I was already a Mel Tormé fan when I began to go to New York City in the falls of the mid-1970s to solicit national print ads for Metro Hampton Roads Magazine from major advertising agencies. My boss, George Crump, installed me a week at a time at his favorite NYC hotel, the elegant St. Regis, with a prestigious signature account. Imagine my delight when I discovered that Mel Tormé unofficially opened New York’s fall cabaret season with a show in the Maisonette, the hotel’s nightclub.
With a magazine journalist’s panache I was never reluctant to stick my nose into things like celebrity rehearsals, and thus I bumped into Mel Tormé and engaged him in conversation. At age 49, without makeup, hairpiece, and perhaps a girdle, Mel resembled a middle-aged traveling salesman more than he did a musical prodigy and dynamic entertainer.
Normally, Mel explained, the club area was off limits to visitors during rehearsals, but for whatever reason, he made an exception for me although I was making sales calls out of the hotel for most of the day.
If you don’t know the genius of Mel Tormé, you should be advised that the Velvet Fog voice was one of the greatest musicians, singers, songwriters, and arrangers of his generation. His hit records and recognitions included the Down Beat Award for Best Male Jazz Singer (1976), and two Grammy Awards for Best Male Vocalist (1983) and Best Male Jazz Vocalist (1984). You will certainly recognize Mel for writing the music to The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire) that was first made a hit by Nat King Cole.
Mel knew and learned from legendary drummers Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, so when he steps away from the piano to do a drum set, you will be awed. During the 1979 Chicago Jazz Festival, Mel played drums with Benny Goodman on the classic Sing, Sing, Sing. Who would have dared if he didn’t have the chops?
For Mel’s 1974 opening night at the Maisonette, I used the status of my St. Regis signature account to reserve a front-row table in the hotel showroom. My then-wife flew into New York from Norfolk, Virginia for the weekend, and I also invited another couple to join us. I was recruiting the husband to be our magazine’s sales manager, and if my acquaintanceship with Mel Tormé didn’t impress him, nothing would. Also, I had a better table than many of the show business celebrities in the room.
The album Mel Tormé: Live At The Maisonette resulted from that September show, and it includes a medley of 17 George Gershwin songs that runs for more than 15 minutes. Mel’s arrangements and performance that night earned him a standing ovation. He also did a fabulous drum set, and I also believe that he even played a trumpet solo! He was called back to the stage for two or three encores, and in one pass by our table, Mel leaned in and gave a long stem rose to my wife from those that had just been presented to him. Wow, Mel! What had I done to deserve that!
Mel had invited me to visit the Maisonette off-stage Green Room after the show, so I left my wife and guests briefly to pay respects to one of the greatest examples of talent and showmanship that I had ever witnessed. The Green Room was crowded with Mel’s friends that included songwriter Burt Bacharach, comedian Henny Youngman, and television star Morey Amsterdam among others.
Then I witnessed a very shocking thing. The great Mel Tormé, drenched in sweat and fresh from repeated standing ovations, was yet pleading for our approbations. Did we really love the show? Did the Gershwin medley work? When he shook my hand, I wanted to shout to him, “Mel. Relax! Tonight you are the king of the world.” But instead, I said something like “wonderful” and “incredible” and withdrew from the unexpected scene. Is it perfection that drives entertainers to self-doubt even in the hour of their greatest triumph?
The next time that I saw Mel Tormé was in Las Vegas at the Sands Hotel showroom. It was a year or so later, and Mel was opening for Rich Little, a comedic impressionist at the height of his fame. I happened to be staying at the Sands, and so I ran into Mel and his family at the huge central courtyard pool. I didn’t want to intrude on his privacy, so the greeting was brief with my mention of his kindnesses to me at the St. Regis.
Sammy Davis, Jr., one of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, once allowed Mel Tormé to open for his Las Vegas act, but he soon discovered that Mel’s show was too hard to follow. The audience was totally spent by the time Sammy got on stage. Anyway, that was the story told to me by a Vegas gambler.
From his first published song at the age of 16—“Lament to Love”—that became a hit recording for bandleader Harry James, Mel Tormé proved to be one of the top musical talents of his generation. And like the character Judge Harry Stone on the 1980s television situation comedy Night Court, I am also an unabashed fan of Mel Tormé.