Mel Torme was one of the best American male jazz singers and composers of the 20th Century. He wrote or co-wrote more than 250 songs including a Christmastime standard that opens with the lyrics "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." It was recorded by fellow Chicagoan Nat King Cole in 1946. He was also a movie star, radio and TV star, and an author.
Notwithstanding his fame for seasonal songs of Christmas, Mel Torme was born on the south side of Chicago to a family of Russian Jewish immigrants on Sept. 23, 1925. From about the age of four he was recognized as a child prodigy. While barely in grade school he was singing as a child star for the Coon Sanders Orchestra at the Blackhawk Restaurant at 139 N. Wabash.
Mel was only age seven in 1933 when he won a talent competition for child singers at the Century of Progress World's Fair. The competition led to his work as a child star on two of the most famous radio serials of the time, The Romance of Helen Trent and Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.
While still in junior high school, Mel studied piano and played the drums for drum and bugle corps of The Shakespeare Elementary School in Kenwood. While balancing his performing in Chicago night clubs with school work, Mel met and became a friend of Steve Allen. Mel sang for the Chico Marx Band and Artie Shaw in the 1940s. He published his first song at age 13 called Lament to Love which was a big hit for the Harry James Band. Mel made his first appearance on film in Frank Sinatra's first movie, Higher and Higher (1943). Mel graduated from Hyde Park High School in 1944. After a brief time in the Army at the end of World War II, Mel resumed his singing and composing. During high school, Mel's voice changed and he embarked on a new adult singing career at the Copa Cabana night club in New York.
After the war in New York a reviewer gave Mel the nick name of "The Velvet Fog" and the name stuck but during much of his career Mel did not like that name. It was however descriptive of Mel's unique style. Mel also became one of a handful of singers, including Ella Fitzgerald, who were known as "scat" singers. Scat singers used their voices as if they were musical instruments to make a series of nonsense words rapidly align with musical notes to form a composition. Typical of scat would be words that sound like "scoodli do wop o wollop scadila ding dong jazzarama miasama cityside ropadoma cooldido dodo dodo bam."
Mel Torme helped to revive both his own career and jazz singing in general with a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1957 co-starring with George Shearing and Gerry Mulligan. In the early 1960s Mel was a musical arranger and advisor for Judy Garland for her network TV show. After Judy died, Mell wrote a book on his work with Judy called The Other Side of the Rainbow. He also wrote a novel, an autobiography, and a biography on the life of his friend and famous drummer, Buddy Rich.
Late in his career, Mel Torme as a personality became a running feature on the TV show called Night Court starring Harry Anderson. Harry is portrayed as a super fan of Mel Torme who gets to meet his idol in a few episodes.
In 1996 Mel suffered a stroke that ended his singing career. In February 1999 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards Show and he died a few months later on June 5, 1999 at the age of 73. Click here to see a full list of the movies and TV shows of Mel Torme.