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the otto files

where the classics never go out of style

We’ve spent a couple of weeks discussing some of my favorite funny people – men and women. There are more but after watching yesterday’s post of “The Merv Griffin Show” with Buddy Rich and Mel Torme, among others, I thought this might be a good time to cover some of my favorite musical artists throughout my lifetime. Mel Torme would certainly be near the top of my list of all-time favorites.

I came to the Torme camp after I’d discovered Crosby, Sinatra, Como and Fitzgerald. Mel Torme became a force in the music business at a very young age with his musical group, The Mel-Tones. He had some exposure and success on TV during the 1950s and 1960s but he always seemed to have more talent and potential without the commensurate level of notoriety and success. Then, he teamed up with jazz pianist George Shearing and something just clicked. They recorded a number of live albums that were put out on the Concord label and it created a Torme renaissance. His popularity grew through the decade of the 1980s and early 1990s and was enhanced by appearances on “Night Court” and “Seinfeld.” In 1996, Torme suffered a stroke that ended his singing career. He died three years later.

I was lucky enough to have seen Mel Torme in concert on three different occasions. My only regret is that I didn’t figure out a way to see him even more. He was more than just an incredibly talented vocalist; he was a master entertainer.

The first time I went to see Torme I was 22 years old and I went to the concert by myself. I seem to remember I couldn’t find anyone to join me. Not really surprising considering the trash my peers were listening to at the time (1986). I can’t remember now why my uncle who’d introduced me to such great jazz through the years didn’t attend the concert with me. It was held at Rochester’s Eastman Theater and while the entire concert was wonderful, I’ll always remember that evening for the encore. At the end of the show, Torme walked off to a standing ovation. As I recall, he came out, did an encore and then he and the whole orchestra left the stage. The audience didn’t care. We still wanted more. We stood cheering! He finally came back out onstage by himself and spoke to us explaining that he’d been forced to turn down an invitation to appear at the New York City Fourth of July celebration as they marked the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. He then said something like, “And so, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to offer my own tribute to the lady in the harbor for you right now.” He sat down at the piano and accompanied himself as he sang Johnny Mercer’s beautiful “Here’s To My Lady.” It was exquisite. The ensuing, and final, ovation rocked the foundation of the theater. It sent chills up my spine. One of the greatest concerts I ever attended.

A few years later, my girlfriend got us tickets to see Torme at Artpark in Lewiston, New York. He was appearing in concert with Cleo Laine and John Dankforth, two highly respected jazz artists. As great as they were, for me, it was just a distraction. I only wanted to hear Mel.

A few more years go by and the girlfriend has now become the wife. We go to see Mel one last time in Canandaigua, New York. They used to host some great jazz artists at FLCC, Finger Lakes Community College. They had a wonderful outdoor stage/shell and over the years I saw people like Tony Bennett and Steve & Eydie perform there as well.

On this night, it was Mel Torme. I think the first portion of the show was instrumental jazz and then an intermission before Mel came out and did his show. During the intermission my wife and I were walking around the grounds and I spotted a white, stretch limousine behind the band shell. I said to my wife, “Hey, there’s Mel’s limo.” She said, “You really think that’s for him?” I said something like, “It ain’t for the engineers, that’s for sure.”

After the show, fabulous as always, we slowly inched our way out of the parking lot under the direction of a dozen or so traffic cops. When we finally broke onto a road with moving cars, I spot the white limo. I said, “There’s Mel!” From the concert venue back to Rochester where we lived was about a 40 minute drive. I came in the whole way following the limo. I’ve been known to occasionally have a heavy foot when behind the wheel but not that night. I stayed behind the limo without ever losing sight of it. We got off the New York State Thruway and onto our local expressway. By this time, I’m figuring the limo was going to go to one of the two hotels where most celebrities used to stay when they came to Rochester. As we neared our turnoff to head home I drove right past it. My wife asked, “What are you doing? Where are you going?” I said, “I’m following Mel.”

Sure enough, the limo eventually pulled up in front of one of the two hotels I’d anticipated and I pulled up behind them. My wife said, “Yeah? Now what are you going to do?” I said, “I’m going to talk to Mel. You want to come with me?” Not surprisingly, she chose to stay in the car and just watch her goofball husband.

My encounter with Mel was completely harmless. I got out of the car and approached the limo as Mel was exiting his vehicle. I said, “Mr. Torme, I saw your concert tonight and you were great as always. I just wanted to thank you for all the enjoyment you’ve brought me through the years with your music.” He was very gracious and said, “Thank you very much. That’s very nice.” I then asked if I could impose on him for a picture and without hesitation he said, “Sure.” If I remember correctly, we got the doorman to take the picture for us. Picture taken, I think I may have asked him if I could buy him a drink in the hotel bar but he thanked me and begged off saying he was really exhausted. I thanked him again and went back to my car. As I departed, i walked past Donny Osbourne who was taking a bag out of the trunk of the limo and I said, “Great show tonight Donny – you were terrific.” He smiled and thanked me but the look on his face said, “Who the hell is this guy and how does he know me?” By that time (1992) I knew all there was to know about Mel so I knew that as opposed to many singers who traveled with their own pianist, Torme instead traveled with his own drummer.

Three years later, Torme suffered his stroke and I never got to see him again. He was truly a special talent. One of the greatest of them all.

Here’s a fascinating outtake of Mel from “The Judy Garland Show.”

And finally, it seems appropriate at this time of year to post Mel and friend singing the song that Mel used to call “his annuity.” He wrote it with a gentleman named Bob Wells.

As great a singer as Judy Garland was, she really butchered the song in that clip so let’s finish with Melvin singing the song by himself.

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