A multitalented Torme is in tune with his music

February 23, 1992|By Larry Swindell | Larry Swindell,Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Mel Torme

When: Tuesday, Feb. 25, 8 p.m.

Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $16 to $30.

Call: (410) 783-8000.

The six blind men of Hindustan felt different parts of an elephant and then sought unsuccessfully to define the beast. Perhaps they would know no better grasping at different aspects of Mel Torme.

Three of the sightless chaps might agree that Mr. Torme is a musician, and then argue about what kind. One could call him a singer, only to be rebuffed by another's insistence that Mel is a drummer. Another might hum "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" (the opening phrase of Mr. Torme's "The Christmas Song") and proclaim him a songwriter.

Should the other trio identify Mr. Torme as a man of letters, more argument would ensue. He's a novelist. No, he's a biographer. Wrong, he's an autobiographer.

All of the above. Mel Torme, who is scheduled to appear at Meyerhoff Hall Tuesday night, is a protean talent, a man of many parts.

To the body public, he is a singer primarily, of stylistic mien that justifies that old vogue word crooner.

In voice, appearance and manner there is an arrested youthfulness about Mel Torme. But then, he is less elderly than might be expected of one who has been in the vortex of show business right on to half a century.

His early start as a performer yielded quick, positive results, and an adolescent Mel Torme already was a name entertainer. He drummed briefly for a band led by Chico of the brothers Marx, also drummed part time for Tommy Dorsey, and was still in his teens when he formed the Mel-Tones and shot to emphatic popularity as the group's vocalist.

The Torme warbling suggested honey with just a little gravel mixed in, but "the Velvet Fog" was the label attached early, and which he now rather abhors but cannot escape.

Intrigued that an interviewer might recall him as a drummer before he had credentials as a popular vocalist, Mr. Torme confirms that he was a non-singing percussionist in his 1944 movie debut.

That was "Pardon My Rhythm," one of Universal's teen-oriented items, and "I was only 17 when we made that picture." So was Gloria Jean, his not-altogether-forgotten co-star.

There is clear evidence that Mel Torme could have attained an outstanding movie career merely by making it a primary pursuit. In his spotty film appearances he has ever been an engaging personality; and particularly in the nostalgically recalled "Good News," Mr. Torme stole the picture from June Allyson, Peter Lawford and everyone in sight.

Mr. Torme could have chosen among several related careers and succeeded in any of them. But his passionate dedication has been music, and most especially to the live performance of popular song.

"The Great American Songbook" with Maureen McGovern is merely the newest edition of what has developed into Mr. Torme's annual extended tour.

"I've been going out under Columbia Artists management for seven or eight years now, usually with a slightly different format but always anchored in traditional popular music," he said. "I've toured with Leslie Uggams and Peter Nero, with Helen Reddy, and with the McGuire sisters too, along with Buddy Rich.

"Usually the tours are split, with a couple of weeks on the West Coast and then a substantial break before going East. But this time it's concentrated, with 36 cities scheduled in six weeks. The travel may be wearing but not the singing -- that's fun, and it will be exciting for Maureen and me both.

"Unfortunately, it means flying into one city, doing the concert, and then flying right out again."

Mel Torme is as articulate as he's talkative, and he nurtures strong opinions about American popular song. He's a traditionalist, with a fervor pitched somewhere between patriotism and religion. Of course he cherishes the Kern-Gershwin-Berlin-Porter legacy, but he identifies as his foremost hero not a composer but a lyricist.

"When we give the 'Songbook' concert, people are going to hear a lot of Rodgers and Hart. Now I'm not knocking Oscar Hammerstein, who was a wonderfully skilled craftsman, and he and Richard Rodgers certainly wrote many glorious songs and transformed the musical theater.

"But Larry Hart was something else. He was our greatest lyricist, and he was an authentic poet. The songs he set to words for Dick Rodgers are as good as they ever were, or are better. They'll last forever."

Many years ago MGM's "Words and Music" was poor as a dual biography of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, but superlative in its many musical turns, among which Mel Torme's delivery of "Blue Moon" was especially memorable.

"There'll be a lot of Rodgers and Hart [in the 'Songbook' tour], but my two favorites, my standbys, are 'Blue Moon' and 'Mountain Greenery,' and they'll get their due. The program won't all be Rodgers and Hart but that's the main motif, and especially in an 18-minute finale, specially orchestrated, equal portions of McGovern and Torme, and plenty of McGovern and Torme together."

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