Episode 36: ¡Olé Tormé!: Mel Tormé Goes South of the Border with Billy May (Mel Tormé, 1959)
“Have you ever been embarrassed / when you’re in a smart café / when they play that Latin tempo / is your dancing quite passé?”
Sure, we’ve all been there. It’s the worst.
Luckily, while Madam La Zonga’s Main Street dance studio has surely long since been converted into luxury apartments, we have the bullishly powerful yet playfully mano a mano recorded collaboration between El Sr. Mel Tormé y El Sr. Billy May—1959’s ¡Olé Tormé! Mel Tormé Goes South of the Border with Billy May—to guide our ears toward what was hip in the late 1950s with regard to Latin-tinged jazz. It’s less “bringing out the Latin in you”—as those six lessons from Madam La Zonga advertised—and more a gentle misting of yourself with a commercial and highly polished version of the style.
I say “the” style, but in fact May and Tormé for this album chose a collection of songs of or—let’s be honest, more often than not—at very least name-checking Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic.
The album’s cover photograph shows Tormé standing proudly in a full-on torero getup, holding the requisite roseate flag—better than a fruit-hat, I suppose—and May, ever the cut-up, sitting on the ground, bedecked with sombrero and Mexican blanket, scowling at the camera with his hands in the “Hey, what gives?” position.
From the opening, old-time rock-and-roll groove on “Malagueña” (a.k.a. “At the Crossroads”), it’s clear that there is more to this album than exotic parody. And when the big band swings, it swings like hell, and when the brass section rips forth its joyous mambo splats, it does so with verve and heart. Say what you will about the very real potential for and existence of the problematic in a project such as this—you can’t say May and Tormé don’t give it their all.
While there is just plain no getting around the fact that the “Latin” elements that grace this record are almost entirely rooted in the gaze of an outsider charmed by an exotic otherness, for May, at least it’s not his first rodeo. In the late ’40s, for example, May was tasked by Capitol Records to provide original music for a 3-disc set of 10-inch records featuring child-star Margaret O’Brien called Let’s Fly to Mexico: A Travelog for Children. Described briefly, in its stunted, space-saving manner, in a March 1948 issue of Billboard magazine—then called “The Billboard”—the project “relates story of [O’Brien’s] Mexican vacation in interesting, appealing fashion. Starting with plane trip to the land south of the border, Margaret leads young listeners around the fascinating country, acting role of Mexican child as well as herself.” (As an aside, there was neat feature at the end of these old The Billboard snippets that gauged how the album might fare in jukeboxes and in the hand disc-jockeys, respectively: “Jukes and Jocks.” For those keeping score at home, Let’s Fly to Mexico is “not suitable” for jukeboxes, but “great for recorded kiddie shows.”)
A more contemporary example comes in the form of May’s first collaboration with Frank Sinatra entitled Come Fly with Me—which was its own musical travelogue of sorts—released in 1958, just a year before ¡Olé Tormé!
When Sinatra came to Capitol Records in 1953—May was, at the time, dabbling with leading a road band—his first sessions included a cover of a May song called “Lean Baby” as well as Nelson Riddle’s unabashedly May-ish arrangement—not least by way of its soupy, “slurping” saxophones—of “South of the Border.” (As it happens, that Riddle arrangement would eventually find an appropriate home as a bonus track in the late-’90s CD re-release of the aforementioned Come Fly with Me.)
In fact, speaking of “South of the Border,” May’s arrangement for Tormé included a brief and comic detour (before a final feel-good modulation) into the well-known “Mexican Hat Dance”—a song that May had arranged some years earlier for Woody Herman’s orchestra under the title “Mexican Hat Trick”—complete with tongue-in-cheek lyrics describing a run-in with his flame’s husband, who threatens to rearrange the narrator’s “face-o” but for one peso.
With a lesser arranger behind the pen, many of the songs on ¡Olé Tormé! could have easily slipped down the series of pegs into tepid and edgeless lounge music. But with May scoring, even the most lightweight songs are brimming with effervescent wit and vitality.
One of my favorites on this record is an Alberto Domínguez song called “Frenesí,” which, aside from being a hit for Artie Shaw in 1940, saw great cover versions from artists as diverse as saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, Ray Charles, and Pérez Prado, a Cuban bandleader dubbed “The King of Mambo.” (Incidentally, Prado would, nearly a decade after ¡Olé Tormé!, release a great record called, simply, Latino, which featured not only “Frenesí,” but also two other songs taken on by May and Tormé on their collaboration, namely “Perfidia” and “Adios.”) Despite the title, Tormé and May provide a most unfrenzied reading of the song, and along with some fun side-slipping modulations toward the end, the version shows off Tormé incredible technique, twirling ornaments with aplomb.
The 1950s was, so to speak, a period of import for Cuban music in the US. (I Love Lucy, which debuted in 1951, was insanely popular, and thus the primary source of many Americans’ knowledge of Cuba and its music.) In 1954, Down Beat magazine reported that “almost all dance halls and night clubs now require its band to have at least some mambos in their books.” The cha-cha-chá arrived on American shores soon after. Don’t be fooled, of course. This music that was unfurling from the hi-fis of Johnny and Jane 50sAmerica was hardly anything that could be described as authentic. This fact alone, though, isn’t entirely disheartening—as ¡Ole Tormé! shows, drawing wispy strains up from the south and gently wrapping them around an energetic big band can really be a kick. But the movement—it should go without saying—did have its share of cultural side-effects.
Writer Louis A. Pérez, in an essay within the 2003 book Inside Cuba: The History, Culture, and Politics of an Outlaw Nation, lamented the Cuban composers and musicians in the ’50s struggling to compete in the market for commercialized rhumba, mambo, and cha-cha-chá: “Simply put,” he wrote, “they could not produce credible adulterations such as ‘Papa Loves Mambo’ and the ‘Davey Crockett Mambo.’ In the process, much creative energy went into the development of execrable material, little of which succeeded but had the net effect of subverting the authenticity of the genre.” There is something about that turn of phrase that Pérez uses—“credible adulterations,” the idea that artists felt forced to try on the kitsch that they themselves inspired—that just breaks my heart.
¡Olé Tormé! for sure has its share of questionable cultural appropriation and lyrical issues, particularly listened to with 2016 ears—I immediately think, for example, of the line in “Six Lessons from Madam La Zongo that goes, “When the madam starts to squawk / that’s her Latin double-talk”—but, that said, does this album sound fantastic? Hell yes it does. It’s quintessential Billy May—bringing beautiful, brash, subtle, witty, grin-inducing big band arrangements—a crazy-solid band packed with first-rate west-coast players and, of course, Mel Tormé, at the peak of his punch.
Check it out.
I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.