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Book Review: Mel Tormé's It Wasn't ALL Velvet

My reading of late, for the most part, has been like eating potato chips and drinking soda pop: it tastes good, but isn't a proper meal. I promise the next book I read will be a novel, or a history book: something substantial. Which is not to say I didn't enjoy Mel Tormé's autobiography. It was long, but breezy and full of interesting anecdotes. The book is notable for Tormé's equanimous approach to life: he has kind words to say about almost everybody.

Tormé, of Russian Jewish stock, started out in Chicago as a child radio star. He seemed destined for a career in show business, and so it was. I always thought of Mel Tormé as a singer who also wrote a couple of famous songs (like, "Born to be Blue" and "The Christmas Song"..... Chess nuts boasting in an open foyer ... etc.) . What I didn't realize was how multi-faceted he was. He was also an accomplished drummer, an arranger, an actor, an author (who wrote magazine articles, screenplays, novels, and a tell-all book about working with Judy Garland). He collected guns and flew airplanes.

The book traces the ups and downs of his romances (four marriages; flings with Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe) and of his career in show business. It's a long parade of names, many familiar but most of them not.

I bought the book because I wanted to read about him and drummer Buddy Rich racing their identical MG sports cars through the rain, but there wasn't a lot about that, alas. But he does talk about Chico Marx, Artie Shaw, Dick Martin, Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis, Jr, and many other interesting characters.

Sometimes reading about billing and booking problems, divorces and custody battles, starts to get tedious, but Tormé has an instinct for shifting gears and moving on to a new story once that happens.

It's not your typical story about the celebrity with the fatal flaw (drinking, drugs) who overcomes it to find redemption (think of the pieces Barbara Walters would do). Tormé didn't drink or use drugs. He just plugged away until eventually, in his latter years, he came to be considered among the great ones.

You could almost score it as a tennis match. A triumph, in love or show biz, is a point for Mel; a setback, a point for the other guy. In the end, he wins the match, but by no means in straight sets.

In sum, a well-written, entertaining show business autobiography.

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November 2018

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