Among Jazz singers, there are a few who floated to the top and are remembered as some of the greatest who ever expressed jazz music through the voice. One member of that rarefied group would have to be the great Mel Torme’. We will surely do a proper retrospective on Mel at some future point, but this is the day to go back to his beginnings with the short-lived vocal group he led before embarking on a long solo career. Mel Torme’s Mel-Tones were far more influential than their short life as a group would suggest.
Mel Torme’ was born September 13, 1925 in Chicago. His father ran a dry goods store and his mother demonstrated new sheet music at Woolworth’s. Young Mel was a genuine musical prodigy who sang in front of a band at age four (yes, four) in a regular Monday night gig that netted him $15 per appearance. By age nine he had won a kids’ radio audition contest and became one of the busiest child radio stars in Chicago (when local radio was a much bigger thing than it was in later decades).
At fifteen he auditioned for the Harry James band (within a year after a young Frank Sinatra was hired away by Tommy Dorsey). Unfortunately, that arrangement was scuttled by the singer’s young age and the need for a touring tutor for high school classes. However, the kid wrote a song that James made into a moderate hit, called “Lament to Love”. At sixteen he was hired as a singer/arranger for a band put together by Chico Marx (of the Marx Brothers) and did some drumming for that organization too.
That exposure led to a small movie role in the 1943 Frank Sinatra film “Higher and Higher” (seventeen-year-old Mel’s thirty seconds of song starts right after the 30 second mark on this clip). Singer, songwriter, arranger, drummer and movie appearances by age 17 is unusual by any yardstick.
It was around that time that young Torme’ took charge of a small vocal group at Los Angeles City College, and thus “The School Kids” became “The Mel-Tones”. Besides leader/arranger Torme’, the Mel-Tones consisted of Betty Beveridge, Ginny O’Connor, Bernie Parke, and Diz Disruhd (soon replaced by Les Baxter). Torme’ once said that he arranged for the group much like he would for a big band’s saxophone section, with two altos, two tenors (Torme’ being one) and a baritone. The group got signed to Decca Records in 1944 and made a handful of sides (mostly as backing for other artists) before Torme’ was drafted.
A fluke in the system saw Torme’ back in civilian life after a few months – it seems that a foot injury led to a diagnosis of flat feet and a discharge. The Mel-Tones picked up where they had left off and saw the production of some “Soundies”, like this (colorized) one, “Back Home Again in Indiana” from 1945. One note – Because Mel Torme’ was still under contract with the RKO studio, he was prohibited from appearing on film in these Soundies. That is Bernie Parke lip syncing to Mel’s voice in the film, and the mystery dark-haired guy was brought in to add the fifth (silent) on-screen presence. Also, note that Torme’s arrangement took a song that dated to 1917 and reassembled it into something fresh and modern for the day.
“Close harmony” vocal ensembles had become a thing in the late 1930s with groups like The Modernaires and The Pied Pipers (who got late pre-war exposure with the Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey bands, respectively) and those groups inspired the Mel-Tones. Where the Mel-Tones distinguished themselves was in Torme’s arranging which treated the voices more like instruments than as a group of singers. There was also Mel’s experience as a drummer that gave the group a deep sense of rhythm and swing that was a cut beyond most other vocal groups at the time.
It was 1946 before Torme’s Decca contract was up and the group started to make records again. Part of that year saw the Mel-Tones as the featured vocalists with Artie Shaw’s postwar band. The mercurial Shaw had been through perhaps a half dozen band formulations by the time he formed this 1946 group. That band recorded on the obscure Musicraft label, which allowed musicians the luxury of artistic control, something far from universal in the recording industry even then.
Mel Torme’ and his Mel-Tones did vocal duty on several Shaw records that year, including this one. Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love” highlights the Mel-Tones’ full toolkit, with some group scatting, some background flavor and some up-front vocals that meshed tightly with the instrumental parts of the arrangement.
I was going to stop with one Shaw record but am going to stretch and add a second. Where the first selection probably highlights the group’s full range of skills to maximum effect, “I Got The Sun In The Morning” is my favorite of all the Shaw/Mel-Tones efforts because of how Torme’ & Co. can stand their ground against Shaw’s powerful band in a joint effort that makes me smile every time.
At the other end of the spectrum, is “Willow Road”, also from 1946. This is one of Mel’s own compositions and one that shows the group’s ability to do a lovely ballad. Backed by the obscure Sonny Burke band (and also on the Musicraft label), performances like this were surely an attempt to reach some level of public popularity. The big band era was in a fatal swoon by then and singers were the big thing, so they went with the flow by Mel getting more solo time and the group receding into the background just a bit. For anyone not aware of Torme’s longtime nickname “The Velvet Fog”, this recording is as good an explanation as any.
Sadly, the Mel-Tones were never able to attain critical mass with the record-buying public and by 1947 Mel had been signed to a solo deal with Capitol Records. Those early solo recordings served as the launch pad for a long career that saw several crossings of the road between jazz and pop music.
The Mel-Tones (with Mel) hung on for awhile longer and when Torme’ was given an early television show by NBC in 1948, the Mel-Tones were featured in some of the performances. This audio from one of those 1948 episodes shows the group’s (and Mel’s) growth in the three years after those 1945 Soundies. This performance of “When The Red Red Robin Goes Bob Bob Bobbin” (that clocks in at a mere two minutes) is in a style that sounds much later than 1948, with some adventurous key changes and unexpected chords. In fact, it sounds a lot like Torme’s records from the 1950’s, one of his most creative periods.
Torme would re-form the Mel-Tones a time or two as late as 1959 when they recorded an entire album called “Back In Town”. By then there were several new vocal groups that took inspiration from the Mel-Tones with a style that was far more jazz than pop, including The Four Freshmen and The Hi-Los. Even later the Manhattan Transfer would pick up the baton and take ensemble jazz vocals into the 1970’s and 80’s.
The 1980’s saw a renewed burst of popularity for Torme’, in no small part due to the NBC comedy show “Night Court”. In that show, the lead actor (Harry Anderson) played a judge who loved nothing more than the music of Mel Torme’, and Mel made a handful of cameo appearances.
Mel Torme’s greatest legacy probably has nothing to do with his singing abilities. He was the writer (with lyricist Robert Wells) of “The Christmas Song”, which the pair worked up during a sweltering Southern California July day in 1946. You know it – it begins with “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . . .”
The early Mel-Tones have mostly receded into the mists but for the occasional Artie Shaw reissues. Of the other members, only Les Baxter had a significant musical career in later years – his band had a hit with “Unchained Melody” a decade before the Righteous Brothers remade it into a major hit in 1965. But despite their obscurity with the general public, this influential group put out some music that is both interesting and good, two things that don’t always go together.
COAL Update: This is the story of my first brand new car, that I was sure I would keep forever. Until I didn’t.