A stroke on this date in 1996 abruptly ended the 65-year singing career of Mel Torme, whose Russian Jewish immigrant parents had their name changed from Torma to Torme, missing only the accent, at Ellis Island. Born in 1925, Tormé was a musical prodigy: he first sang professionally at age 4, played drums in his teens in a band led by Chico Marx, published his first song, which became a Harry James hit, at age 16, and appeared in a Frank Sinatra movie, the musical Higher and Higher, at age 18. His greatest success came as a soloist with the Artie Shaw Orchestra in the post-War 1940s, and in 1949 he recorded his only number one hit, “Careless Hands.” He also wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics for “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . .”) and authored 250 other songs. In the 1970s, Tormé revived his career as a vocalist and began traveling around the planet, performing some 200 shows per year. His style, wrote John Andrews after the singer’s death in 1999, “shared much with that of his idol, Ella Fitzgerald. Both were firmly rooted in the foundation of the swing era, but both seemed able to incorporate bebop innovations to keep their performances sounding fresh and contemporary. . . . they sang with perfect diction and brought out the emotional content of the lyrics through subtle alterations of phrasing and harmony . . . [but] were likely to cut loose during a swinging up-tempo number with several scat choruses . . .” Tormé also wrote five books, including a novel, Wynner (1978). To hear him sing “Stardust” late in his career, click here.
“I hadn’t been a recording artist all that long when albums came on the scene, and I was one of the first singers to point the way to how varied an album’s contents could be.” —Mel Tormé