Singer Billy Stritch paying tribute to Mel Torme


Call it a tale of two singers.

The first, Mel Torme, may be a legend, with additional claims to fame as an author, actor, arranger, drummer, pianist and songwriter. (Regarding the latter, do the words “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” ring a bell?)

He’s even got a Las Vegas street to prove it. (If you’ve ever turned off Industrial Road to reach Fashion Show mall’s south entrance, you’ve driven on Mel Torme Way.)

Yet, somehow, this singer’s singer, who died in 1999, never quite reached the starry heights occupied by such luminaries as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.

Enter Billy Stritch.

An accomplished singer, pianist, composer, conductor and arranger himself, Stritch “always felt like (Torme) never quite got recognized” as he deserved.

Which explains “Billy Stritch Sings the Mel Torme Songbook,” at The Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz Friday and Saturday.

Although this weekend marks Stritch’s solo Cabaret Jazz debut, he’s already a fan of the swellegant venue, thanks to his participation in “Jim Caruso’s Cast Party” last June. (The “Party” returns to Cabaret Jazz Oct. 9.)

“It’s really a wonderful room,” Stritch says in a telephone interview from his base in (where else?) New York.

Cabaret Jazz is “like a theater, except it’s got the feeling of a nightclub,” he says. “It’s so beautiful — and the sound is so good.”

Considering the songs Stritch will be singing, it’s good the sound’s so good.

“He picked wonderful, wonderful songs,” Stritch says of such Torme favorites as “Mountain Greenery,” “Blue Moon,” “Lulu’s Back in Town” and Torme’s own “Born to Be Blue.” (Sorry, ’tis not the season for “The Christmas Song,” Stritch says.)

Whether singing creamy, dreamy ballads (the kind of material that earned Torme the nickname “The Velvet Fog” — which he reportedly despised, twisting it into “The Velvet Frog”) or uptempo, scat-punctuated swingers, Torme’s music displayed not only “great taste” but “impeccable pitch” and “wonderful arrangements.”

Stritch, 51, re-creates Torme’s arrangements in his show, which he’s been performing since 2007.

As for re-creating Torme’s smooth, jazzy sound, “it’s me — I’m not imitating him at all,” he says.

Instead, Stritch offers a guided tour of Torme’s career — which began in 1929 when the 4-year-old won an amateur-hour contest at Chicago’s Blackhawk restaurant, singing “You’re Driving Me Crazy” with the resident Coon-Sanders Orchestra.

From there, Torme won a role on the radio adventure “Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy,” wrote a hit song (“Lament to Love”) for Harry James and played drums in the Marx Brothers’ backup band.

After moving to Hollywood, Torme joined a group that became the Mel-Tones, featuring Torme’s lead vocals and jazz-influenced arrangements.

And he hit the big screen in such musicals as 1943’s “Higher and Higher” (which also marked the movie debut of another promising singer named Sinatra) and 1947’s “Good News,” in which Torme crooned two songs Stritch features: “Lucky in Love” and “The Best Things in Life Are Free.”

The show is “chronological for about the first third,” Stritch says, after which he touches on highlights from Torme’s 1950s and ’60s recordings and his later collaborations with pianist George Shearing.

Speaking of collaboration, Stritch knows a thing or two about that.

He’s been working with Liza Minnelli since 1991, when she caught his act at a New York piano bar and hired him to arrange her “Steppin’ Out At Radio City” show; they’ll be “gearing up” for a new round of performances in December, Stritch says.

Other favorite collaborators include Christine Ebersole (another Smith Center veteran), who won a Tony for the 2001 Broadway revival of “42nd Street.” (Stritch played — surprise! — the show’s crooning pianist, Oscar.)

Early in his career, Stritch had the chance to meet — and work with — Torme.

Even before then, however, Stritch knew and admired his music.

As a kid in Sugar Land, Texas, Stritch noticed Torme’s guest-starring stints on Carol Burnett’s and Lucille Ball’s TV variety shows. (Torme’s TV resume also included writing and arranging songs for the short-lived “Judy Garland Show.”)

“He was in my periphery,” says Stritch, who started his own musical career at 12, playing piano at church and then settling into a four-year gig at a country club piano bar.

But when Stritch heard a live recording of Torme in action at a nightclub, “I don’t think I breathed,” he recalls.

Stritch’s path finally crossed Torme’s at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall, where the JVC Jazz Festival teamed Torme with Montgomery, Plant & Stritch, a vocal trio Stritch formed with two of University of Houston classmates.

Torme heard, and complimented, the trio, then proceeded to “rearrange the set a little bit,” Stritch recalls. “He was very generous with his advice” — and very “delightful with my grandmother,” who joined other family members to cheer Stritch’s Carnegie Hall debut.

Through the years, Stritch spent more time with Torme — sometimes at dinner, sometimes singing and playing favorite tunes from the Great American Songbook.

“He was a great guy to get to know,” Stritch says.

And that holds true even for those who only know Torme’s music, he says.

“I discover more each time” he performs his Torme show, Stritch says, citing the swoony, croony ballad “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” as a particular favorite.

“I really soar on that song,” Stritch says. “I feel very connected with him when I do it.”

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

 

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