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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


Every year now when I hear that seasonal hit...

(Soundbite of "The Christmas Song")

Mr. MEL TORME: (Singing) Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...

WAS: thoughts go back to Mel.

BRAND: Writer and musician David Was with a personal story about Mel Torme, who, along with being an impressive singer, arranger, actor and author, was also the composer of the holiday standard known simply as "The Christmas Song."

WAS: It seems like only yesterday I was working as a jazz critic and had occasion to hurl superlatives at the man known as "The Velvet Fog." My phone rang the following day, and a familiar voice began to speak. `You've got a marker on me, Babe.' Mel Torme was saying that he owed me one. He was handing me a voucher for his services. And as it turned out, I was able to avail myself of his offer shortly thereafter. My weird pop band, Was (Not Was), already had a guest vocal by Ozzy Osbourne on our second album. Wouldn't a cameo by Torme be a mellow dose of yang to counter Ozzy's satanic ranting? It was worth a shot.

I had recently written a murky lyric about a high school pal of my name Zazlo(ph), who fainted one day when a kid put the so-called sleeper wrestling hold on him. The song was called "Zaz Turned Blue," as in the color that his lips turned. P.J. Harvey recorded a version of it about 10 years ago.

(Soundbite of "Zaz Turned Blue")

Ms. P.J. HARVEY: (Singing) When Zaz turned blue...

WAS: Not exactly destined for the great American songbook, but, remember, I had that marker. So my partner, Don, and I sent Mel a demo. With Don listening in on another phone silently, I gingerly asked Mel for his reaction. (Mimicking Torme) `Listen, I've gotta tell you, Dave, it's not really my kind of material.' I tried to gild the lily by reminding Mel that it would open him up to a whole new audience. But he said that wasn't the issue. He (mimicking Torme) `loved what the kids were doing.' It just wasn't his kind of tune. Desperately and very nearly from the heart, I tried one last salvo. `Listen, Mel,' I said, `as far as the integrity of the song goes, I stand behind it 100 percent. But with you singing it, that only increases a thousand-fold.' (Mimicking Torme) `That's all I've been waiting to hear, Babe.'

Two weeks later Mel and his pianist, Mike Renzi, would record a version that turned the maudlin tale of a wrestling hold gone wrong into something with the wry poignancy of "Send In the Clowns."

(Soundbite of "Zaz Turned Blue")

Mr. TORME: (Singing) Zaz had red hair. He didn't care. He always laughed aloud. He wasn't proud.

WAS: Eventually Mel added the song to his concert repertoire, and it wound up on the four-CD boxed set that Rhino Records assembled of his work a few years after his death in 1999.

(Soundbite of "Zaz Turned Blue")

Mr. TORME: (Singing) Zaz turned blue.

WAS: We never recorded with Mel again, but he continued to take my pitches, including an idea for a jazz song cycle based loosely on Dante's "Inferno," which I had privately code named "Mel in Hell." So, Mel, I know it's been said many times, many ways, merry Christmas to you.

BRAND: David Was. He's half of the musical duo Was (Not Was).

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. TORME: (Singing) And to you, your carol, too, and God bless you and send you a happy new year, and God send a happy new year.

BRAND: Stay with us. DAY TO DAY continues in a moment.

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