What’s So Funny About Mel Tormé?

There are ways in which I envy younger generations. I was born at the elbow between the Baby Boom and Generation X. I’m the first to admit that I bring a lot of baggage and bias that inhibits my enjoyment of what was considered old folks’ music when I was a kid, primarily showtunes, standards, and the pre-rock pop of the swing era. The stars of that era were very much still alive and kicking when I was young in the ’70s. They weren’t in the top 40 any more (aside from the occasional Sinatra anomaly), but you would hear them in places like barber shops or in cars when an old person was driving and had control over the radio. And these older performers were constantly on TV — in retrospect they were probably as well represented on television as the younger acts at the peak of their success. It drove me crazy. I couldn’t stand it. Like most kids, I was into rock and roll and its offshoots (and later, folk music as well). I valued authenticity over what I considered phoniness, and I’m afraid I pretty much tarred an entire generation of musical artists with a very broad brush in that regard. There’s the Oily Man thing, which I wrote about here. They were square, stilted, “out of touch”. And my mother was SO into them, so I couldn’t POSSIBLY enjoy them. Ironically, though, the people of the actual rock and roll generation, the ones who actually made the music, DIDN’T hate these artists, at least not uniformly. The Who’s Keith Moon was WAY into Gene Krupa, for example. Paul McCartney wrote a tune called “Suicide” for Frank Sinatra (Blue Eyes was uninterested but he did cover George Harrison’s “Something.”) And EVERYONE was into the black swing acts, the Harlem artists like Cab Calloway, and so forth, whose cool translated well to the modern era. And (we finally draw near our point), New Vaudeville magician/comedian/actor Harry Anderson dug Mel Tormé (1925-1999).

When Harry’s Tormé-love became a regular feature on Night Court, I initially assumed it was an ironic gag on some level. (And maybe it was a little bit, at least it was presented as a humorous foible). But of course Harry was old school. When I interviewed him for my book No Applause, he spoke of being pulled into magic by seeing Blackstone. Why should his taste in music be any different? Still, in my ignorance at that stage, Mel Tormé, would be a name that would produce a knee-jerk snicker from me, strictly for the SOUND of it. “Vic Damone” was another name. Sounds like a lounge act (and it is) and the sort of act that inspired Andy Kaufman to create Tony Clifton and Bill Murray to create Jerry Aldini. I (and most of the people I knew) sort of pegged all “Vegas” singers as these type of hacks. When I told old friends I was working for Tony Bennett in the early ’90s, I would often get a sort of self-conscious, superior reaction. His image hadn’t yet been rehabilitated, the younger public hadn’t been educated about his artistry.

And the same goes for Tormé, who transcended his tuxedo trappings and happened to be, I think, a literal genius, not just a singer, but a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, book author (of real books), and actor. He was only four when he sang with the Coons-Sanders Orchestra in a Chicago restaurant. From the ages of 8 to 16 he acted on the radio shows The Romance of Helen Trent and Jack Armstrong, All American Boy. At 13 he wrote “Lament to Love” a hit for the Harry James Orchestra. Then, when he was 14 and 15, he was the singer, drummer and occasional arranger for Chico Marx’s big band!

From 1943 through 1960 he was in over a dozen movies, including Higher and Higher (1943), Good News (1947) and Words and Music (1948). It was in the mid ’40s that he formed a group called the Mel-Tones, sang with “the Thinking Man’s Bandleader” Artie Shaw, began his solo singing career and was dubbed “the Velvet Fog” for that warm, husky singing voice. In 1945 he wrote the tune for “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire”), probably his most most lasting legacy, and easily the best known of his over 250 songs. Tormé had a #1 hit in 1949 with “Careless Hands”, and also had a minor hit that year with “Blue Moon” backed with “Again”.

In 1951 and ’52 he had his own CBS variety series The Mel Tormé Show. In 1957 he acted in Rod Serling’s The Comedian on Playhouse 90 with Mickey Rooney. In 1963 and ’64 he collaborated with Judy Garland on her tv variety show, though she let him go over creative disagreements. He wrote a book about that experience called The Other Side of the Rainbow, released in 1970, soon after Garland’s death. This was followed by Wynner (1978), a novel; then his 1988 autobiography, It Wasn’t All Velvet; then a biography of Buddy Rich called Traps, The Drum Wonder (1991) and My Singing Teachers: Reflections on Singing Popular Music (1994), wherein he praised such artistic role models as Patty Andrews and Ella Fitzgerald. As a fan of ’70s disaster movies I’d like to give a shout-out to Land of No Return (1978), written, produced and directed by Kent Bateman (Jason and Justine’s father), and co-starring Tormé, William Shatner, Donald Moffat, an eagle, and a wolf.

And naturally, all those appearances on Night Court. We dedicate this post to the memory and spirit of the late Harry the Hat, who initiated this particular appreciation course!

For more on the history of variety entertainment, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,