Melvin Howard Tormé, born September 13, 1925, in Chicago, Illinois, was an American musician, best known for his jazz singing — hence his nickname — The Velvet Fog.
Mel Tormé was also a jazz composer, arranger, drummer, an actor in radio, film, and television, and the author of five books. He composed the music for the classic holiday song “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) and co-wrote the lyrics with Bob Wells.
Mel’s parents were Russian Jewish immigrants whose surname had been Torma — the name was changed at Ellis Island to “Torme.” A child prodigy, he first sang professionally at the age of 4 with the Coon-Sanders Orchestra, singing “You’re Driving Me Crazy” at Chicago’s Blackhawk restaurant.
Between 1933 and 1941, he acted in the network radio serials The Romance of Helen Trent and Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. He wrote his first song at 13, and three years later, his first published song, “Lament to Love,” became a hit recording for Harry James. He played drums in Chicago’s Shakespeare Elementary School drum and bugle corps in his early teens. While a teenager, he sang, arranged, and played drums in a band led by Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers. His formal education ended in 1944 with his graduation from Chicago’s Hyde Park High School.
In 1943, Tormé made his movie debut in Frank Sinatra’s first film, the musical Higher and Higher. He went on to sing and act in many films and television episodes throughout his career, even hosting his own television show in 1951–52. His appearance in the 1947 film musical Good News made him a teen idol for a few years.
In 1944 he formed the vocal quintet “Mel Tormé and His Mel-Tones,” modeled on Frank Sinatra and The Pied Pipers. The Mel-Tones, which included Les Baxter and Ginny O’Connor, had several hits fronting Artie Shaw’s band and on their own, including Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” The Mel-Tones were among the first jazz-influenced vocal groups, blazing a path later followed by The Hi-Lo’s, The Four Freshmen, and The Manhattan Transfer.
On drums, Tormé performed with Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson. Later in 1947, Tormé went solo. His singing at New York’s Copacabana led a local disc jockey, Fred Robbins, to give him the nickname “The Velvet Fog,” thinking to honor his high tenor and smooth vocal style, but Tormé detested the nickname. He self-deprecatingly referred to it as “this Velvet Frog voice”. As a solo singer, he recorded several romantic hits for Decca (1945), and with the Artie Shaw Orchestra on the Musicraft label (1946–48). In 1949, he moved to Capitol Records, where his first record, “Careless Hands,” became his only number one hit. His versions of “Again” and “Blue Moon” became signature tunes. His composition “California Suite,” prompted by Gordon Jenkins’ “Manhattan Tower,” became Capitol’s first 12-inch LP album. Around this time, he helped pioneer cool jazz.
From 1955 to 1957, Tormé recorded seven jazz vocal albums for Red Clyde’s Bethlehem Records, all with groups led by Marty Paich, most notably Mel Tormé with the Marty Paich Dektette. When rock and roll music (which Tormé called “three-chord manure” came on the scene in the 1950s, commercial success became elusive. During the next two decades, Tormé often recorded mediocre arrangements of the pop tunes of the day, never staying long with any particular label. He was sometimes forced to make his living by singing in obscure clubs. During that period he had two hits, his 1956 recording of “Mountain Greenery,” which did better in the United Kingdom where it reached #4 in May that year; and his 1962 R&B song “Comin’ Home, Baby,” arranged by Claus Ogerman. The latter recording led the jazz and gospel singer Ethel Waters to say that “Tormé is the only white man who sings with the soul of a black man.” It was later covered instrumentally by Quincy Jones and Kai Winding.
Mel Tormé died on June 5, 1999 at the age of 73.