This week’s track is from an American crooner who had minimal success in the UK, but it probably didn’t bother him because he was a millionaire mainly due to Christmas standard which has been recorded by the world and his wife.
We focus on Mel Torme, who was born Melvin Torma in Chicago, Illinois to Russian Jewish parents. Although known in the UK as a crooner, he was generally classed as a jazz musician. In 1933 he began acting in a radio series called The Romance of Helen Trent, he wrote his first song at 13, and at 16 he published his first song, Lament to Love, which was recorded by Harry James and his orchestra.
In 1943, Tormé made his movie debut in Frank Sinatra’s first film, Higher and Higher. He went on to sing and act in many films and television episodes throughout his career, even hosting his own television show in 1951. His appearance in the 1947 film musical Good News made him a teen idol for several years.
In 1946 he began a songwriting partnership with Bob Wells and they used to take turns going over to each others homes to write songs. One particularly hot July day, Mel drove over to Bob’s house in California, and when he got there he walked into the house, couldn’t find Bob, but found a spiral note pad of paper with some words on it which read, ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, Yuletide Carols being sung by a choir, folks dressed up like Eskimos.’ When Mel found Bob, he asked him “What’s this?”, and Bob said “It’s so blistering hot here, and thought it would be fun to see if I could write something about a totally different season, the winter season, Christmas season, and see if I could mentally, virtually cool off.” Mel said “Not only have you also cooled me off, but I think you’ve got a song here!” And the duo wrote the rest of the song in about 35 minutes.
The following year Mel decided on a solo career and began singing at the Copacabana club in New York which led the club’s disc jockey, Fred Robbins, to nickname him the Velvet Fog, a moniker Mel actually hated.
He notched up a dozen hits in America during the fifties including Day By Day with Bing Crosby and the number one Careless Hands. In 1961 he heard a song called Comin’ Home Baby which was written by Ben Tucker and Bob Dorough and originally recorded by the Dave Bailey Quintet. Tucker was born in 1930 and grew up in Nashville where he taught himself the upright bass and tuba. After attending college and serving four years in the Air Force, he first went to Los Angeles and then New York City, where he found his way into the jazz community. Tucker wasn’t just a musician; he and Bob Dorough formed a production company to make television commercials. In the early 1970s, an advertising executive whose son was having trouble learning arithmetic asked Tucker and Dorough to set multiplication tables to music. The result of which would later become Schoolhouse Rock!, the three-minute animated interstitials between educational and kids programming. Tucker wanted to get involved in every aspect of the music industry and soon learned the publishing business. Once qualified he met Bobby Hebb and helped him record the song Sunny and although not credited, Hebb allowed him royalties which enabled Tucker to pursue future business opportunities which included, in 1972, a move to Savannah to buy the radio station WSOK. As one of a small handful of black radio-station owners in the country, he transformed the station into the top AM station in its market, and gave voice to the city’s African-American population. The future mayor of Savannah, Otis Johnson once hosted a program.
Mel’s Coming Home Baby, which the gospel singer Ethel Waters once said, “Tormé is the only white man who sings with the soul of a black man,” reached number 13 in the UK. The B-side of the single was a jive number called Right Now and peaked one place lower when it was covered in 1983 by Siouxsie Sioux and Budgie under the guise The Creatures.
Mel continued recording jazz albums up to the nineties but in 1996 he suffered a stroke which put an end to his live shows. In February 1999 he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award but just three months later a second stroke took his life. Bob Dorough is still going strong at the age 89, but sadly Ben Tucker died just nine weeks ago at the age of 82 after being hit by a golf cart in his hometown of Savannah.
Coming Home Baby has been used in television commercials for T-Mobile and Auto Trader and is currently being used on the Trex Deck ad in a version by Michael Buble which he recorded in 2007 for his album Call Me Irresponsible.
Mel Torme’s son James, who at the moment is probably more famous for being Thora Hird’s grandson, is following is his father’s footsteps and is not only currently touring the UK, but has just released his brand new, third, album Love For Sale.