Melvin Howard Tormé was born in Chicago, Illinois, to immigrant Russian Jewish parents, whose surname had been Torma. However, the name was changed at Ellis Island to "Torme." A child prodigy, he first sang professionally at age 4 with the Coon-Sanders Orchestra, singing "You're Driving Me Crazy" at Chicago's Blackhawk restaurant.
Between 1933 and 1941, he acted in the network radio serials The Romance of Helen Trent and Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. He wrote his first song at 13, and three years later, his first published song, "Lament to Love," became a hit recording for Harry James. He played drums in Chicago's Shakespeare Elementary School drum and bugle corps in his early teens. While a teenager, he sang, arranged, and played drums in a band led by Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers. His formal education ended in 1944 with his graduation from Chicago's Hyde Park High School.
In 1943, Tormé made his movie debut in Frank Sinatra's first film, the musical Higher and Higher. He went on to sing and act in many films and television episodes throughout his career, even hosting his own television show in 1951–52. His appearance in the 1947 film musical Good News made him a teen idol for a few years.
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.
Later in 1947, Tormé went solo. His singing at New York's Copacabana led a local disc jockey, Fred Robbins, to give him the nickname "The Velvet Fog," thinking to honor his high tenor and smooth vocal style, but 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 (1945), 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 tunes. His composition "California Suite," prompted by Gordon Jenkins' "Manhattan Tower," became Capitol's first 12-inch LP album. Around this time, he helped pioneer cool jazz.
From 1955 to 1957, Tormé recorded seven jazz vocal albums for Red Clyde's Bethlehem Records, all with groups led by Marty Paich, most notably Mel Tormé with the Marty Paich Dektette. When rock and roll music (which Tormé called "three-chord manure")) came on the scene in the 1950s, commercial success became elusive. During the next two decades, Tormé often recorded mediocre arrangements of the pop tunes of the day, never staying long with any particular label. He was sometimes forced to make his living by singing in obscure clubs. He had two minor hits, his 1956 recording of "Mountain Greenery," which did better in the United Kingdom where it reached #4 in May that year; and his 1962 R&B song "Comin' Home, Baby," arranged by Claus Ogerman. 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." It was later covered instrumentally by Quincy Jones and Kai Winding.
In 1960, he appeared with Don Dubbins in the episode "The Junket" in NBC's short-lived crime drama Dan Raven, starring Skip Homeier and set on the Sunset Strip of West Hollywood. He also had a significant role in a cross-cultural western entitled Walk Like a Dragon staring Jack Lord. Tormé played 'The Deacon', a bible-quoting gunfighter who worked as an enforcer for a lady saloon-owner and teaches a young Chinese, played by James Shigeta, the art of the fast draw. In one scene, he tells a soon-to-be victim: 'Say your prayers, brother Masters. You're a corpse.' And then delivers on the promise. Tormé, like Sammy Davis Jr. and Robert Fuller was a real-life fast-draw expert. He also sang the title song.
In 1963–64, Tormé wrote songs and musical arrangements for The Judy Garland Show, where he made three guest appearances. However, he and Garland had a serious falling out, and he was fired from the series, which was canceled by CBS not long afterward. A few years later, after Garland's death, his time with her show became the subject of his first book, "The Other Side of the Rainbow with Judy Garland on the Dawn Patrol" (1970). Although the book was praised, some felt it painted an unflattering picture of Judy, and that Tormé had perhaps over-inflated his own contributions to the program; it led to an unsuccessful lawsuit by Garland's family.
Tormé befriended Buddy Rich, the day Rich left the Marine Corps in 1942. Rich became the subject of Tormé's book Traps — The Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich (1987). Tormé also owned and played a drum set that drummer Gene Krupa used for many years. George Spink, treasurer of the Jazz Institute of Chicago from 1978 to 1981, recalled that Tormé played this drum set at the 1979 Chicago Jazz Festival with Benny Goodman on the classic "Sing, Sing, Sing." Tormé had a deep appreciation for classical music; especially that of Frederick Delius and Percy Grainger.
The resurgence of vocal jazz in the 1970s resulted in another artistically fertile period for Tormé, whose live performances during the 1960s and 1970s fueled a growing reputation as a jazz singer. He found himself performing as often as 200 times a year around the globe. In 1976, he won an Edison Award (the Dutch equivalent of the Grammy) for best male singer, and a Down Beat award for best male jazz singer. For several years around this time, his September appearances at Michael's Pub on the Upper East Side would unofficially open New York's fall cabaret season. Tormé viewed his 1977 Carnegie Hall concert with George Shearing and Gerry Mulligan as a turning point. Shearing later said:
"It is impossible to imagine a more compatible musical partner… 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."
Starting in 1982, Tormé recorded several albums with Concord Records, including:
Five albums with pianist George Shearing;
His big band work with Rob McConnell and his Boss Brass orchestra (see Mel Tormé, Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass);
A reunion with Marty Paich, resulting in a live recording in Tokyo (In Concert Tokyo) and a studio album (Reunion).
In the 80s and 90s, Mel's trio often included pianist John Colianni, bassist Jennifer Leitham, drummer Donny Osborne, as well as famed New Zealand pianist Carl Doy.
In 1993, Verve Records released the classic "Blue Moon" album featuring the Velvet voice and the Rodgers and Hart Songbook. His version of Blue Moon performed live at the "Sands" in November that year earned him a new nickname from older audiences: "The Blue Fox." The nickname was used to describe Tormé's performance after spending an extra hour with pianist Bill Butler cracking jokes and answering queries from a throng of more "mature" women who turned out to see the show. Under the shimmering blue lights at the Sands, he gained a new nickname that would endure for every future performance in Las Vegas and his last performance at Carnegie Hall. Tormé would develop other nicknames later in life, but none seemed as popular as the Velvet Fog (primarily on the East Coast) and the Blue Fox.
Tormé made nine guest appearances as himself on the 1980s situation comedy Night Court whose main character, Judge Harry Stone (played by Harry Anderson), was depicted as an unabashed Tormé fan (an admiration that Anderson shared in real-life; Anderson would later deliver the eulogy at Tormé's funeral) which led to a following among Generation Xers along with a series of Mountain Dew commercials and on an episode of the sitcom Seinfeld ("The Jimmy"), in which he dedicates a song to the character Kramer. Tormé also recorded a version of Nat King Cole's "Straighten up and Fly Right" with his son, alternative/adult contemporary/jazz singer Steve March Tormé. Tormé was also able to work with his other son, television writer-producer Tracy Tormé on Sliders. The 1996 episode, entitled "Greatfellas," sees Tormé playing an alternate version of himself: a country-and-western singer who is also an FBI informant.
In a scene in the 1988 Warner Bros. cartoon Night of the Living Duck, Daffy Duck has to sing in front of several monsters, but lacks a good singing voice. So, he inhales a substance called "Eau de Tormé" and sings like Mel Tormé (who in fact provided the voice during this one scene, while Mel Blanc provided Daffy's voice during most of the cartoon).
On August 8, 1996, a stroke abruptly ended his 65-year singing career. In February 1999, Tormé was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Another stroke in 1999 ended his life. In his eulogistic essay, John Andrews wrote about Tormé:
"Tormé's style shared much with that of his idol, Ella Fitzgerald. Both were firmly rooted in the foundation of the swing era, but both seemed able to incorporate bebop innovations to keep their performances sounding fresh and contemporary. Like Sinatra, they sang with perfect diction and brought out the emotional content of the lyrics through subtle alterations of phrasing and harmony. Ballads were characterized by paraphrasing of the original melody which always seemed tasteful, appropriate and respectful to the vision of the songwriter. Unlike Sinatra, both Fitzgerald and Tormé were likely to cut loose during a swinging up-tempo number with several scat choruses, using their voices without words to improvise a solo like a brass or reed instrument."
Melvin Howard Tormé (13 de septiembre de 1925 – 5 de junio de 1999), apodado The Velvet Fog, fue un músico estadounidense, uno de los grandes cantantes de jazz. También fue compositor de jazz, arreglista, percusionista, actor de radio, cine y televisión, y autor de cinco libros.
Nacido en Chicago, Illinois, sus padres eran inmigrantes rusos judíos1 de nombre Torma. Niño prodigio, cantó por primera vez de manera profesional a los cuatro años de edad con la Coon-Sanders Orchestra, interpretando "You're Driving Me Crazy" en el restaurante Blackhawk de Chicago. Entre 1933 y 1941 actuó en los seriales radiofónicos The Romance of Helen Trent y Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. Escribió su primera canción a los 13 años, y tres después, su primer tema publicado, "Lament to Love," fue un éxito con la grabación de Harry James. Tocó la batería en la Shakespeare Elementary School de Chicago siendo adolescente. En esa época cantaba, arreglaba y tocaba la batería en una banda liderada por Chico Marx, uno de los Hermanos Marx. Su educación formal finalizó en 1944 con su graduación en la Hyde Park Career Academy de Chicago.
En 1943 Tormé debutó en el cine con la primera película de Frank Sinatra, el musical Higher and Higher. A lo largo de su carrera cantó y actuó en numerosos filmes y episodios televisivos, incluso presentando su propio show televisivo en 1951–52. Su actuación en el film musical de 1947 Good News le convirtió durante años en un ídolo de los adolescentes.
En ese año también formó el quinteto vocal "Mel Tormé and His Mel-Tones," inspirado en el de Frank Sinatra con The Pied Pipers. The Mel-Tones, en el cual se incluía Les Baxter y Ginny O'Connor, tenían varios éxitos, entre ellos el de Cole Porter "What Is This Thing Called Love?". The Mel-Tones eran unos de los primeros grupos vocales influenciados por el jazz, abriendo un camino seguido más adelante por The Hi-Lo's, The Four Freshmen, y Manhattan Transfer.
Más adelante, en 1947, Tormé actuó solo. Su canto en el club neoyorkino Copacabana hizo que un disc jockey local, Fred Robbins, le diera el apodo de "The Velvet Fog", el cual Tormé detestaba. Como solista grabó varios éxitos románticos para Decca Records (1945). Con la orquesta de Artie Shaw grabó para el sello Musicraft Records (1946–48). En 1949 se pasó a Capitol Records, donde su primera grabación, "Careless Hands," fue su único número uno de las listas. Sus versiones de "Again" y "Blue Moon" se convirtieron en melodías características. Su composición "California Suite" facilitó que el disco de Gordon Jenkins "Manhattan Tower" fuera el primer LP de Capitol.
Entre 1955 y 1957 Tormé grabó siete álbumes de jazz vocal para Bethlehem Records, todos con grupos liderados por Marty Paich, destacando Mel Tormé with the Marty Paich Dektette. Estas grabaciones fueron un éxito creativo, tanto para Tormé como para Paich.
Cuando el rock and roll llegó en la década de 1950, el éxito comercial se hizo elusivo. Durante las siguientes dos décadas, Tormé a menudo grababa arreglos mediocres de las melodías pop del momento, sin trabajar específicamente para sello alguno. A veces tuvo que ganarse la vida actuando en clubes. Tuvo dos éxitos menores, su grabación de 1956 de "Mountain Greenery," y su tema de Rhythm and blues de 1962 "Comin' Home, Baby," arreglado por Claus Ogerman. La segunda de las grabaciones hizo que la cantante de jazz y gospel Ethel Waters dijera que "Tormé es el único blanco que canta con el alma de un negro."
En 1960 actuó junto a Don Dubbins en el episodio "The Junket", en la serie televisiva de la NBC Dan Raven, protagonizada por Skip Homeier.
En 1963–64, Tormé escribió canciones y arreglos musicales para The Judy Garland Show, y actuó en dos ocasiones como artista invitado en el programa. Sin embargo, ambos discutieron, y él fue despedido de la serie, la cual fue cancelada por la CBS poco después.
Entre los libros que escribió Mel Tormé se incluyen "Wynner" (1979), "It Wasn't All Velvet" (1988) y "My Singing Teachers Reflections on Singing Popular Music" (1994).
Tormé hizo amistad con el percusionista Buddy Rich el día en que Rich dejó el ejército en 1942. Rich aparecía en el libro de Tormé Traps—The Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich (1987).
El resurgir del jazz vocal en la década de 1970 resultó en otro fértil período para Tormé, cuyas actuaciones en directo en los años sesenta y setenta le dieron una creciente reputación como cantante de jazz. Llegó a actuar hasta 200 veces en un año. En 1976 ganó un Premio Edison (equivalente holandés del Grammy) y un Premio Downbeat al mejor cantante masculino.
A partir de 1982, Tormé grabó varios álbumes con Concord Records, incluyendo:
Cinco discos con el pianista George Shearing;
Un trabajo de big band con Rob McConnell y su orquesta Boss Brass;
Una grabación en directo con Marty Paich en Tokio y un disco de estudio.
Además, en los años ochenta a menudo actuaba junto al pianista John Colianni.
Tormé actuó en nueve ocasiones como él mismo en la serie televisiva de la década de 1980 Juzgado de guardia, cuyo principal personaje, el Juez Harry Stone (interpretado por Harry Anderson), era un fan de Tormé (admiración que Anderson compartía en la vida real). A mediados de los noventa Tormé se dio a conocer por los integrantes de la Generación X interviniendo en comerciales de Mountain Dew y en un episodio de la serie Seinfeld, en el cual dedicaba una canción al personaje Cosmo Kramer. Tormé también grabó una versión del tema de Nat King Cole "Straighten up and Fly Right" con su hijo, el cantante Steve March Tormé.
Así mismo Tormé trabajó con su otro hijo, el guionista y productor televisivo Tracy Tormé, en un episodio de la serie de Tracy, Sliders.
En febrero de 1999, Tormé fue galardonado con el Grammy a una vida dedicada al mundo de la música. El 8 de agosto de 1996 sufrió un accidente cerebrovascular, finalizando su carrera abruptamente a causa del mismo. En 1999 sufrió otro ictus, falleciendo a causa del mismo. Su muerte tuvo lugar en Los Ángeles, California.