Mel Torme

The Great American Songbook was his bible, and no one ever brought the songs to life with a greater combination of dizzying musicianship and dramatic flair.

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Inevitably, and a bit ironically, Mel Torme has been remembered this week as “The Velvet Fog,” a sobriquet a disk jockey gave him in
1946 that he spent much of the rest of his life trying to shake. Torme
hated the nickname: It was a remnant of the early postwar years when, along with a clutch of other, lesser crooners, he was marketed to bobby-soxers as a baby-faced sex symbol.
He made a career-defining shift in the mid-1950s, forsaking syrupy pop
music and pioneering an urbane, cool jazz vocal style, but the Velvet
Fog moniker stuck with him for the next four and a half decades.
Eventually, Torme would grudgingly embrace his “albatross” — he had
license plates that read LE FOG and EL PHOG — and the truth is, as
nicknames go, the Velvet Fog wasn’t half bad: It captured the feel of Torme’s startlingly pure vocal timbre, a resonant softness that seemed to envelop every room he ever sang in.

Mel Torme, who died June 5 at 73, was one of the great American singers
of the century; he may well have been the single most underappreciated, too. His
15 minutes as a bobby-soxer idol aside, he was never a bona fide star.
His biggest hits and greatest fame were behind him by the time he was
30. He never captured the Zeitgeist like Frank Sinatra; nor did MTV enshrine him as a grand old hipster like Tony Bennett. He
cut an almost comical figure: squat, rotund, a little rumpled.
But if Torme looked like Zero Mostel, he was every inch a “cat”: a
virtually unrivaled vocal virtuoso who moved effortlessly from glorious
pop balladeering to quicksilver scat improvisations, singing with
breathtaking technical precision and still managing to wring genuine
feeling from every note. Ethel Waters once said: “Mel Torme is the
only white man who sings with the soul of a black man.” Count Basie
agreed: “The way Mel sings, he should have been black.”



His career traced a classic mid-century show-biz trajectory, complete
with vaguely vaudevillian beginnings, success as a child actor, parts
on radio plays and in movie musicals. He made his professional debut
at age 4, singing with the Coon-Sanders Orchestra in his hometown of
Chicago. When he was 13, he began writing songs. He would write
hundreds over the course of his career, including the classic “The
Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire …”); he was just 16
when Harry James made a hit of his song “Lament to Love.” Torme was a
musical polymath: In addition to singing and writing songs, he was a
fine pianist, a hard-swinging drummer in the mold of his longtime
friend Buddy Rich and an accomplished arranger who fashioned musical
settings for his songs that were as stylish, subtle and gracefully
colored as his vocals.

The Great American Songbook — the Tin Pan Alley and Broadway standards
of Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and
others — was Torme’s bible, and no singer ever brought those songs to
life with a greater combination of dizzying musicianship and dramatic
flair. It takes special skill to interpret those standards: They are
so highly crafted, there is such artifice and archness in the polish of
their lyrics, that only the most extraordinarily sensitive singers have
managed to keep them from seeming glib, have peeled back their
layers of wordplay, navigated their thickets of inside rhymes and puns,
to get at their core of emotional truth. It is perhaps because he
was a songwriter himself that Torme did it so well: With miraculous
intuition, he always seemed to alight on just the right note, stooping
into his lower register at a key moment, soaring into an ethereal,
pining croon, unleashing a burst of staccato syllables. He didn’t
impose as strong a personality on songs as some — he wasn’t a brooding
existentialist like Sinatra or Billie Holiday. But if he never reached
their blue depths, these singers never communicated joyfulness and sweetness the
way Torme did. The buoyant optimism implicit in so many of those
standards — that wonderful, mid-century American attitude, that
“whistling down the street in a snap-brim fedora” insouciance — found its
purest expression in Torme’s versions of songs like “It Might as Well
Be Spring,” “It’s Delovely,” “On the Street Where You Live” and
countless others.

Ella Fitzgerald was Torme’s only peer as a vocal virtuoso, but there
was a chilliness in Fitzgerald’s mastery utterly absent in the sunny
spaciousness of a Torme performance. His most fanciful vocal flights
were always made in the service of the song; his virtuoso flourishes
never hardened into tics. We can hear him at his freewheeling best in
a 1963 live concert recording of “Mountain Greenery,” one of Torme’s
signature songs. He begins the song ruminatively, accompanied only by
piano: “On the first of May, it is moving day,” he sings quietly,
delicately. But then the introduction ends, and suddenly Torme
is tearing through a double-time reading of the song — 32 bars
compressed into less than 30 seconds, disappearing in a blur of jazzy
vocal riffing, Torme sounding remarkably like a trumpet. In the second
chorus, Torme is still moving at blinding speed, but he has leapt across
an octave, singing a tart, angular gloss on the main melody line. The
third chorus arrives, the time is halved; but what sounds like a sassy,
swinging coda, shot through with bluesy ululations, yields yet again to
a double-time explosion of horn-like phrases, Torme racing past the
finish line with an almost dissonant, Dizzy Gillespie-esque exclamation
point: “Mountain Greeneryyy!” The performance is an archetypal Torme
tour de force: a two-minute, 45-second eruption of brain-boggling
creativity that never fails to convey the spirit of what is, after
all, an ode to the pleasures of shacking up in the countryside.

The last several months have seen the deaths of three of our greatest
song stylists: Sinatra, Joe Williams and Betty Carter. Now Torme,
every bit the equal of these giants, has joined them. His singing
embodied some of the most quintessentially American musical values:
geniality, sentimentality, urbanity, improvisatory panache. He bragged
that he knew more than 5,000 songs, that he was a living, breathing
encyclopedia of American popular music. To our great good fortune, an
abridged version of that encyclopedia, in the elegant shape of hundreds
of pitch-perfect recordings, survives him.

Jody Rosen is a Manhattan writer. He is currently working on a cultural history of the song "White Christmas."

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