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Jazz Singer James Tormé: Giant Shoes Comfortably Filled


Jazz great Mel Tormé was known for his swinging arrangements, poignant ballads and phenomenal scat singing. When you hear his son James sing a song like "Love for Sale," it’s clear the apple didn't fall far from the tree.  And that's just fine with him.

"I'm bringing the brand, the Tormé sound, and that history in to the 21st century, evolving it but also celebrating it all.  And maybe hippping some new people to it along the way," says Tormé.

As much as he sounds like and learned from his father, James Tormé's greatest inspiration on the way to becoming a jazz vocalist wasn't Mel. 

"The singer who really infected me to the point that I had to go in the direction of jazz was Carmen McRae," explains Tormé. "She sang the Thelonious Monk song 'Round Midnight.'  Every word she sang, it was as if she was that character singing the song in a musical and it just blew me away. And after that I knew I had to be a jazz singer, I was gonna follow in my father's footsteps for better or for worse, and I've really never looked back after that." 

Tormé absorbed the influences of his dad's contemporaries, people like Carmen McRae, Peggy Lee and Gerry Mulligan.  He also -- as a child of the 80's -- soaked up the sounds of his youth, and the artist who impacted him the most was Michael Jackson. It all started with a tape he received of Jackson's album "Off The Wall."

"Man I wore that tape out, I wore that tape recorder out!" Tormé exclaims. "The Quincy Jones arrangements, the sophisticated pop… I call it 'sophistapop.'  And people have heard a Michael Jackson texture in my voice ever since I've been a professional singer.  I was actually asked to record 'Rock With You' which ended up being one of my biggest radio hits."

Speaking of big hits, this year marks the 70th anniversary of the release of Nat 'King' Cole's recording of "The Christmas Song,"co-composed by Mel Tormé and his writing partner Bob Wells. They wrote it on a blisteringly hot July day in Southern California.  Mel Tormé explained how the song came to be in an NPR interview from the 1970's.

"Bob had written the first four lines of it. And when I saw it on his piano out at his house in Toluca Lake, I said what is this? He said I'm so hot today, I wanted to see if I could write something and just get into a mood where it would cool me off. And he said it didn't do me much good, I'm swelterting.  I said yeah, but this is interesting, this could maybe be a song.  And 35 minutes later it was written."

James relates the rest of the story.

"They drove it over the hill to Nat Cole's house and played the song for Nat. They played it the first time and he said 'play that again.' They played it a second time and before they could finish Nat said 'stop.... that's my song... that's MY song.'  And really, it was his song from that moment onwards.  And the rest has been our entire financial pleasure," James says with a chuckle.

Tormé will sing his father's orchestral version of "The Christmas Song" with the Modesto Symphony this weekend. He'll also celebrate the release of his own, long awaited version.

"It's the first time I've ever recorded the song, having been approached many times to do the song many different ways, including the Nat 'King' Cole-Natalie Cole type of recording and I've just never bitten, so to speak.  I've always resisted," explains Tormé.

So why has "The Christmas Song" remained so revered for all these years?

"It's really more about a certain time of year," he says. "Where people do have more good will, where people are more generous of spirit.  And, as they say in that Charlie Brown song, 'Christmas Time Is Here,' Oh that we could only see this spirit through the year."

James Tormé performs holiday favorites with the Modesto Symphony on December 2nd and 3rd at the Gallo Center for the Arts. 


Gen Xers Are Big Fans of Mel Tormé

The James Taylor connection

Christmas at the Tormés


NPR's Jazz Profiles documentary on Mel Tormé

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