“I come up here and just stare at it whenever I’m feeling down or in a slump,” says Daniel Cooper, an associate editor of CMF Press at the Country Music Foundation and a freelance writer for the . His source of inspiration is Lefty Frizzell’s well-worn guitar, scuffed and scratched by years of use, now protected from the hands of time and humans in a glass case at the Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s the same guitar that played many of the songs recounted in Cooper’s superb new biography Lefty Frizzell: The Honky-Tonk Life of Country Music’s Greatest Singer, which has just been published by Little, Brown and Company.
Cooper makes a convincing case for Frizzell as the direct antecedent of the vocal style that dominates contemporary country music, a distinctive sliding-vowel technique that has been imitated by legions of singers who may not even be aware of the original source. He traces Frizzell’s rough, rollicking life from his fateful stint in a New Mexico jail to his burial in a Goodlettsville cemetery, with revealing and frequently hilarious anecdotes along the way involving everyone from George Jones (with whom Frizzell once shared a titanic bender) to Porter Wagoner.
Although Merle Haggard called Frizzell “the most unique thing that ever happened to country music”and Frizzell’s influence still lives on in the music of Haggard, George Strait, Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakamhe hasn’t gained the recognition or attention that his contemporary Hank Williams did. Perhaps Cooper’s book will draw recognition where it’s due.
The Country Music Foundation and the Vanderbilt University Press have formed a new publishing alliance. Together, they will issue reprints and new books focusing on country music and its role in popular culture. The first books to be published by the joint venture were released Aug. 29; they’ve been out of print for several years. The titles include My Husband, Jimmie Rodgers, a biography by Rodgers’ wife, Carrie Rodgers; Ruth Sheldon’s biography Bob Wills: Hubbin’ It, a first-person account of the early country music industry by Alton Delmore of the Delmore Brothers.
Two important authors will be in town in the next few weeks as part of Vanderbilt University’s Project Dialogue. Neil Sheehan will lecture on “Vietnam: Illusion and Reality,” 8 p.m. Sept. 19 in Room 114 Furman Hall. A journalist and historian, Sheehan won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for his book A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, which he wrote from his experiences as the UPI bureau chief in Saigon and later as a New York Times reporter covering the war.
Tim O’Brien will read from his latest book, , and discuss truth and representation in relation to the Vietnam War. O’Brien served as a foot soldier in Vietnam from 1969-70 and has written about it extensively in his award-winning books and The Things They Carried. Both a love story and a mystery, deals with the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Both The New Times Book Review and Time magazine named it one of the best books of 1994. O’Brien will speak 8 p.m. Sept. 25 in Room 114 Furman Hall. Both readings are free.
flautist for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, has found enough time to practice Bach and attend the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he recently won the 1995 John Simmons Short Fiction Award for his collection of short stories, Listening to Mozart. Just as a symphony is made up of movements, Wyatt uses a series of short stories to trace 40 years in the life of a flautist, James Baxter, and his relationship with Anna, a potter and artist. Listening to Mozart is slated for publication Oct. 27, 1995, by the University of Iowa Press.
Hysteria Publications, a small press in Connecticut, drew national attention last year with Is Martha Stuart LIVING?, a hilarious parody of Martha Stewart’s successful magazine. This year, the company is releasing a 1996 calendar filled with photos and Martha Stewart-like projectsincluding making homemade condoms for Valentine’s Day and building a gingerbread replica of Windsor Castle. The calendar should be available at local bookstores, or you can order one by sending $16.95 to Hysteria Publications, P.O. Box 8581, Bridgeport, CT 06605.
The Nashville Arts Coalition has agreed to provide collection sites for the nonprofit literacy organization at various arts events, beginning with the Fall Crafts Fair Sept. 29-Oct. 1. Book ’Em requests that people donate new or nearly new books for preschool children and books about art for people of all ages. Other book drops will be located at TPAC performances of the Nashville Symphony, Nashville Ballet and Tennessee Repertory Theatre, as well as the Nashville Academy Theatre’s family weekend performances. Call 834-READ for more information.
Mel Torme’s goofy mug is everywhere these days. The sweet- voiced cherub with the eternally chubby, rosy smile always seems to be singing, selling and hamming it up, hawking products on TV and radio, or making quick comic cameos on sitcoms. As if that weren’t enough, he celebrated his 70th birthday on Wednesday amid yet another mind-bogglingly busy year. Besides his ubiquitous on-air presence, he published his sixth book, My Singing Teachers, released his umpteenth album, A Tribute to Bing Crosby: Paramount’s Greatest Singer, and kept up a seemingly endless tour of concert halls and nightclubsincluding a monthlong engagement in New York City last spring.
Meanwhile, Laserlight Digital recently released a three CD-set, The Essential Mel Torme, featuring recordings from the mid-1940s with various trios and big bands. Verve Records put out a sumptuous 16-song collection, , that gathers songs from 1958 to 1961, one of his greatest periods. And Capitol joined the parade with the 18-song disc Great Gentleman of Song, which features tunes recorded between 1949 and 1951, including a couple of stunning, previously unreleased live numbers (“Heart and Soul,” “I Love Each Move You Make”) recorded with Torme sitting at the piano with bass and drum backing.
Why, then, is Mel Torme one of the most underrated talents in American music? When lists of great jazz singers are compiled, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole and perhaps Joe Williams and Bing Crosby may join the ranks of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday. Rarely does Torme make the list, but he should. More musically accomplished and with a more perfect tone than any of his male peers, Torme has a blithe, sanguine tenor that can swing with dizzy inventiveness or croon with warm, full expressiveness. He is the male equivalent of Ella Fitzgeraldalways on pitch, always swinging, always achieving technical perfection. Ella, like many singers, also was one of his greatest fans. When asked by talk show host Mike Douglas to name her favorite singers, Fitzgerald mentioned Torme, Vaughan, Sinatra and Bennett. “He has mesmerized me since I used to catch him in the Chicago clubs,” she said at another time. “He makes you listen.” Billie Holiday, another fan, said of him, “I always liked his singing.... No matter what he was doing, he wasn’t imitating anybody, and he had that beat.” Ethel Waters said he was “the only white man who sang with the soul of a black man.”
Perhaps Torme is underrated for the same reason that his funny, happy face keeps popping up in the strangest of nonmusical places. With his aggressively chipper presence, he has been transformed into kitsch in an age that loves to poke fun at anyone who doesn’t come across as tragic or coolly detached. He’s Mickey Rooney instead of Judy Garlandeven though the latter considered him a close confidant. (Torme wrote sensitively of their relationship in one of his best books, The Other Side of the Rainbow.)
Whatever it is that has caused people to overlook Torme, it’s about perception and not about reality or talent. Despite his high standing among the finest of musicians, despite his friendship with everyone from the calm to the untamedfrom Bing Crosby to Buddy Rich, from Woody Herman to Stan Getz, from Nat King Cole to Hugh HefnerTorme seems to be stuck with the public image of a friendly cornball who tries a little too hard to please.
Those who know him speak of someone completely different: someone erudite, hip, and gentle yet outspoken. This is the man who jazz singer Margaret Whitingwhose own boisterous reputation was confirmed when she married an ex-porn star 20 years her junioronce called one of her favorite party pals. But it’s Torme’s musical contributions that deserve more recognition. Music critic Will Friedwald, who specializes in jazz vocalists, ranks Torme and Anita O’Day as progressively modern singers whose artistry may be the most underappreciated of their generation. Critic George Simon, considered an authority on swing-era musicians, wrote of Torme, “[He’s] a remarkably gifted musician who often fashioned his own very sophisticated arrangements, [with] a unique voice with a tawny veiled quality that earned him an affectionately tendered nickname, ‘The Velvet Fog.’ In style, he represented the first interesting extension of Sinatra’s style, embodied in a tenor rather than a baritone voice, and urged always in a more jazz-oriented direction.”
Maybe Torme’s glib stage presence, which incorporates a bit of Hollywood showiness, leads some not to take his talent as seriously as they should. But he’s a show business kid: By age 4, he appeared regularly with the Coon-Sanders Orchestra at the famed Blackhawk restaurant, where drummer Carleton Coon would prop him up on a knee to let him warble such songs as “You’re Driving Me Crazy.” At age 15, Torme sold the song “Lament of Love” to bandleader Harry James. By 17, he was performing as lead vocalist in the Chico Marx Orchestra and appearing in movies. By 19, he had formed the Mel-Tones, a choral group that supported him with the harmonic sophistication of a good brass section, thereby giving new depth to the possibilities of background singers. By age 20, another of his compositions, “Stranger in Town,” was a Top 10 hit for Martha Tilton. By his 21st year, he had cowritten “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” and personally taken it to Nat King Cole, whose classic recording has made it one of the most popular holiday songs of all timeas well as one of the world’s most lucrative copyrights. Torme often refers to it as “my annuity”; he could have retired a long time ago and lived solely on his annual income from the song.
But he’s an artist, and a tireless one at that, so he keeps pushing his work out there. “I love to sing,” he writes in his latest book. “A career should be a work in progress, a giant learning curve. At least that is the way I view my life.”
Elsewhere in the book, Torme recalls a time the famed composer Richard Rodgers, whom he worshipped, stood in a studio booth listening to him record “Blue Moon” with the MGM Orchestra. Torme toyed with the phrasing, the tempo and lyrics, as a great jazz interpreter should. He eventually dropped a word from the chorus“Blue Moon/You knew just what I was there for/You heard me saying a prayer [pause]/For someone I really could care for.” Suddenly, Rodgers burst into session and interrupted, screaming, “No, no, no.” He didn’t appreciate Torme’s individual takea scenario that underscores the difference between the distinctiveness of a good jazz singer and the more straightforward style of a trained, Broadway-style performer.
Torme explains that he wants to dramatize a lyric the way poets enliven their words in performance. “I choose my songs very, very carefully,” he says, adding later, “I never sing the same song the same way twice. If they weren’t, then we might as well, all of the singers of America, meet in a midnight conclave at Madison Square Garden and elect one person to sing all the songs for us.”
Were that to happen, Mel Torme would make a good choice. Instead, he’ll go on, in a voice still vibrantly expressive and richly toned, proving that he’s one of the best. Maybe someday the world will catch on.
Mel Torme performs Sept. 15 and 16 with the Nashville Symphony.
The shooting location for hard bodies gym was formerly the Paramus, NJ location of Tower…
This is like a flashback to the '80s, when Ted Turner was colorizing CASABLANCA and…
That clip is horrifying. It looks like postmortem makeup. Very uncanny valley.
AGGGHHHH that last picture!
LE JOUR SE LEVE is far superior to its American remake, THE LONG NIGHT (1947),…