Welcome! Fridays are the day when we at the McElrath Cabaret Blog are going to present blog posts in our Cabaret Through Time series. We are going to present historical cabaret singers, venues, writers, and musicians, and will begin to compile a cabaret timeline. We hope that you find it informative, and that you enjoy it!
Mel Torme—Cabaret Performer
Today I will focus on Mel Torme, a legendary singer and writer of jazz. Although his name might not be the first one to pop into your head when you think of cabaret performance, nevertheless during his life he was quite active in the cabaret community, and perhaps best known for his performances every September at Michael’s Pub on the Upper East Side of New York City that were thought of as the start of the autumn cabaret season in that city by cabaret afficianados.
A Brief Timeline For Mel Torme (NOT a complete one, only highlights)
- 1929—first professional singing engagement
- 1933-1941—worked on network radio serials
- 1938—wrote his first song
- 1941—had his first song published– “Lament to Love”
- 1942—Torme works with the Chico Marx(yes, that Chico!) band
- 1943—made his first film with Frank Sinatra
- 1944—formed the vocal quintet “Mel Torme and His Mel-Tones”–for a time sang with Artie Shaw’s band
- 1944—writes “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” with Bob Wells
- 1947—Torme goes solo, is given the nickname “The Velvet Fog,” which he disliked
- 1951-1952—Host and star of The Mel Torme Show on television
- 1955-1957—Torme records seven jazz vocal albums
- 1963-1964—wrote songs and musical arrangements for The Judy Garland Show
- 1977—Carnegie Hall concert with George Shearing and Gerry Mulligan
- 1982—recorded albums under the Concord Records label
Mel Torme wrote a great book that I highly recommend that you read, entitled My Singing Teachers. In this anecdotal volume, he talks about the many musical influences that he had throughout his life. He includes such vocal giants as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Bessie Smith, Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Peggy Lee, English singer Al Bowlly, Nat King Cole, The Mills Brothers, Jackie and Roy and others.
For cabaret performers and other singers, he tells of how he approaches songs in this volume, much of which can be applied to cabaret song selection and performance. He recounts that each song he performs, “ . . . particularly the ballads,” he likes to think of as “a little playlet. Since acting is an important element in putting over a song, I immerse myself into a game of role playing. I actually try to ‘be’ the man who is singing about his lost love, or newfound love, or what have you. The result is, it makes for a better, more thoughtful rendition, and it occasionally involves members of the audience so that the performance becomes a shared experience” (202).
He tells what he thinks goes into a successful singing career: “appearance, publicity, accessibility, resistance to rejection, picking the right tunes to record, and maintaining a good attitude” (203). For any performer working at this, you can see that those are wise words.
He also talks about breath control for the singer in performance. Torme states that “The ability to string phrases out, not having to take a breath in the middle of a given line of lyric, means the difference between making sense out of the words or merely singing them as they are written and letting the proverbial chips fall where they may” (203).
He also talks about how he chooses songs to perform in this way: “When I choose a song to do, the lyrics have to have something to say that is meaningful, and they have to contain inner rhymes so the phrases can be broken up and the singing can mirror talking” (204). This is one of the reasons why he loved the lyrics of Lorenz Hart so much (111), and Torme went on to have a big hit with the Rogers and Hart standard, “Blue Moon.”
I recommend you get Mel Torme’s book, My Singing Teachers, and be carried away with all of his wonderful stories of the people he worked with and the singers who influenced his monumental talent.
Here is a video clip of Mel Torme in action. This is from an episode of The Judy Garland Show, and he sings the uptempo “Comin’ Home, Baby.” Full production value in this piece–Enjoy!
And this is just a fun audio version of Mel Torme performing live “Autumn Leaves” and the audience is obviously loving it. You can hear a little bit of his patter and how he interacts with the audience–it’s totally working here!
Did you ever get to see Mel Torme perform? Do you have a favorite recording of Mel Torme? Are there other cabaret artists, venues, writers or musicians that you would like to see featured in the Cabaret Through Time series? Please do share in the comments below!