Chicago, IL, William and Betty Torme' welcome Melvin Howard into the world on September 13, 1925. Little did they know that by the age of four he would be on his way to becoming one of the finest jazz vocalists of our time. Not to mention an author, actor, composer, and musician!
At age four Mel made his singing debut with the Coon-Sanders Orchestra at the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago's Loop. His parents had taken him there to see the show. As he sang along with the songs, one of the band's co-leaders, Joe Sanders, noticed little Melvin singing along. He invited him to join them for a number. So started his career. Word spread about this talented child singer and Mel soon had engagements at the Oriental Gardens with the Louis Panco's Band and The College Inn of the Hotel Sherman with Fankie Master's Group and Buddy Rogers Orchestra.
With a dramatic rendition of Al Jolson's Going to Heaven on a Mule, he won the Children's Division of the Radio Auditions Finals at the 1934 World's Fair in Chicago. Two of the judges were a radio producer and his radio performer wife. They needed someone to play Jimmy the Newsboy for their radio soap. Mel's reading won him the part. This started him on his way. He appeared on radio in The Story of Mary Marlin, Little Orphan Annie, Jack Armstrong, Captain Midnight, Lightning Jim Whipple, It Can Be Done, Lights Out, and In Chicago Tonite, just to name a few! During this time he attended The Jack and Jill Players, the main Chicago agency and drama school for child radio actors. Even with all this work he was still singing.
At 14 he started writing songs. Not professionally-yet! That would come soon enough in a very unexpected way.
About this time, Mel also became interested in drums. So much so that his maternal grandparents bought him a set. He taught himself and became very good at it. So good that, in later years, he would be called on stage to join some of his favorite bands for a song or two.
Mel attended Hyde Park High School in Chicago. While at Hyde Park High he wrote Lament to Love, about a girl he liked but, unfortunately, she did not reciprocate.
When he was 15 Harry James asked Mel to join his band but, due to Child Labor Laws, it was not possible. But, Mr. James did record the song, Lament to Love, giving young Mel writing credit. With the newspapers picking up this story, Mel was a local celebrity.
Two years later, in 1942, he was asked to join the Chico Marx Band. He was to form a vocal group, write, and sing. In 1943 that engagement ended and he was offered an audition for Higher and Higher, Frank Sinatra's first film. He got the part.
In spring of 1944, Mel was drafted and sent to Fort MacArthur Induction Center. Because of his drumming talent, he scored 100 percent on the Morse Code test and was sent to Camp Roberts for basic training. From there he was scheduled to go on to the Signal Corp. He never made it. Due to an oversight on his physical, he was given a medical discharge while at Camp Roberts.
Just prior to being drafted, Mel was contacted by Ben Pollack. Mr. Pollack had found a group of four college kids who sang. He wanted Mel to join them as arranger and featured singer. The were eventually known as The Mel-Tones.
In 1944, after Mel's discharge, The Mel-Tones were off and running. So was Mel's movie career. He signed a seven year contract with Warner Bros. When VE Day came, contract players came home from the front and replaced the new kids. Mel was one of the new kids. As luck would have it, not long after that, The Mel-Tones sang back-up on a Bing Crosby record. Not to mention recording a few of their own. Also around this time, he and Bob Wells were signed by Burke and Van Heusen as a contract team and to a writing/publishing contract. While signed with Burke and Van Heusen they wrote Country Fair for the Disney film, So Dear to My Heart.
November 1946 Arthur Freed signed Mel for a featured role in Good News with an option for two pictures a year, provided his work on Good News was satisfactory. At the end of April 1947, MGM picked up the two picture a year contract.
When Mel was 23 he met Candy Toxton, an actress also from the Chicago area, at a dinner hosted by Tommy Dorsey. They started dating casually in 1948 when he met her again on the set of Words and Music. Mel sang Blue Moon on that picture, which became his first big hit reaching number 2 on Billboard Chart. Candy and Mel married in February of 1949.
Along with marrying Candy, in 1949 Mel released his first solo record, Careless Hands. He had his own 30 minute radio show, The Mel Torme' Show. It lasted one year.
In 1951 Mel was offered his own tv show being the summer replacement (with Peggy Lee) for Perry Como. The show was cancelled in the spring of 1953.
January 29, 1953 brought Steven, Candy and Mel's first born. Two years later, on July 9 1955, Steven would have a little sister, Melissa.
In 1955 Mel and Candy split. In September of that same year Mel released his first album for a new record label. Bethlehem Records was purely a jazz label. Mel was eager to shake his Velvet Fog image given him early in his career by a New York deejay.
July 1956 he had his first number 1 hit, but not in the US. Mountain Greenery won rave reviews in England.
On October 31, 1956 he took Arlene Miles as his wife. The following year, he appeared on the television show, Playhouse 90 as Lester in The Comedian. Later he was called by the Academy of Television Arts and sciences and told he had received enough votes to guaruntee a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Unfortunately, they said, they were not going to have that catigory that year. So close.
Bethlehem Records folded in the late 50's and Mel signed with Verve in 1958. After a tour of Australia, he parted company with them and received an invitation to join Atlantic Records. He accepted.
April 1959 brought a son to Arlene and Mel. Tracy woud be their only child.
Mel was approached in 1963 to help write The Judy Garland Show. He agreed and was involved with the show from spring of 1963 until winter of 1964. Sometime after his stint with the show, he and Arlene divorced.
In May of 1966 he married British actress, Janette Scott. She left her career behind and joined Mel in the States. Their first Child, Daisy, was born December 13, 1969.
Also that year, he wrote The Other Side of the Rainbow, On the Dawn Patrol With Judy Garland. That book brought him static from many devout Judy Garland fans. In the end it proved to be one of the best books written about the beloved star.
Mel again was on tv in 1971 on the show It Was a Very Good Year. It chronicled fashion, entertainment, politics, etc., over the years.
James Scott Torme came into the world on August 13, 1973. Janette's second child, Mel's fifth.
1974 he starred in a film tentatively called Snowman. About the trainer of a wolf and eagle. While flying to Burbank from Denver, the plane Mel's character is piloting crashes. He and the wolf and eagle survive the crash. Now it is a story of surviving the cold and snow. It was released in theaters as Challenge to Survive.
That same year, playing the Maisonette Room at the St. Regis in Manhattan, he recorded an album with Al Porcino (one of the top trumpet players of the day). It was bought by Atlantic Records and released as Mel Torme' Live at the Maisonette. He was nominated for the Best Arranger award for that album in 1976. For the awards show he and Ella Fitzgerald sang a duet of Lady Be Good. They received (according to the president of the National Academy of Recording Artists and Sciences) the longest standing ovation in the history of the Grammy Awards.
Janette and Mel divorced in 1977. During the same time he started getting the recognition that had so long deserved. He also met Ali Severson.
20/20 did a piece on Mel in August 1983. The Today Show and Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt soon followed. The 20/20 episode won the Emmy for Best Documentary Profile!
On April 15, 1982 Mel recorded an album with George Shearing, An Evening with George Shearing and Mel Torme' on Concord Jazz Records. It was a live album recorded at Mark Hopkins in San Francisco in Aide of Guide Dogs International. Less than a year later he won a Grammy for Best Male Jazz Vocalist for that album.
The following year, Top Drawer, another Shearing/Torme' collaboration won a Grammy for Best Male Jazz Singer. Mel wasn't there to accept the award. He, with Peter Nero, was giving a performance at a State Dinner for President and Mrs. Reagan in the White House.
Mel and Ali were married on October 30, 1984 in St. Thomas.
In 1985 he was nominated for another Grammy for yet another album done with George Shearing, An Evening at Charlie's, but lost to Joe Williams. He appeared in Night of 100 Stars at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. He sang with Lena Horne, Sara Vaughan, Al Jarreau, Joe Williams, Wynton Marsalis, and Woody Herman in a ten minute jazz segment.
In the mid-eighties he started making guest appearances on tv's Night Court, playing Judge Harry Stone's singing idol. These appearances introduced Mel to a whole new generation.
He was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1990.
On August 8, 1996, he suffered a stroke. It took his voice, leaving a void in the jazz music world. Before this ability was taken from him, he recorded one last song, a duet with his son, Steve, Nat King Cole's, Straighten Up and Fly Right. This duet is on Steve's debut jazz cd, Swingin' at the Blue Moon Bar and Grille.
Mel left us on June 5, 1999. Although this star has fallen, his legend lives on in his music, movies, and books.