sit in with him. He had terrible drummer problems because Stan was not a strong rhythm pianist.

Kenton phoned Tormé one night and said, "Look, I know you can’t leave the Mel-Tones but we’ve got two weeks of important broadcasts coming up. Would you just come and play drums for two weeks? I’ll give you $300." So much money tempted Tormé but he was committed to Armed Forces radio broadcasts and camp shows and couldn’t take the job.

Tormé worked again with Artie Shaw.

Of course I was an idolater of Artie Shaw from the year one. I always thought that he had the best taste in music of any bandleader I had ever worked with. So I was in heaven.

Instead of working with the Mel-Tones, Shaw organised it for Tormé to make an album with the Shaw band as a solo singer. He made nine titles in 1946 and one of them, "Get Out Of Town," was particularly successful. That year he wrote his first hit song, "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)."

In his early years Tormé had a high smooth voice. Later it developed into a husky baritone that brought him his nickname "The Velvet Fog." If his singing had a fault it was that it was technically perfect and thus low on passion. He could sing with a dexterity that no one could match and he was able to swing as hard as any horn. He sang anything from sentimental ballads to hard driving swing numbers and was immediately established as a top solo artist. He began dating film stars and took his girl friend Lana Turner to hear Billie Holiday. "God, Billie was miraculous!" he told me. "Even if you had to cringe at her physical state. She was a true original, and that’s the best thing you can say about anybody."

In November 1949, Tormé recorded his ‘California Suite’. It had taken him a year to write this composition for the Mel-Tones and orchestra. He was to become the only singer who wrote his own arrangements for bands, and he wrote complete shows on his own. His orchestral talent matured to the point where he was a regular guest conductor with a dozen or more symphony orchestras in the United States.

During the Fifties he became very much associated with the West Coast school of jazz. The polished artifice of its bands and its eloquent soloists, like Art Pepper, Gerry Mulligan and the others, suited Tormé perfectly. He recorded often with the Marty Paich Dektette, using Paich’s immaculate arrangements to turn out jazz classics by the bucketful.

The admiration for Duke Ellington kept growing.

I was very friendly with him. We worked together for three weeks in 1965 and we did two or three jazz festivals together in the States. He used to call me his first chair percussionist, and whenever he saw me in the audience he would always ask me to come and play drums with him—I would never ask him—and I would invariably play "Rockin’ In Rhythm" with the band.

By now Tormé was a big star. He maintained a modest approach, but there was some tension between him and Ellington on one occasion over who should top the bill. Tormé was not pleased on another occasion when Artie Shaw replaced the name on Tormé’s dressing room with his own.

His friendship with and admiration for Gerry Mulligan also grew. When he appeared at the Nice Jazz Festival in 1981 Tormé arranged to stay for an extra night so that he could hear Mulligan’s band. It was then that I was able to spend a day with him.

That Mulligan band is magnificent and Gerry is an unqualified genius. When he rehearses that band he’s the most dogged perfectionist you’ll ever see in your life. It’s awe inspiring to see him shake a band down.

Of course a similar amount of work goes into my own sessions as far as getting the arrangements right is concerned, like the many we did with Marty Paich’s group. Those were very smooth and polished and yet the band remained inspired, I thought. Marty wrote the arrangements but I sketched them out first and wrote all the original variations on the melodies.

By now Tormé appeared at all the top supper clubs, concert halls and casinos across the world. He could name his own price for him and the superb trios of musicians who backed him. He maintained a series of sell-out performances at the Hollywood Bowl and at Carnegie Hall. His great achievements with new albums burgeoned even further when he signed for the Concord label and recorded with great artists like Cleo Laine, John Dankworth and George Shearing. He won a Grammy in 1982 for his album, "An Evening With George Shearing And Mel Tormé." He received numerous Grammy nominations.

But he didn’t look after his health. After his concert he would find an all-night shop and buy a packet of chocolate cookies and a carton of chocolate milk and that would be his diet for the day. It seemed odd for a man who never smoked or drank during his whole life. Tormé put on a great deal of weight and on August 8, 1996 he suffered a stroke. At one stage it appeared that he might get his powers of speech back and even sing again. But another stroke followed and, until the final one hit him last week, he was never able to speak again.

Tormé never gave in. He loved film and had a special wheelchair and handicap van into which he was loaded each week to visit his local cinema. He married three times and divorced three times. His last marriage was to Jannette Scott, and this brought him an unlikely mother-in-law in the shape of Thora Hird.

Like all the virtuosi who worked for Tormé in his backing group, bassist John Leitham became a personal friend of the singer.

I’ll always be grateful to have been associated with the greatest male jazz singer of all time. Mel Tormé’s was, to use his term, a blinding talent. He was not only a virtuoso singer. He was also a great musician. He was a very literate, passionate man. He often wore his heart on his sleeve. He was always friendly and easy going with his musicians and we spent a lot of time hanging out together on innumerableroad trips. I would always call him Maestro. He used to call me Tiger.

One of the things that astounded me about Mel was the consistent level of his performances. And he never sounded better than at the last performance at Ocean Grove, New Jersey, in August 1996.

Melvin Howard Tormé, singer, songwriter, composer, drummer, conductor: born Chicago, 13 September 1925. Died Los Angeles, 5 June 1999.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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