Tormé was born Melvin Howard Tormé in Chicago of immigrant Russian-Jewish parents. A child prodigy, he began singing publicly at the age of four, acting by age nine, and playing drums by time he was a teenager. His first published song, "Lament to Love," was recorded by Harry James when Tormé was only 15.
Tormé went on to publish some 250 songs, mostly in collaboration with Bob Wells. Their best known effort is "The Christmas Song," recorded by Nat King Cole in 1945, and a holiday classic ever since. Tormé frequently commented that the song took less than an hour to write and was not one of his personal favorites.
During the war years, Tormé performed in led the Mel-Tones, a vocal group specializing in jazzy arrangements, usually backed by the swing band of Artie Shaw.
In 1947, Tormé went solo, recording a number of romantic hits, including the number one "Careless Love." His high pitched, silky-smooth vocal style earned him the sobriquet "Velvet Fog," which he disliked.
During the 1950s, as rock and roll increased in popularity, Tormé abandoned the commercial path and turned more and more to jazz. Critics say his art reached its first creative peak on a series of albums arranged by Marty Paich, one of the leading figures in West Coast jazz of that period.
With the resurgence of jazz in the 1970, Tormé entered another artistically fertile period. During the last twenty years of his career he recorded frequently in a variety of settings, the best known of which were a series of concerts with pianist George Shearing. In addition to producing a steady stream of albums, he performed live up to two hundred live dates annually, and appeared regularly on television. In the mid-90s he even gained popularity among Generation Xers for his appearances in a series of Mountain Dew commercials and on Seinfeld.
In August 1996, a debilitating stroke in abruptly ended his 65-year singing career.
In a eulogy after his death, John Andrews wrote:
Tormé's style shared much with that of his idol, Ella Fitzgerald. Both were firmly rooted in the foundation of the swing era, but both seemed able to incorporate bebop innovations to keep their performances sounding fresh and contemporary. Like Sinatra, they sang with perfect diction and brought out the emotional content of the lyrics through subtle alterations of phrasing and harmony. Ballads were characterized by paraphrasing of the original melody which always seemed tasteful, appropriate and respectful to the vision of the songwriter. Unlike Sinatra, both Fitzgerald and Tormé were likely to cut loose during a swinging up-tempo number with several scat choruses, using their voices without words to improvise a solo like a brass or reed instrument.