When MelTormé died in 1999, the obituaries were respectful but not effusive. The New York Times, whose front-page obituary of Frank Sinatra described him as “the singer and actor whose extraordinary voice elevated popular song into an art,” dispatched Tormé in a piece a third as long in which the same writer, Stephen Holden, called him a “fluent pop-jazz singer” and “supreme vocal technician.”
The differences between the two pieces said much about Tormé and his problematic reputation. Carlos Gastel, his longtime manager, told Tormé in 1947, “you will never be the mass star you want to be, but there is a vast minority of people out there who will always support your work.” Gastel’s prediction came true, so much so that Whitney Balliett titled his perceptive 1981 New Yorker profile of Tormé “A Vast Minority.” Greatly admired by his fans, he was never loved in the way Sinatra was loved in his lifetime, or the way Tony Bennett is loved today. Not even his periodic guest appearances on Night Court, a hit TV sitcom of the 1980s whose star, Harry Anderson, was portrayed on screen as a crazed Tormé fan, could make him a full-fledged star.
Some have speculated that Tormé’s wide-ranging talents prevented him from focusing with single-minded determination on his career as a vocalist. Among other things, he was one of the few top-tier pop singers who wrote high-quality songs, the best remembered of which is “The Christmas Song” (better known to casual listeners as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”). He also wrote several very good books, not only about himself but also about other artists he had known. Moreover, Tormé did enough acting—most of it on series TV, on occasion in his own teleplays—to suggest that he could have had a successful career as a character actor. And in addition to all this, he was a talented arranger, a competent jazz drummer, and a more than serviceable pianist.
But for all his varied accomplishments, Tormé was a singer first and foremost, and his fellow singers knew his worth. Toward the end of his life, Bing Crosby was asked in an interview to name his favorite musicians, and the only vocalist he mentioned was Tormé: “Any singer that goes to hear this guy sing has got to go and cut his throat.” What was it, then, that kept Tormé out of the pop-culture pantheon? Was his stylish singing caviar to the general? Or was something else at fault?
Born in Chicago in 1925, Tormé was a self-taught musical prodigy who began performing professionally at the age of four and already had a finished vocal technique by the time he cut his first records in 1944. Indeed, the 19-year-old Tormé was already singing in much the same way that he would sing throughout his career.
Tormé had a soft-edged, fine-grained voice of a type uncommon among American singers of the ’40s. He was a high baritone who took his top notes either in pure falsetto or in a mixture of falsetto and chest voice, a technique familiar to classical musicians for its having been used by quintessentially French vocalists such as Pierre Bernac and Gérard Souzay.
Notwithstanding the acute accent that he added to his last name to clarify its pronunciation, Tormé came from a family of Russian Jews. Even so, his sweet-toned singing had more in common with the likes of Bernac and Souzay than with the school-of-Sinatra lyric baritones who dominated American pop music with their warmly Italianate timbres and muscular middle registers. Tormé’s voice, which suited the ballads in which he then specialized, stood out by contrast.
Fred Robbins, a New York disc jockey, dubbed Tormé “The Velvet Fog” in 1946. To his intense displeasure, this nickname stuck with him for the rest of his life. Yet it aptly describes the singing heard on “Blue Moon,” “A Foggy Day,” and the other ballads he recorded in the ’40s and early ’50s, which reveal him to have been far more than just another pretty voice. From a technical point of view, they are impeccable: The young Tormé sang with open, rounded vowels, a smoothly floating legato, a precisely controlled vibrato, and diction that was clear and expressive without shading into fussiness. (He even had a perfect trill, an achievement usually restricted to coloratura sopranos.) As a lifelong film buff who had worked as a child actor on network radio, he was always a text-conscious singer who knew that there is more to a song than its tune. He profited early on from a conversation with the bandleader Glenn Miller, who looked at some of his novice attempts at songwriting and warned him that “where popular songs are concerned, the words, the idea behind the song, is what makes it work.”
Another key aspect of Tormé’s style that was rarely heard in the ’40s was its jazziness. Except for Nat Cole, who had started out as a jazz pianist before becoming a full-time vocalist, no other American pop singer of the postwar era was as completely at ease with the rhythmic language of jazz. Even as a young man, Tormé could swing on equal terms with such major jazzmen as Red Norvo and Artie Shaw, both of whom accompanied him on record to brilliant effect. Whenever it suited him, he recast the melodies of the songs that he sang with the freedom of an instrumentalist. His improvised “scat” singing was comparable in quality to Ella Fitzgerald’s, and his arrangements for the Mel-Tones, the vocal group with which he worked in the first years of his career, reveal that he had a sure grasp of the chromatic subtleties of modern jazz harmony—an achievement all the more impressive given the fact that he had no musical training. (A case in point is “The Christmas Song,” one of the most harmonically complex songs ever to become a hit.)
Tormé’s initial popularity as a mainstream balladeer declined sharply after 1950, around the same time that Frank Sinatra emerged from his postwar slump to become the most influential pop singer of the time. Sensing that his own style was in urgent need of a makeover, he signed with Bethlehem, an independent jazz record label, in 1955. Given complete freedom to, in essence, produce his own albums, Tormé took a decisive turn toward jazz and in the process came into his own as a mature artist.
Tormé described himself in later years as “a jazz-oriented singer,” adding, “I do not believe there’s such a thing as a jazz singer.” The point is arguable, but it was, in his case, a distinction without a difference. Not only did he give freer rein to his improvisational instincts, but instead of recording with the big-band-plus-strings studio orchestras that Sinatra favored, he preferred to work with a compact 10-piece jazz band whose arrangements, written by Marty Paich and played by some of the top jazzmen of the ’50s, were consciously modeled on Miles Davis’s groundbreaking “Birth of the Cool” recordings of 1949 and 1950.
In 1956, the two men released Mel Tormé and the Marty Paich Dek-tette, an album whose easy, relaxed swing and extreme harmonic sophistication were directly derived from the “cool jazz” that flourished on the West Coast, where Tormé was based. Yet he had not lost his knack for balladry, and the version of Harold Arlen’s “When the Sun Comes Out” included on that album is a landmark example of the singer’s artistry. This unusually slow performance combines vocal beauty with an understated, rhythmically supple interpretation of Ted Koehler’s torchy lyric: “Suddenly the cyclone came/I’ll never be the same.”
While Tormé never recorded anything better than “When the Sun Comes Out,” he matched it repeatedly in the course of the next decade, especially when he and Paich’s Dek-tette joined forces again nine months later to make Mel Tormé Sings Fred Astaire, a collection of 11 songs premiered by the man he would later call “my idol, my favorite singer.” He sang them all with a supreme lightness of touch that recalls the master himself (most notably in Johnny Mercer’s “Something’s Gotta Give”). His subsequent work on record and in performance solidified his critical reputation, but Tormé never became anything like a rival in popularity to Sinatra or Tony Bennett, and his failure to do so, according to his friends, would nag at him forever after.
It is clear in retrospect that his jazziness was part of the problem. After the swing era ended in the mid-’40s, no jazz performer would ever again win lasting popularity with American music lovers, whose tastes had moved in other directions. And unlike Sinatra and Bennett, whose styles were at all times deeply informed by big-band jazz while remaining rooted in the more immediately accessible language of pop music, Tormé wholeheartedly embraced modern jazz starting in 1955, thus making it harder for him to reach out to listeners who preferred a “straighter” interpretative approach.
But there was more to it than that. “It is a good idea to allow some small piece of unhappiness from your life to be a part of your work every night,” Tormé told Whitney Balliett. “It gives your singing depth.” No doubt he did just that, but the results were emotionally restrained, at times even distanced—more in the manner of Astaire or Bing Crosby than that of Sinatra, who always dramatized the ballads he sang. To compare the two men’s recordings of “Lonely Town” is to hear the difference: Sinatra “reads” the Betty Comden–Adolph Green lyric as if he were a character in a play delivering a monologue about loneliness in the big city, whereas Tormé places the emphasis on Leonard Bernstein’s long-arched melody, singing the words clearly and sensitively but without the controlled but explicit passion that was central to Sinatra’s popular success.
Just as important, Tormé lacked the sex appeal that Sinatra possessed in abundance. In part this was a function of his unprepossessing physical appearance, which was nicely captured by Balliett: “He is a small man, with a Romanesque face that leans toward Charles Laughton one moment and Mickey Rooney the next.” It was in large part for this reason that Tormé, unlike Sinatra, was never able to establish himself as a leading man in the movies, and it almost certainly played a part in his failure to become a pop idol.
In addition, Tormé by most accounts had the self-defensive arrogance of a highly intelligent man lacking in formal education (the critic-lyricist Gene Lees tartly described him as “innocent of modesty”). This arrogance was very different in quality from Sinatra’s seductive self-confidence, and it could be off-puttingly evident in his onstage manner, though rarely in his actual singing. Audiences are acutely responsive to such things, and there can be little doubt that this aspect of Tormé’s personality contributed to his inability to become the “mass star” that he longed to be.
Like everyother pop singer of his generation (Sinatra very much included), Tormé found it agonizingly difficult to come to terms with the arrival of the Beatles and the subsequent rise of rock ’n’ roll.
Pressured by executives at Atlantic, Capitol, and Columbia, where he worked between 1964 and 1974, Tormé recorded dozens of contemporary songs that he later described as “some of the worst dreck you can imagine—to no avail.” Having spent a decade squandering his talents on such unsuitable fare as “Games People Play,” “Spinning Wheel,” and “Sunshine Superman,” he despaired once again of the major labels and in 1982 signed with Concord Jazz, formed an artistic partnership with the jazz pianist George Shearing, and returned with relief to the golden-age standards that he had always sung so well.
By then his voice had grown somewhat deeper in range and noticeably thicker in texture, and though it retained its basic character to the end, his interpretations gradually became more fulsome, at times even overblown, especially in the production-number medleys that he now favored. For the first time, his jazziness hardened into mannerism, though some of his work with Shearing continued to impress. But while he enjoyed a late renaissance of popularity that lasted until a stroke forced him into retirement three years before his death in 1999, it was hard for those who recalled the breathtaking purity of his singing in the ’40s and ’50s to feel at ease with the way that he sang the same songs in the ’80s and ’90s.
Now that Tormé is gone, I rarely if ever listen to his later albums, fine though many of them are. But I still return over and over again to Mel Tormé and the Marty Paich Dek-tette, Mel Tormé Sings Fred Astaire, and the other classic recordings of the ’50s that display his virtues to the best possible advantage. Perhaps they are, as the saying goes, the work of a “singer’s singer” who lacked the popular touch without which no artist can hope to capture the hearts of the public at large. But they are masterpieces all the same, and the fact that Mel Tormé knew how good they were—and was on occasion too quick to say so—does not diminish their excellence in the least. No one, not even Frank Sinatra himself, ever sang America’s great popular songs more beautifully.