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 well be.

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 6/8/1999

Details of Rod's next appearance can be obtained by following the link below.

"Tap Your Troubles Away" - the music of Jerry Herman

notable birthdays Jean Arp o Lauren Bacall o Tina Barrett o Elgin Baylor o Ed Begley, Jr. o Sherilyn Bottoms o Gwen Bristow o Charlie Byrd o Rosemary Casals o Matt Chanoff o George Chakiris o David Copperfield o Peter Falk o Anne Francis o Allen Funt o Piero Gamba o Linda Kaye Henning o Kenny Jones o Jack Kelly o B. B. King o John Knowles o Janis Paige o J. C. Penny o Harrison Francis Parkman o Mickey Rourke o Reverend Robert Schuller o Ben Shields o Jennifer Tilly o Robin Yount o Madeline Zima
Rod's random thoughts If there is rest at all, we take our ease not on some hill of clouds or in the middle ocean. The notion that the earth is merely a departing place is hardly worth the time it takes to say so. Heaven and hell may fire our imagination, but surely ground-to-ground alone is home.

Each man wants another handful of happiness or what are aspirations for?

Love words roll from the tongue like ill advice. Be careful.

IN JUDGMENT
for Burt Lancaster

How can we judge
and be the jury
Knowing little – if anything at all
dole out a sentence
in a single sentence
when crimes against ourselves
are made up
and manufactured
as a means of mystery
or just another thing to do?

I extend my hand to you
whatever your prejudice
                 predilection.
We can work it out.
If not, it’s nice to say
                  we tried.

-from “Folio #14", Summer, 1977

 
© 1969, 1972, 1977, 1999 2001 by Stanyan Music Group & Rod McKuen. All Rights Reserved
Birthday research by Wade Alexander o Poetry from the collection of Jay Hagan o Coordinated by Melinda Smith
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