A fiery presence at the mic and on the silver screen
Also known as the “Velvet Fog,” Mel Tormé enchanted the world with his unforgettable compositions. He was born in Chicago on September 13, 1925. The child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, they had changed their last name from Torma to Tormé upon arriving to America -- thus the unusual name. Tormé was seen as a vocal prodigy from a very early age. He got his first singing gig at age 4, performing “You’re Driving Me Crazy” with the Coon-Sanders Orchestra for $15 a night at Chicago’s Blackhawk restaurant. He continued working in show business, learning drums and songwriting while performing on syndicated radio shows like ''The Romance of Helen Trent'' and ''Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.”
He wrote his first hit in 1941 at the age of 16, when Harry James recorded his “Lament to Love.” In 1942, Tormé sang, played drums, and wrote songs for a band led by Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers. One year later, he starred alongside Frank Sinatra in the film Higher and Higher, which led to a close association to Sinatra that would characterize much of his career. In fact, he formed his own band in 1944 -- the Mel-Tones, inspired by Frank Sinatra and his Pied Pipers.
Based out of California, Mel Tormé and the Mel-Tones recorded a number of hits in the early- to mid-‘40s, including a cover of Cole Porter’s "What Is This Thing Called Love?" In 1947, at the age of 21, Tormé starred in another film, Good News, making him a pop superstar and teen idol. Later that year, he dropped the Mel-Tones and went solo. During a residency at New York’s Copacabana, a local DJ gave him the nickname the “Velvet Fog,” due to his exceptionally smooth voice.
He recorded a number of ballads on his own throughout the ‘40s, often teaming up with the Artie Shaw Orchestra. Though his 1949 single “Careless Hands” would be his only chart topper, Tormé later became known for another song recorded that year -- “Blue Moon,” still a slow-dance standard to this day. Another ‘40s hit for Tormé was “The Christmas Song.” Though Nat King Cole popularized the song, Tormé and frequent collaborator Bob Wells wrote the song in 1946. Tormé says he and Wells wrote it in the middle of a hot summer in an effort to keep cool. Starting with “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and going from there, he says they wrote the song in under an hour.
The ‘40s would be Tormé’s heyday. In addition to being a teen idol, bandleader, and prolific songwriter, he was the undisputed King of Cool Jazz. As a stark contrast to the hard-hitting bebop style coming out of New York City nightclubs, cool jazz emphasized slower tempos, more traditional melodies, and a softer, ballad style of singing. He, Cole, and Sinatra made it a mainstay on the charts.
Eventually, though, the popularity of cool jazz gave way to rock and roll in the early ‘50s. Though Tormé continued recording jazz throughout the decade, he never reached the same level of commercial success. He briefly wrote and arranged music for CBS’s Judy Garland Show, but was fired after a disagreement with Garland.
The ‘70s and beyond were much kinder to Tormé. As jazz became popular once more, he received offers to tour and record new music. His annual residency at Michael's Pub became a staple of the Manhattan music scene, and he was eventually asked to play Carnegie Hall in 1977. Throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Tormé continued writing and recording new music, touring the globe, and even reprising his role as an actor on many television shows. He died in Los Angeles at the age of 73 on June 5, 1999.
Tormé paved the way for the mainstream success of cool jazz. Bands like The Hi-Los and The Four Freshman quickly followed on the heels of Tormé and his Mel-Tones, though none could reach his level of fame. An impressive all-around musician, Tormé can’t be remembered for just one thing. His rich, velvety voice lives on in “Blue Moon,” while his amazing songwriting skill can be seen to this day in “The Christmas Song.”