In a comedy skit years ago, Steve Martin was saying that he had been in college studying the great artists of the past, like Leonardo da Vinci and Michael Angelo. These men were so brilliant, they sculpted, painted, invented and Steve Martin felt so humbled learning about these men. He too wanted to do something amazing and worthwhile and that’s why he explained, “I took up juggling.”
Of course, this is inane humor, but there are some people in jazz that make everyone else feel just so average and left wondering what they’ve done with their life; Such a man to make everyone wonder was Mel Tormé.
Melvin Tormé was born on September 13, 1925, and by the time he was 4 years old, he was already getting paid for singing at a restaurant in Chicago, accompanied by his parents of course, but getting paid nonetheless.
Mel Tormé grew up in a time when Hollywood was looking for child stars that could do it all. Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Rich, Sammy Davis Jr. and Shirley Temple were in that category and so was little Mel Tormé. His acting career was mostly small parts, but he was used as an actor for radio. Mel was a terrific drummer and pianist, which enabled him to become an arranger.
Mel could scat sing both in the bebop and swing idioms. At 15 Mel wrote his first song entitled “Lament to Love” and at 19 he was arranging for his own group appropriately called the Mel-Tones that was put to work by Artie Shaw.
One of the most famous songs that Nat King Cole sang “The Christmas Song” was written by Mel and his friend Bob Wells. Actually, there is a funny thing about the writing of that song. It started out as just a few lines written by Bob Wells on an extremely hot day. He wrote it to remind him of what he considered to be more bearable weather. Mel viewed it as the beginning of a great song and so he finished the rest of it and its success is well known.
Mel Tormé was an innovator and a risk taker as well. What he did before any of his contemporary singers was to have recordings of his live concerts. He did this a number of times before anyone else took that risk. You may give it some thought, who would you consider to be a risk taker, an innovator, and a unique artist.
There’s a lot to learn from Mel Tormé; A few of those things involve his rhythmic sense, his phrasing, which he credited learning from his personal favorite, Ella Fitzgerald and also his love for what he was doing.
All one has to do to know that Mel loved what he was doing is to see how he gave attention to improving his voice late in life and he succeeded in doing that. He was no longer just the wispy Velvet Fog, which is a moniker that he really never liked, but he grew in control and power.
Mel’s career was most successful in his last 13 years, so definitely Mel Tormé is one singer worth adding to your collection and sitting back and really listening to.