Jazz Profiles from NPR
Mel Tormé
Produced by Paul Conley

Mel Tormé  

Mel Tormé was the consummate entertainer: As a drummer, singer, composer, arranger, lyricist, writer and actor, his career spanned nearly the entire 20th century. Blessed with impeccable timing and a smooth, mellow timbre, Tormé was known during his heyday as "The Velvet Fog."

Listen to pianist Steve Allen, guitarist John Pizzarelli, writer Will Friedwald, singer Maureen McGovern, and pianist John Leitham talk about Tormé

The son of Russian immigrants, Melvin Howard Tormé was born in Chicago, Illinois, on September 13, 1925, and grew up on the city's south side. In 1929, at the age of four, he began his singing career with the Coon-Sanders Orchestra, which led to a role on the popular radio program, "Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy."

Listen to Mel tell how his family's strong work ethic kept him grounded as a child star

In high school, Mel's attention had turned to jazz, particularly the music of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw. He played drums and piano and also began to explore his lyrical skills. One of the tunes he penned at this time, "Lament to Love," was recorded by Harry James and played on The Hit Parade.

Marx Brothers  

Mel's first real break came when the Marx Brothers hired him to play drums in their backing band. After he moved with his family to Los Angeles, he joined a band called "The School-Kids." They soon changed their name to "The Mel-tones," and Tormé became the group's lead singer and arranger.

Listen to Steve Allen and Mel talk about his early days with The Marx Brothers (left).

The Mel-Tones became a success and Tormé quickly found himself recording with his boyhood idols Bing Crosby and Artie Shaw. It was during this period that Tormé met and began to write with Robert Wells.

Listen to vocalist Ginny Mancini explain what Mel brought to the Mel-Tones' sound

Of over 300 compositions written by Tormé, nearly half share writing credits with Wells, including "Born To Be Blue" and "Willow Road." In 1946, the duo took just half-an-hour to write "Christmas Song," which was made a classic by the great Nat King Cole.

Listen to Mel recall the making of "The Christmas Song"

In the 1940s Mel's manager, Carlos Gastel, encouraged him to sing in a light, wispy style. The approach earned him the adoration of thousands of young women along with an unforgettable nickname, "The Velvet Fog."

By 1947, Tormé had left the Mel-tones, and his solo work with Capitol had generated a number of hit records. He was performing at the nation's premier nightclubs and appearing in films, including Words and Music with Frank Sinatra and Mickey Rooney. The movie produced Tormé's hit tune, "Blue Moon."

In 1949, he recorded Capitol's first 12" LP, California Suite. The album earned rave reviews and proved a financial success for both the label and the artist. But at the peak of his popularity, Tormé wanted a change.

Listen to Mel share his dissatisfaction with his early pop career

In '55, I just called a halt. I've had enough of these bloody, creamy, boring ballads and this froggy, foggy kind of singing.
--Mel Tormé  

In 1952, Tormé left Capitol and signed with the small jazz label, Bethlehem Records. The label's owner, Red Clyde firmly believed in giving total creative control to his artists. Tormé began working with arranger Marty Paich and his 10-piece band, "The Dek-tette."

Listen to Tormé recall his signing deal on Bethlehem records

While signed on Bethlehem, Tormé began experimenting with scatting and chromatic vamping approaches, as exemplified in "Lulu's Back In Town." This rich era ended in 1957 when the popularity of rock-n-roll forced Bethlehem to close its doors.

Listen to Friedwald and Shearing reflect on Mel's Bethlehem period

The late 1950's and early 1960's found Tormé wandering from label to label and in 1961, he experienced what can only be described as an artistic nightmare. He signed to Atlantic Records, and the famous Ertegun brothers encouraged him to try his hand at rock-n-roll.

The Atlantic Records sessions were disastrous, but Tormé quickly adapted, moving on to become musical director for the Judy Garland Television Show. He wrote for magazines and penned books on Garland and Buddy Rich. He went back to acting and eventually earned an Emmy nomination for his work in The Comedian.

Listen to former manager Dale Sheets and Mel discuss his frustrations of being a jazz singer in the rock-n-roll era

The 1970s saw Tormé experience a revival of his singing career. His voice had gained a deeper, fuller range and he worked on an extended Gershwin medley for his live performances, earning him a Grammy nomination for arrangement.

George Shearing  

In 1977, the pairing of Tormé with George Shearing at Carnegie Hall proved fortuitous: the two would work together for the next 20 years, producing 15 albums for Concord and winning two Grammy Awards along the way.

Listen to Mel and George Shearing reflect on their musical bond

When Tormé died in June 1999, he had clearly established himself not only as one of the greatest jazz singers of all time, but as a great all-around entertainer as well.


View the Mel Tormé show playlist


More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org


More InfoBrowse the Concord Records' Mel Tormé Web page