PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
March 7, 2006

Honoring the Father

by Jim Newsom

Although his father was jazz vocal legend Mel Torme, Steve March Torme grew up wanting to be a baseball player or a pop-rock singer, dreams not uncommon among boys of the baby boom generation.

“I wish I had a more interesting, offbeat, outside-the-box story,” he said in a recent telephone conversation, “but my two heroes were the obvious ones for everybody of my era---The Beatles and Mickey Mantle. I wanted to be a baseball player before I wanted to do anything, and like a billion other little kids, Mickey Mantle was who I looked up to. And I wanted to play for the Yankees.

“When The Beatles came out, they changed not only the entire face of pop music, they changed culture around the world. Everybody changed their lifestyle because of The Beatles.

“I didn’t listen to jazz growing up, I listened to pop music. And that’s what I wanted to do. In the past ten to twelve years, more and more people said ‘you obviously have these very strong jazz leanings, why are you fighting them?’ And that’s where I gravitated to. But my roots are really in The Beatles; that’s where my heart is.”

He’s also very proud of his father’s musical legacy, and gratefully acknowledges the jazz sensibilities that Mel passed on to him genetically. It’s that connection that brings him to the Roper Performing Arts Center Friday night for the final Jazz on Granby concert of the season, “Totally Torme.” For this show, Steve will sing songs associated with his dad, share some stories, some photographs and some laughs.

Ironically, though, the two didn’t spend much time together when Steve was a youngster. In fact, the “March” in his stage name comes from his stepfather, actor and game show host Hal March, best known as emcee of The $64,000 Question in the 1950s.

“I didn’t grow up with my dad,” he told me. “Hal March really brought me up. My folks were divorced when I was two years old. Hal and my mom and my family lived in New York, in Westchester County, and Mel lived in California. So I didn’t see him except for very rare trips when he would come to New York to perform. It was just a matter of circumstance; we were separated by two coasts.

“Then when our family moved out to California, I was pretty much ensconced in the March family. I was the oldest, and I had four brothers and sisters, and Hal had raised me. When we moved out, I didn’t see Mel that much only because he was traveling so much, performing a lot. And he had his side of the family that he was raising. So I saw him on holidays and once in a while.

“I had such a strong father figure in Hal. Hal was an extremely dynamic personality, and a great father, strong disciplinarian, my sports coach, and also had musical chops. He did musical theatre, did the lead in The Music Man. He was like everything to me, so I didn’t feel like I had lost out on much by not having a closer relationship with Mel until afterwards.”

March died in 1970, but it would still be a few more years before Steve and his biological dad would fully connect. Being a strong-willed young adult, he wanted to establish himself as his own person without trading on the famous last name. He even recorded an album in the late ‘70s called Lucky, under the name Steve March.

“When Hal passed away,” he said, “I struck out on my own. I didn’t see Mel all that much until my late 20s, early 30s. Then we started spending some time together. The truth of the matter is, strange as it may seem, my relationship with him has gotten closer since he died because I’ve learned about him and what made him tick. And now that I’m a father, the dynamics of being somebody’s son and/or father gave me a little more understanding into his relationship with me.

“There were a few occasions where I would ask him to perform with me, when I was doing a gig in LA. And he never refused me; he did it a couple of times when he really didn’t feel well. And I don’t think I appreciated it at the time, and I don’t think I realized then that it should have been taken more seriously. He took what he did very seriously. I really appreciate his professionalism. I don’t think he ever got on a stage unprepared, and now I do the same thing. I really am a stickler about that.

“It’s so strange. We didn’t grow up together, and we never talked about this, but we both loved World War I and World War II airplanes. We both were fascinated by this stuff, and that has to be genetic. And thank God, he gave me a good set of ears so that I can sing.”

And sing he can. A listen to his most recent album, The Essence of Love, reveals a vocalist with a pop awareness and jazz phrasing reminiscent of Mel Torme’s, and an expressive voice that is pitched lower than his dad’s.

“I think he had a little more air in his voice,” he said of his father, “and mine’s a deeper baritone. Hopefully people will say, ‘two different singers and they both could sing.’”

After spending his life in New York and Los Angeles, Steve March Torme moved to Wisconsin five months ago. His wife is a native of the Badger state, and they have two young children. Next year, he goes on the road to perform with symphony orchestras in a show called “Songs I Love to Sing: Bernstein to The Beatles.”

But Friday night, he’ll hit the Roper stage with a trio led by his longtime musical director, Steve Rawlins, a highly regarded composer and arranger. And the foursome will conjure up the joyful musical spirit of the incomparable Mel Torme.

“My goal in doing this show is keeping his name alive and giving me a vehicle to get in front of audiences and benefit both of us. I hope people hear it and say ‘it’s a lovely tribute, the guy really loved his dad,’ and at the same time get people to be familiar with me. With the last name, at least people may perk their ears up and say, ‘Let’s see if he can sing too.’”

copyright © 2006 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.