1990. For Mel Torme, it was a very good year.
"In terms of my career it may have been the biggest year I've ever had," the 65-year-old entertainer observes from his home in Los Angeles. "I sang in two of the biggest motion pictures of the year, `Dick Tracy' and `Home Alone.' I did my eighth guest shot on `Night Court.' I hosted the Frank Sinatra special that aired, I don't know, maybe five times on PBS." And that's not counting the Slim-Fast commercials.Actually, he acknowledges, his Slim-Fast days may be over. "It's a marvelous product, but I was having a little bit of a phlegm problem because of the milk you're supposed to drink it with." Still, before throwing in the towel, Torme says he managed to shed 36 pounds, down to 150 from his usual 186. "I've put a little back on, but not much."
In every other way, however, America has indeed seen more of Mel Torme in recent years. And, he insists, 1991 looks to be even better.
Certainly vis-a-vis Salt Lake City, to which he returns for the first time in years for a pair of concerts with the Utah Symphony Friday and Saturday, May 10 and 11, in Symphony Hall.
The symphonic gigs, Torme explains, go back around 20 years. "It was really kind of precipitated by my starting to write my own orchestral arrangements for those concerts. Then, once having written them, I wanted to play them and actively started to pursue symphony dates." Now, he says, they form a "huge part of my intinerary. Last year I did around 12 or 13. This year I'm scheduled for eight or 10."
And what will he be doing on next week's concerts? Singing, of course, everything from what he describes as "an all-out scat version of `Lady Be Good' to, believe it or not, the `Soliloquy' from `Carousel.' I realize I'm not the kind of singer generally associated with that, but the way I look at it, if you're a singer, you're a singer."
But he'll also be conducting many of the aforementioned arrangements, and, as part of a 14-minute Benny Goodman medley, treating the audience to a sample of his work, Gene Krupa-style, on the drums.
In short, an exposure as varied as Torme himself, who at various times in his career has earned his living doing nearly all of the above. Plus acting, composing and writing.
Amazingly that career goes back to age 4, as recounted in his 1988 autobigraphy "It Wasn't All Velvet." The title refers to his late-'40s-crooner sobriquet, "The Velvet Fog," a nickname he says he has always hated. "My wife likes it though," he adds with a chuckle.
Before that, he had appeared as a preschool soloist with the Coon-Sanders Orchestra; as a youthful actor on some of Chicago's best-known radio programs (including the role of Joe Corntassel on "Little Orphan Annie"); as singer/arranger and, ultimately, drummer with the Chico Marx Orchestra; and as a teenage movie star.
In the middle of all that he also managed to crank out a number of pop songs - his first legitimate hit, "Lament to Love," having been written when he was all of 15 - culminating in 1946 with "The Christmas Song," co-written with Bob Wells. And put together a vocal group, the Mel-Tones, which subsequently showed up in some of his movies.
The movies themselves ranged from "Good News," for MGM, to the Mamie van Doren reform-school flick "Girls' Town." In 1957, however, Torme earned himself an Emmy nomination as best supporting actor in "Playhouse 90's" "The Comedian" (in which he played Mickey Rooney's younger brother). Or would have if they hadn't decided to dispense with the category that year.
TV work ranged from his own shows to regular appearances with Peggy Lee and Judy Garland - the last of which resulted in the controversial best-seller "The Other Side of the Rainbow" - and the occasional guest shot on shows like "Run for Your Life" and "The Virginian." (He also wrote the scripts for those two.)
But strangely, for such a prolific talent, it's the past few years that have brought Torme what he regards as his greatest success.
"Certainly I owe a great deal of it to `Night Court,' " he says of his regular appearances on the NBC-TV show where he is represented as the favorite singer of the judge played by Harry Anderson.
"That show's creator, Rheinhold Weege, is a very great fan of mine, and he told me that when he started one of the things he wanted was ongoing references to me by Harry - who, it turns out, is very close to that legitimately." The result, he says, is that in recent years a lot of younger people have begun showing up at Mel Torme concerts just to see what all the fuss is about.
"But I think from around 1976 onward there has been an enormous renaissance of interest in this country in jazz. Maybe it had something to do with the bicentennial, but all I know is that there seemed to be a lot of articles and editorials written by people who were saying, in essence, what is wrong with the American public that our jazz artists have to go to Europe or Scandinavia to be treated like royalty, which they are, but here they're treated like second- or third-class citizens? And at least the music-loving American public said they're right, we should honor our jazz artists. After all, it's the only original folk art we've ever given the world."
At the same time Torme says his voice itself seemed to take on a new luster. "I wouldn't call it a rejuvenation as much as an evolving," he says. "To me my whole career is a work in progress. There's never a point at which I think I can't learn more and can't improve." In this instance that took the form of extending his vocal range beyond its usual creamy compass. "I probably added at least four notes to my upper register and three to the bottom. Where my best low note used to be a low B flat, now it's about a G or a low G flat." By contast the Torme top now goes up to A flat or A. "And that's not falsetto," he insists, "it's real head tones."
As a performer, Torme admits, jazz has long been his first love. And, fittingly, his two Grammys, in 1983 and 1984, came to him for collaborations with a performer he admires immensely, the blind pianist George Shearing. "An extraordinary jazz artist," Torme says, "as much a genius in his way as Horowitz or Cliburn."
But like Shearing, he says, he nurtures an abiding love of the classics, particularly the music of Frederick Delius and Percy Grainger. Unfortunately there won't be any of either on next week's concerts. Instead the symphony, under associate conductor Kirk Muspratt, is offering a pre-intermission sequence of Strauss, Lehar, Dvorak, even Stephen Foster.
Chances are, however, the main draw for ticket buyers won't be that. Rather it will be the man one writer hailed as "the greatest living scat singer going" and Bing Crosby once called "the best singing entertainer I've ever seen."
Quite a compliment for an artist who admits that during what he terms the "rock 'n' roll crisis" of the '50s he actually contemplated giving up singing and becoming an airline pilot. "But by that time I was 35 years old and was getting on a bit for starting a new career."
Reminding us that, like his own singing idol, Frank Sinatra, Torme's career has also had its share of ups and downs. Isn't there a certain irony, I ask him, in the fact that his very first movie role was in "Higher and Higher," the film that also gave Sinatra his earliest starring part?
"Yes," he answers. "In fact when I come to Salt Lake one of the songs I'll be singing is from that movie, `This Is a Lovely Way to Spend an Evening.' ' But, I point out, wasn't that Sinatra's song in the film? "Yes," Torme says, "I had to wait to grow up to sing it. But I'm old enough now."
Tickets to the May 10-11 concerts are priced from $10 to $25 ($5 students).
For information call 533-NOTE.