His Father’s Son
Steve March Tormé makes a mid-career move toward his dad’s music.
Thursday, January 4, 2007
Steve March Tormé has spent most of his career avoiding the standard route, a road that his father helped pave. The son of the brilliant jazz singer Mel Tormé, March Tormé was also a child of rock ‘n’ roll era. Through his various incarnations as a pop and rock singer, he mostly performed his own tunes, avoiding the American Songbook standards that his father turned into such effective vehicles for improvisation. Over the last seven years, however, March Tormé has moved in an acoustic jazz direction. Despite two albums showcasing his smooth, warm baritone, March Tormé found it almost impossible to get airplay on jazz radio stations, as his CDs featured his original songs. Deciding to take the path of least resistance, he released The Essence of Love in 2003, a program of 14 familiar classics by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Harry Warren, Harold Arlen and Hoagy Carmichael. It’s an impressive, mature statement by a vocalist who sounds as if he was born to sing standards. With his latest release, a two-disc, four-sided live DVD/CD Tormé Sings Tormé, the son has entirely embraced his father’s legacy. March Tormé performs on Wednesday at the Sunset Center, and as is the case on the album, he’s backed by a dectet (a 10-piece band modeled after arranger Marty Paich’s classic charts for his father). The paradox is not lost on March Tormé that, in order to attain attention as a contemporary jazz singer, he’s had to interpret the same body of tunes that served his father so well.
“I’m too young to have been brought up on Jimmy van Heusen,” Tormé says. “Why is there this rule that if you sing jazz you have to sing standards? But I’m not stupid enough to keep fighting this. Do I feel like I’m coming back home musically? Not really. I love the songs, and I love singing them, but if I was coming back home I’d be singing Todd Rundgren and Hall and Oates. I was brought up on pop music.”
Following in the footsteps of a famous father is never easy, and when your dad is Mel Tormé the road is that much rougher. Besides his 50-year career as one of jazz’s greatest male vocalists, Tormé was a hit songwriter (most famously of “The Christmas Song”), actor, pilot and author of several acclaimed books, including The Other Side of the Rainbow, a fascinating account of his experience as musical director of Judy Garland’s ill-fated TV show, and Traps, an affectionate but unvarnished biography of drummer Buddy Rich.
Like Rich, Tormé was a show biz prodigy. He started singing on Chicago radio stations at the age of 4 and acting professionally by 9. He began writing songs as a teenager and joined Chico Marx as a drummer, arranger and smart-aleck singer. But Tormé was ambitious, and while launching a career as an actor in Hollywood he also assembled the most innovative vocal combo of the 1940s, the Mel-Tones, recording and touring as a featured act with Artie Shaw. By the early ’50s he decided to go solo and began recording a series of excellent albums for Bethlehem and Verve.
Like most jazz singers of his generation, Tormé was mostly sidelined by the rise of rock in the mid-’60s. His singing career floundered until the early ’80s, when he began his long, fruitful relationship with Concord Records. Reunited with arranger/bandleader Marty Paich and recording frequently with British pianist George Shearing, Tormé made many of his finest recordings for the label. He died in 1999 at the age of 73.
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Rock may have put a crimp in his dad’s career, but it was manna for March Tormé. When he decided at the age of 12 that he wanted to pursue a career as a singer, it probably helped that he didn’t grow up in the same house as his father.
His mother, Candy, and Tormé divorced before Steve turned 3 and she soon married Steve’s stepfather, actor Hal March, best known as the host of “The $64,000 Question.” March Tormé recorded his first album, Lucky, in 1976 as a shaggy-haired pop rocker, but quickly diversified. He spent two years as the featured vocalist on “The New $100,000 Name That Tune,” and hosted a series of TV shows, including the syndicated movie review shows “CinemAttractions” and “Box Office America.”
It wasn’t until he turned his energy toward jazz that he formed a musical bond with his father. March Tormé’s first jazz album, 2000’s Swingin’ at the Blue Moon Bar & Grille, features a buoyant father-and-son duet on “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” March Tormé was able to play the album for his dad before Tormé’s death, and received some hard-won approval.
“When I was more of a pop rock singer I think he felt, ‘Well, there’s some talent there but he hasn’t really honed it yet,’” March Tormé says. “When I played him the duet, it was the first time he communicated to me that he enjoyed what he was hearing and felt that I was moving toward a more musical place.”
STEVE MARCH TORMÉ performs with a band led by pianist Steve Rawlings on Wednesday, Jan. 10, at 8pm at the Sunset Center, San Carlos and Ninth, Carmel. $47. 620-2048 or sunsetcenter.org.