SOME OF THE BEST
8 June 1999
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A Thought for Today
All of us are here on borrowed time; it’s
up to each of us to make the most of it.
Last Thursday Mel Tormé would
have turned 78. Here are some thoughts I had about my old friend on the
occasion of his death in 1999.
MEL TORME (1923-1999)
Mel Tormé was everything a
great singer ought to be. Unerring in his choice of material to perform,
inventive when it came to phrasing and sure and secure in the way he put
his act together and paced his performances.
His musicianship was envied and legendary among other singers and he had
an ear that never let him stray from perfect pitch. As a musician and
composer himself, he had such a respect for songwriters that no matter how
far he strayed from the melody while scatting, inventing an on the spot
vamp or expanding on a phrase for the sheer joy of it, he always found his
way back to the original line. What's more he got back to the melody
logically as if the composer himself had written the variation.
I met Mel in the 60's when we used to have parties and musical evenings at
the Holmby Hills house. It was not unusual to find Johnny Mercer, Eartha
Kitt, Peggy Lee, Dick Haymes and Doris Day crowded around the same piano
listening to Mel (who loved to play and sing) and joining in or providing
their own mini-sets.
Sinatra dropped by one evening and though he was notorious for not singing
at parties - even his own - joined Mel in a duet of "The Christmas Song."
Then soloed as Mel played "A Stranger In Town." Everyone who knew Mel
loved him as a musician and a person.
It seems to me that over a too short lifetime Mel did it all. As an actor
he was successful in radio, television (even nominated for an Emmy) and in
films he was under contract to the Tiffany of all studios, MGM.
As a singer he went from bobby sox idol of the forties to 'dependable'
soloist and supper club singer of the sixties and in the last several
decades he has reigned as one of the world’s greatest Jazz singers. Over
the years his various song styles helped make a number of standards
including 'Blue Moon", "It Might As Well Be Spring," "Again," "Mountain
Greenery" and "Oh You Beautiful Doll." His recordings ranged from the very
mellow tracks with The Mel-Tones, Artie Shaw and his orchestra and the
Marty Paich Dektette to sides with the complete who’s who of important
arrangers. In later years his musical pairing with George Shearing created
some of the best records either artist ever made.
He teemed with Lyricist Bob Wells to write two enduring American
standards, "The Christmas Song" and the only slightly lesser known "Born
To Be Blue." Their other compositions included "County Fair" and "Willow
Road." On his own, Tormé wrote words and music to "Stranger In Town,"
"That’s Where I Came In," "A Day In The Life of Bonnie And Clyde," "Lament
To Love," "Jet Set," "Swingin' On The Moon," "I'm Gonna Miss You" "I've
Got A World That Swings." And an album long tribute to ‘The Golden State,’
"The California Suite" which includes "Got The Gate On The Golden Gate"
and "Poor Little Extra Girl." His songs are said to number over 300.
During the summer of 1948 he reassembled the recently disbanded Mel-Tones
for an NBC series called "The Mel Tormé Show. " In it, Mel was this
college kid, see, and each show used a loose plot line of Mel & his girl
friend Janet Waldo's adventures at the malt shop, where he worked after
class, and dear old Fairmont College. That was the device to string
together standards and the great film and show songs of the day. Yep, NBC
was only too happy to climb on the bandwagon of his hit film from the year
before, MGM's "Good News," So having graduated from that films' Tate
College he went straight to Fairmont. He and the shows musical director,
Dean Elliott, wrote a tongue twister called "The Geometric Blues" and the
shows theme song "Fairmont College."
It follows that in later years Mel contributed most of his own lyrics to
the melodies he wrote, after all his books of prose were lauded by many of
the harshest literary critics. They included a devastating back stage
account of his years as music coordinator and advisor of "The Judy Garland
Television Show," (The Other Side of The Rainbow,) his autobiography "It
Wasn't All Velvet" and a novel.
Beyond all else Mel was a singer. One of the most gifted ever. He claimed
to loathe the nickname "The Velvet Fog," bestowed on him by a disc jockey.
I always thought it was perfectly apt. That agile, creamy voice was never
less than velvet and the misty romance his singing evoked was the perfect
fog for lovers everywhere. Thanks to dozens and dozens of albums it always
Mel Torme was hip without being obvious, soulful sans the baggage that
usually comes with the term and as intelligent as a full time scholar. His
voice and sound were uniquely his own, owing nothing to anybody. How many
singers is it possible to say all that about?
Over the weekend Wade recalled a spur of the moment dinner we had with Mel
and Phyllis McGuire when we were all in New York for Night of a Hundred
Stars, II at Radio City. We talked about a lot of things including
clinical depression, which he had successfully kicked and I was sinking
deeper into. He called it "A grave you dig for yourself." That reminder
helped me fight my way back. This was in February of 1985 and Mel was 69
years old and singing better than he ever had. The night of the show a
jazz summit featuring Mel, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Woody Herman and
Bradford and Wynton Marsalis brought the house down.
Once after a long concert at Santa Monica Civic I came home exhausted to
find that Edward had invited "a few friends" in for an after-concert
party. I was bushed and went up to bed early. The last thing I remembered
as I settled in to sleep was Mel's voice drifting up to me from the living
room singing Mercer's lyric to "P.S. I Love You." No sweeter lullaby in
any sweeter voice ever lulled someone to dreamland.
Goodnight Mel, I love you. But, who doesn't?
- RM 6/7/99 First published
Details of Rod's next
appearance can be obtained by following the link below.
Your Troubles Away" - the music of Jerry Herman