I joked for weeks about the upcoming show. Just another has-been, I said. Another crooner subjected to touring small theaters rather than face the indignity of not singing. A relic from a long lost era singing from an American songbook that no one cared about.
In hindsight, my myopia is surprising. I’ve always been open minded about music. About everything, I would hope, but about music in particular. I had expectations about Mel Torme that had little or no connection to anything tangible. He was just an old singer and I remember hearing about him on the TV show Night Court. Had I ever heard him sing? No. Did I even have a concrete image of the man to make fun of? Not at all. But for weeks I made jokes about the Velvet Frog. I croaked out raspy imitations of the man though I didn’t know anything about him.
On the other hand, we were professional and made the theater sparkle for him. Sold out of tickets. Took the green-room and turned it into a large, sumptuous private dressing room. Did everything we could in preparation for his arrival. It was to be the biggest show of the year, a substantial fundraising event for our perpetually underfunded theater.
And Mr. Torme surprised me. Subverted my expectations, as it were.
He arrived in his limo and it was immediately apparent that he might have been senior, but he was not old. He wore a sleek velour track suit and and walked crisply into the theater. I was there to greet him.
Welcome to our theater, Mr. Torme, I said, we’re so happy to have you here.
Thank you, Mel Torme said. Who do I see about getting paid?
Consumate professional. No funny business. Sharp as a tack. When Mel Torme spoke, people moved. I got him his check.
About a half hour later, he came out for soundcheck. I’d already undergone a shift in regards to my thinking about Mel Torme, but I became a fan during the soundcheck. He came out and picked up the microphone from the stool near the downstage lip and started singing. There was no hesitation, no reticence to sing, no tapping of the microphone to see if it was live, no test-one-two. Nothing but song. Here was a man used to having things work. He supplied the energy and the voice and expected the people around him to supply the nuts-and-bolts. He sang a song or two and said thanks to his band and to the sound crew and then went back to his dressing room. No muss, no fuss. He’d been paid and he was ready to sing.
The show confounded all of our expectations.
No one expected the rabid fans. I’d been to and worked a great deal of shows and seen just about every type of crowd imaginable, from the sedate to the out of control. Torme fans tipped toward the out of control. Here were people mostly my parents’ and grandparents’ age, but if you closed your eyes and listened to the roar of adulation and applause after each song, you’d of thought the crowd to be made up of teens swooning for the Beatles. Even Mel Torme was taken aback, visibly shocked and nearly overwhelmed by his reception.
And what in the world made me think that he was some sort of hack? Contempt prior to investigation, most likely. He’s just an old guy singing old guy songs, right?
It was a long time ago, and I don’t remember the set list, but he sang jazz standards. More accurately, he sang the hell out of his setlist. Seven years I helped produce shows at this theater. When people ask me who my favorite shows were, this one is at the top of the list.
The crowd was so hungry for Torme that he did not one, not two, but three encores. When he came off the stage after the second encore and the crowd was showing no signs of quieting, he turned to my stage manager and said, “Jesus, what a crowd.”
After the show, he was warm and cordial and genuinely surprised by his day. Maybe we subverted his expectations as well. A crowd of about twenty people waited outside the stage door. He didn’t rush through that crowd either. He shook hands and talked to everyone. As he was getting ready to climb into the limo, a woman, still high from the concert experience, still full of song, started singing to Mr. Torme. At any other time, I might’ve thought it a bit embarrassing–for him and her. But here was a man that had upended my thinking throughout the day and was about to do it one last time. The woman’s voice was clear, tuneful, but not especially lovely. And Mr. Torme just listened. He let her sing. There was no one else in the alley at this point, just the singer and Mr. Torme, poised by the limo door. He let her sing until she stopped, never rushing her or looking at his watch or rolling his eyes. And then he took her hand and said, “That was beautiful, darling, just beautiful.”
Here’s a video of the man singing Stardust: