Monday, September 13, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mel Tormé

Born on September 13 in the year of 1925 (which also brought the world June Christy, Johnny Carson, Dick Van Dyke and Sammy Davis, Jr.), the consummate entertainer and jazz singer (as well as the songwriter of "The Christmas Song"), Mel Tormé.

After his first published song, "Lament to Love," became a hit recording for Harry James, Mel played drums in the early 1940's touring band of comedian/musician Chico Marx and joined forces with a vocal quintet of Los Angeles City College students as their lead vocalist and principal arranger. Dubbed The Mel-Tones, the vocal quintet was hired by Musicraft Records to make cutting-edge swing recordings with jazz clarinet icon Artie Shaw to counter Frank Sinatra's popular Columbia recordings with The Axel Stordahl Orchestra.

In late 1946, Mel struck out on his own as a solo artist, and in 1949, had his first number one hit, 'Careless Love'. He soon began making a series of recordings - some of his own original material (County Fair, etc.) - with the Page Cavanaugh Trio. Here's one of his early solo appearances.

Mel continued performing amazing music in the 50's, and in particular did stellar work in a series of recordings with The Marty Paich Orchestra (a veritable Who's Who of West Coast jazz at the time), many on the Verve label.

He hosted his own show in 1951-1952 and made numerous television appearances. Among them: scatting with Ella Fitzgerald; singing Bobby Timmons; "Dat Dere" on Ralph Gleason's Jazz Casual show.

Like Sammy Davis, Jr., Mel did more than just a little bit of acting on the side; , after getting his start with parts on such radio serials as Jack Armstrong: All-American Boy and The Romance Of Helen Trent, his role in the 1943 musical Higher And Higher (which also was Frank Sinatra's screen debut), would be the first of
over 30 appearances in films and television. Particularly notable was his vivid performance in Rod Serling's Emmy-winning episode of Playhouse 90, The Comedian portraying the sad sack "whipping boy" brother of an abusive monster of a TV star, Sammy Hogarth, played with tremendous relish by the post-noir Mickey Rooney

Mel could also play the drums, and sometimes got behind the kit in his own performances, as well as during such "drum battles" as this one with Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton.

He wrote five books, three in the last nine years of his life, including a biography of his pal Buddy Rich, who he performed with on a number of occasions, including this scat-fest on The Merv Griffin Show:

The book I have wanted to read very much was Mel's
first hard account of his (without a doubt) never-a-dull-moment stint as music director on Judy Garland's TV show.

If anything, Mel's swingin' music just got better and better with the decades. From 1982 onwards, he recorded prolifically with Concord Records, including four albums with pianist George Shearing.

Some of my favorite performances he ever did were from his long partnership with Shearing. They sounded great together; each gave each other plenty of room to be creative, while backing off and letting the other shine when necessary. And here's plenty of proof:

Swing on! Thanks for the memories, Mel.


Anonymous said...

It takes a tough little guy to be a velvet fog.

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

There's a moment in Mel's autobiography in which he tells about a day in which he phoned his then-spouse to tell her that the storage facility that housed all his belongings and classic cars burned to the ground - and, as the conversation continued, his wife informed Mel she was leaving him.

Not that's one bad day, and he was one tough little guy.