To the Editor:
Terry Teachout has written an excellent delineation of Mel Tormé’s place in American popular song [“Mel Tormé’s Torment,” December 2014]. The fact that Tormé lamented his perceived lack of appropriate recognition was due to a number of factors: style, appearance, and his own significant and often unpleasant arrogance. Rob McConnell, creator of the wonderful Boss Brass Big Band, told me the following story. The Boss Brass was on a bill with Tormé, who was to sing a few songs and then turn the microphone over to McConnell. Mel kept on singing, and the audience was wildly enthusiastic. Frustrated by this insulting delay, McConnell asked a stagehand to provide a long wheeled cart, placed himself on it, and had the stagehand roll him onto the stage in front of Tormé, pretending to be asleep. Tormé got the message.
Tormé and McConnell did make two excellent records for Concord. They reflect Tormé’s vocal jazz mastery, a stylistic choice that Mr. Teachout considers less pleasing than Tormé’s earlier ballad approach. That is an expression of the critic’s personal taste. However, some of the improvisational flights of fancy between Tormé and Shearing in their live performances are first-rate examples of the essence of jazz.
Mr. Teachout’s article is authoritative and detailed, and it provides new insight into the singing career of a great musical talent (as indicated by the Bing Crosby endorsement). An even more detailed critical assessment of the Tormé place in popular song has been made by Will Friedwald, who, in his Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, gives equal weight to Tormé’s popular song and jazz interpretations. Friedwald concluded: “The beauty and charm of the voice-piano combination never wears off and nothing equals the sensitivity Tormé brought to the Shearing sessions; never before had Mel sounded so completely vulnerable.” That is how I will always think about Melvin Howard Tormé.
To the Editor:
Terry Teachout’s well-deserved tribute to Mel Tormé brought to mind the time I was at one of his live performances. It was sometime in the ’60s, when the singer’s career was in the doldrums, that I read he was to appear at a nightclub on the Camino Real in Redwood City, California. The club was small and unglamorous and on a dreary commercial stretch of the Camino. I nearly drove past it, thinking Tormé could hardly be appearing in such a dive. But then I noticed a red Rolls Royce parked in the alley alongside the club and thought that it was just the car he would have. So I entered, and enjoyed one of the greatest performances I’ve ever known. Tormé sang a dozen or more songs, kidded around with the audience, did some jazz drumming that Buddy Rich would have been happy with, and gave us a show that could have been a command performance for royalty. He held nothing back and seemed to be enjoying himself as much as we were. His career may have been at a low point, but you wouldn’t know it from the brilliant performance he gave in this obscure nightspot; he gave his fans their money’s worth and more. Like Astaire as dancer, so Mel Tormé as singer!