We don’t bandy about much with the words child prodigy, but we will today. Mel Tormé first sang professionally at the age of four. He was born in September of 1925. So about the time the stock market crashes, he’s starting his professional career singing with an orchestra in Chicago. Hmmm.
As a mode of foreshadowing here, Mel attended Chicago’s Shakespeare Elementary School. (Did I mention the word prodigy?) He picked up the drums in elementary school. I should feel bad for his parents and neighbors—but hey this is Mel we’re talking about.
About the time he wrote his first song, he joined the bugle corp. Three years later, his first published song, “Lament to Love,” became a hit recording for Harry James. Yes, that Harry James . . . Not bad for a 16-year-old.
While still in his teens, he sang, arranged music, and played drums for a band led by Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers. Yet, the only way I can carry a tune is in a bucket.
In 1943 he made his movie debut in Frank Sinatra’s first film, the musical Higher and Higher. Let’s see, he graduated from high school until 1944.A very busy young man, he formed his own band called Mel Tormé and the Mel-Tones modeled after Frank Sinatra and The Pied Pipers around the same time.
In 1946 he collaborated with song writer Bob Wells and is best know for the Tormé-Wells song, “The Christmas Song,” You may know it as “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”. Tormé wrote the music to the song in 45 minutes sitting by the pool during a summer vacation. It was not one of his favorite songs, referring to it as “my annuity”.
It was his appearance in the 1947 film Good News that made him a teen idol for many years. Later in 1947, Tormé went went solo and while performing in New York’s legendary Copacabana (thank you Barry Manilow—yes I’m a Fannilow), he was given the nickname, “The Velvet Fog” by then local disc jockey, Fred Robbins, thinking to honor his high tenor and smooth vocal style, but Tormé detested the nickname. Tormé would later refer to it as “this Velvet Frog voice”.
During this time he perfected his scat improvisations but held a firm belief in staying true to the writer’s intent for the song.
Of course, I will always love him for his 1995 Mountain Dew commercial.
He was 70-years-old. You go Mel!
A stroke in 1996 ended his singing career and in 1999 another stroke ended his life—after he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Tormé works with the most beautiful voice a man is allowed to have, and he combines it with a flawless sense of pitch . . . . As an improviser he shames all but two or three other scat singers and quite a few horn players as well.” —Will Friedwald, Jazz Singing