Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Life and Loves of a Velvet Fog

Talk about velvet fogs: I still remember my astonishment, sitting in the Venetian Room of the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas, taking notes to review the Mel Torme / George Shearing act for the Dallas Fort Worth Business Journal. It was Yom Kippur time, and some badinage about the Jewish New Year alerted me that my favorite male jazz singer was Jewish. Torme? Jewish?
It’s all explained—along with much else—in his beguiling memoir, It Wasn’t All Velvet (Viking, $18.95): The Russian-Jewish family name Torma was sandbagged by a sloppy Ellis Island functionary.
This book isn’t a class with Mountain Greenery or Blue Moon by a long shot, but it’s a tasty smorgasbord. I like learning that Glenn Miller, turning down Torme’s first lyrics assignment, told him to study songwriter Johnny Mercer endlessly. And this injunction as well: “Read anything and everything you can get your hands on. All good lyric writers are great readers.”
There’s more about his priapic and often sad love life than I need to know, although there’s a touching passage about how hard it is for a guy with a love life like his to sing all the great standard love songs.
He is most revealing when he least intends to be, as in recounting how Harry Reasoner and Morley Safer fantasized about doing him on “Sixty Minutes”—until the CBSers learned that he had never had a drug or alcohol problem. I even empathize with his smugness when “20/20” goes ahead with a problem-less piece and it gets an Emmy.
Did you know that Torme was a gun nut (although he is diffident to the point of humble about his historical interest in firearms)? He could give the NRA a kinder, gentler mien (make that mean). Or that he’s an obsessive collector of fast, sleek sports cars? Or a certified aviation enthusiast, with even some hairy close calls flying his own light planes? Or that he starred in many B-features for Hollywood and TV? Is a published novelist? And a freelance non-fiction writer?
You begin to wonder how he managed to get all these things done and still marry four times and sire five children. And then you begin to understand that his being on the road wasn’t the only thing that alienated the first three perfect romances.
Torme dedicates this book to his pa (90 and still shouting at his wife) and ma (87 and replaying the uncompliments). In some ways, his family history is the most interesting and instructive element in his life. We get to better understand the validity of Ethel Waters’ judgment that “Mel Torme is the only white man who sings with the soul of a black man.”
He was blessed with a black nanny named Alberta who insisted on having Friday and Saturday nights off so she could play piano in a five-piece combo at the Savoy Ballroom, next to Chicago’s Regal Theatre. He may not have sipped his scat with his mother’s milk, but Alberta’s sessions on the family’s Kimball at least gave it to him with his pablum.
Occasionally his diction (and wit) fail him. Rationalizing the perfidy of Carson and Donahue in their not letting him flog his novel Wynner, he comforted himself with the “pleasure of appearing on Larry King’s program. King, a great old friend, is also unequivocably (sic) the finest interviewer in our country.” Vocably, possibly.
A deeper wound to his vanity he’s still stinging from: “Apparently, most news / media people think all singers are airheads. That’s unfortunate and unfair. Most singers I know are bright, articulate individuals. Many are actually literate. The prevailing attitude during that book tour, nonetheless, was that I was a pretender in the world of the literati.”
What can I tell you, Mel? If I had to choose between singing “Blue Moon” the way you do or appearing on the New York Times best seller list, I’d go for the tune. The greenery always looks more mountainous in the other guy’s lot.
But it is a wry residue of a culture with different values that entertainers seek the beatification of print to legitimize their Dow Jones industrious ups and downs. Everybody is entitled to 15 minutes of solitude to ponder the fickleness of fame. Boychik (as Edward G. Robinson playfully addressed Mel when he belatedly discovered Torme was Jewish), you’ve got nothing to worry about. Your unabused tonsils (no smoke, no hard liquor, seven hours’ sleep a night—think of that, Sinatra) are your claim to immortality.
Mel Torme will appear with Cleo Laine, Sunday, June 24 at 8 p.m., at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Sts. $22.50-30.50. 893-1930.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, June 20, 1990

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