Mel Torme was among the most enduring singers from the big-band era, maligned by some as the epitome of lounge singer, acclaimed by many more as one of a talented and serious vocalist.
Legend has it that Torme began singing for his supper a Chicago restaurant when he was four and was working the vaudeville circuit soon after. He worked as a child actor on radio, and began writing songs in his early teens. In the early 1940s, he quit high school to became a boy singer (and drummer and part-time arranger) with Chico Marx's band.
His first fame coincided with Frank Sinatra's, and the two appeared together in their first film, Higher and Higher. He wanted to be a jazz singer, but I got sidetracked, he said. His manager felt the way to the gold was for me to become a crooner. For a long period I was singing mushy, sentimental songs. His publicist coined the name, The Velvet Fog, to describe his smooth style but he hated it (hecklers called him The Velvet Frog).
In 1944, he formed his own vocal group, the Mel-Tones, which included a young Les Baxter and Henry Mancini's future wife, Ginny O'Connor. The Mel-Tones had several hits, on their own as well as paired with Artie Shaw's band. What is This Thing Called Love?, which later became a jazz standard, was their biggest. The Mel-Tones were among the first of the jazz-influenced vocal groups, setting the direction later followed by the Hi-Los and the Manhattan Transfer.