Steve Futterman
June 18, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

He might have hated his nickname, but it fit to a tee. ”The Velvet Fog,” as disk jockey Fred Robbins dubbed the 21-year-old Mel Torme, captured the one-of-a-kind vocal timbre and deliciously ripe delivery of one of America’s premier jazz singers. But Melvin Howard Torme was much more than just a singer. A composer, arranger, author, actor, drummer, pianist, and general showbiz fixture, Torme — who died of complications from a stroke in Los Angeles on June 5 at age 73 — excelled at everything he turned his hand to.

Born on Chicago’s South Side in 1925, Torme was a professional entertainer from age 4 and came into his own as a singer in the mid-1940s with his vocal group, the Mel-Tones. The next decade found Torme integrating the newer sounds of bebop and cool jazz into his vocal approach. ”He represented the first interesting extension of Sinatra’s style,” wrote musician/historian Gunther Schuller, ”urged always in a more jazz-oriented direction.”

Torme’s achievements outside of the vocal realm were the stuff of legend: His seasonal composition ”The Christmas Song” (”chestnuts roasting on an open fire”) remains among the most popular and widely recorded holiday songs, with at least 1,734 versions (including Nat King Cole’s immortal 1946 hit). And while The Other Side of the Rainbow, his memoir of working as a musical director for Judy Garland, was a critically acclaimed best-seller, its no-holds-barred portrait of the tormented movie star brought on the ire of the Garland family. As an actor, Torme appeared in the Hollywood musicals Higher and Higher (1943) and Good News (1947), earned an Emmy nomination for Playhouse 90’s ”The Comedian” in 1956, and later had a recurring role as himself on Night Court. But as the title of his autobiography, It Wasn’t All Velvet, implies, Torme’s private and professional life had its wrinkles, including four marriages and years of commercial neglect during the height of the rock era of the 1960s and ’70s. Yet it’s as an innovative and immensely skilled singer that Torme will be remembered. ”He was a great all-around musician who brought modern jazz into places it hadn’t been before,” says critic and Torme intimate Will Friedwald. ”His diversity and musical knowledge made him unique.”

ESSENTIAL RECORDINGS: Mel Torme Swings Shubert Alley, 1960 (Verve); The Mel Torme Collection, 1996 (Rhino); Lulu’s Back in Town: Mel Torme With the Marty Paich Dek-Tette, 1999 (Rhino)

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