Mel Tormé

Jazz hero dubbed 'the Velvet Fog' by fans and peers

Calling his autobiography It Wasn't All Velvet, a nod to his nickname the Velvet Fog, may suggest that singer Mel Tormé, who has died aged 73, sometimes experienced the flipside of a life in showbiz that began before his tenth birthday.

In fact, his professional career was remarkably consistent: after his first New York solo gig in 1947, panned by heavyweight critics, the club owner consoled him by observing there would always be a sizeable audience for his deft, soft-shoe handling of words and music.

Tormé was restlessly energetic and multi-talented. Of the 300 songs he composed, the one everybody knows is The Christmas Song, notably Nat King Cole's version, and its classic opening line "chesnuts roasting by an open fire"; there was also Born To Be Blue and a song written by Torme at the age of 15, Lament To Love which gave Harry James a hit record.

Tormé was multi-talented - playing drums and piano and writing many of his own arrangements. Outside music, he wrote television scripts and five books, among them a reminiscence of his time arranging for Judy Garland's TV show and a fulsome study of his friend and idol, drummer Buddy Rich.

But it was as a singer that Tormé made his greatest mark. The spot-on diction and light texture of his voice, with just a hint of the mistiness that inspired the nickname, enabled him to float words at will, aided by perfect pitch and a natural feel for rhythm. At ease when handling scat, few male singers could touch him when the tempo was really fast, exemplified by his acclaimed version of Mountain Greenery.

Music came early into his life. Born of Russian Jewish parents who had emigrated to America, Tormé learned songs from the radio and from his mother, who demonstrated potential hits at a sheet music store in his native Chicago. Too young to join Harry James at the time of Lament To Love, he had to wait a couple of years before the veteran drummer/agent Ben Pollack fixed him a job with Chico Marx's all-star band that played as they pleased before and after Marx's hilarious keyboard contortions. The band broke up in California, where Tormé settled.

In between appearing in Hollywood musicals, the first of which was Higher And Higher with Frank Sinatra, and singing with Artie Shaw's orchestra-plus-strings, he joined the fashion for vocal groups by forming the Mel-Tones.

Once into his solo career, he moved more in cabaret and night club circles without having to change his essentially jazz-based and highly rhythmic style, though he was not one to stick closely to the same type of song and always updated his repertoire with current material. Performing regularly up to the time he suffered a stroke in 1996, he had a notable partnership at one point with pianist George Shearing.

While his singing career was solidly successful his personal life ran into trouble during the mid-70s. In 1965 he had met and married British actress Janette Scott, the daughter of Thora Hird and a friend of David Frost. They had three children and were considered to have the happiest marriage in Hollywood until Scott sued for divorce and the couple were involved in an acrimonious High Court battle over the children's custody.

Tormé's voice changed remarkably little over the decades. If anything, increased tonal depth added to its appeal. He made some particularly choice albums with a medium-sized ensemble directed by Marty Paich, and also attracted arrangers of the calibre of Shorty Rogers, Billy May and Johnny Mandel.

He is survived by his wife Ali and his five children.

Mel Tormé, singer and songwriter, born September 13, 1925; died June 5, 1999

This article was amended on 15 February 2011. The original standfirst gave his nickname as "the Velvet Frog". This has been corrected.

Ronald Atkins

The GuardianTramp

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