Full name Melvin Howard Torme; born September 13, 1925, in Chicago, Ill.; son of William (a retail merchant) and Sarah Sopkin (a sheet music demonstrator) Torme; married Candy Toxton (an actress) 1949 (divorced 1955); married Arlene Mills (a model) 1956 (divorced 1966); married Janette Scott (an actress) 1966 (divorced 1977); children: five in total. Addresses: Agent-- c/o Dale Sheets & Associates, Suite 206, 3518 W. Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif. 90068.
Singer-songwriter Mel Torme, often referred to as "the Velvet Fog," has had a long and varied career. He sang with big bands during the 1940s but became more jazz-oriented in the 1950s; his more recent concert appearances have included a mixture of both jazz and old ballad standards. Torme has played in the best clubs in the United States, including the Copacabana and Marty's in New York City; he is also very popular in the venue of the larger hotels of Las Vegas, Nevada. Multitalented, Torme has acted in many films and appeared often on television; he has also written for the latter medium. As for his musical compositions, they are many and include the holiday classic, "The Christmas Song." He continues to record successfully, and his 1982 album An Evening With George Shearing and Mel Torme garnered him a Grammy Award.
Torme was born September 13, 1925, in Chicago, Illinois, to Jewish-Russian immigrant parents. His father was a retail merchant, and his mother worked as a sheet-music demonstrator at a Woolworth's store; she taught Torme all the new songs from an early age. Young Torme also loved to listen to the radio, and was memorizing musical arrangements before kindergarten. He told Chris Albertson in Stereo Review: "I had my electric train, little fire engines, and all that stuff, but the radio was my favorite toy, and I loved the bands." His family would also gather on the porch after their Sabbath dinner and sing together. When Torme was four years old, his parents took him to hear one of his favorite radio bands, the Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawk Orchestra. One of the bandleaders spotted the small boy sitting in the first row, singing and tapping his feet to the music, and invited him up to sing with them. The experience turned into Torme's first job as a performer, and he appeared weekly with the Nighthawk Orchestra for a time. At some point during his youth, Torme had his tonsils removed, and strangely enough, they partially grew back--some critics credit a certain fuzziness in his voice to this odd occurrence.
Torme also served as a radio actor during his childhood, giving voice to characters in programs such as "The Romance of Helen Trent," "Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy," and "Lights Out." Perhaps because of this early fame, he did not fare well with his classmates; he confessed to Whitney Balliet in the New Yorker that he "got beaten up regularly." Torme also credits his life-long aversion to smoking to some bullies who forced him to eat tobacco as a child. But he was happier in high school. He played drums in a group that included future entertainer Steve Allen on the piano; the two became good friends.
While still in high school, Torme began to audition for more mature spots with big bands. When he was fifteen, he almost made the cut for the famed Harry James band, but his age would have meant an added expense for the group--by law they would have had to hire a tutor for him. Nevertheless, James decided to record the song that Torme auditioned with--Torme's own composition, "Lament for Love." The song proved so successful that other big bands recorded it, and it was performed on the radio show "Your Hit Parade."
A few years later, in 1942, Torme won a place with the West Coast-based Chico Marx band; he served as rhythm singer and arranged the band's vocal performances. Though the band broke up eleven months after he joined it, Torme was spotted in its farewell appearance by an executive from the RKO motion picture studios, who signed him for his first film role. Torme acted with famed singer Frank Sinatra in the 1943 movie Higher and Higher. More film rolls followed, and he appeared in pictures such as Pardon My Rhythm, Let's Go Steady, Good News, and Words and Music during the 1940s.
At about the same time as his film career took off, Torme was recording with a backup group called the Mel-Tones and performing in the better clubs, and, as Albertson reported, was saddled with the nickname, "the Velvet Fog." The crooner now feels this was a misnomer, and explained to Albertson that "that whole 'velvet fog' sound, that sort of head-toney, creamy, wispy sound, was--well, I can't say manufactured, because I was singing legitimately, but not as robustly as I could have been." Torme added that later, during the 1950s he "was able to relax and open up, and sing like I really like to sing .... My whole range has gained at least an octave, and I just don't sing like I used to.... The 'Velvet Fog' ... simply does not fit."
In addition to a change in his vocal stylings during the 1950s, Torme moved away somewhat from the big band sound in favor of a more purely jazz repertoire. While singing jazz in small clubs, Torme also continued to make his mark on other media. A stint as substitute host on fellow entertainer Perry Como's television show garnered him his own daytime talk show on CBS. Torme acted for television, too--his performance in the 1958 CBS television film The Comedian won him an Emmy nomination for best supporting actor. Torme's big-screen films during the 1950s included Girls Town and The Big Operator. He began the 1960s with the motion picture The Private Lives of Adam and Eve.
Despite Torme's long-lived popularity as a performer, he has not been terribly successful in terms of making hit records. His disc of his self-composed classic "The Christmas Song," was overshadowed by singer Nat King Cole's smash-hit version of the same. In fact, Torme only made it into the top forty on the charts with a single once--"Comin' Home, Baby," which he released in 1962. Yet during the 1960s he won more critical claim for his talents, which he put to use as music writer and adviser to "The Judy Garland Show," among other projects. Torme also wrote for television, and was involved with the NBC series "The Virginian" and "Run for Your Life." In 1971 he was the host for ABC's documentary series "It Was a Very Good Year," and during the 1980s he has made several guest appearances on the NBC comedy series "Night Court."
During the 1970s--and well beyond--Torme's musical popularity has experienced a new vitality because of a renewed interest in the jazz genre. He has received two Grammy Awards for the albums he recorded with pianist George Shearing, and he has told interviewers, including Albertson, that he is proudest of the discs he has recorded since 1976, when he released Mel Torme Live at the Maisonette. Torme is also justifiably proud of the mixed composition of his fans; he boasted to Albertson: "My audience is filled with extremely young yuppies, not just a mass of snow-white heads."
by Elizabeth Thomas
Mel Torme's Career
Singer, songwriter, piano, drums, ukelele; jazz, big band, ballads; has sung professionally with bands off and on since the age of four; was a child actor in radio shows, including "The Romance of Helen Trent," "Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy," and "Lights Out"; began writing songs while still in high school; appeared in over twenty films, including Higher and Higher, RKO, 1943, Pardon My Rhythm, Universal, 1944, Let's Go Steady, Columbia, 1945, Good News, MGM, 1947, Words and Music, MGM, 1948, Girls Town, MGM, 1959, The Big Operator, MGM, 1959, The Private Lives of Adam and Eve, Universal, 1960. Appeared in television programs, including "The Comedian," 1957, and the series "Night Court"; had own television talk show during 1950s, has written and produced for television, served as musical writer and advisor for "The Judy Garland Show," 1963-64. Has also written books, including a novel, an autobiography, and an account of his experiences with Garland.
Mel Torme's Awards
Emmy nomination for best supporting actor for "The Comedian," 1957; Grammy Award for best male vocalist in 1983, on An Evening with George Shearing and Mel Torme, and another Grammy for best male jazz vocal, 1984.
- Selective Works
- Mel Torme Live at the Maisonette Atlantic, 1976.
- Mel Torme and Friends Finesse, c. 1981.
- An Evening With George Shearing and Mel Torme Concord, 1982.
- Mel Torme With Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass Concord, c.
- Mel Torme and George Shearing: A Vintage Year Concord, 1988.
- Has also recorded many albums on various labels, including Together Again--For the First Time with the late drummer Buddy Rich, and A New Album.
- It Wasn't All Velvet: An Autobiography Viking, 1988.
- New Yorker, March 16, 1981.
- People, December 1, 1986.
- Stereo Review, March 1987; August 1988.