‘Funny thing’ I said to the woman behind the Oxfam counter, as I handed over this CD and the 60p to pay for it, ‘I just don’t remember Mel Torme as being this attractive!’ She smiled politely. ‘Would you like a bag…?’ The song under discussion comes from a completely different disc –though this Moon-themed one is worth the 60p just for ‘Moonlight in Vermont’; but this little incident from last week at Hay both tickled me, and has become my way in to remembering my first Torme disc, ‘Live at the Crescendo’, a December 1954 recording (5 months after my first birthday).
So..that recording sends me to a brief window in my life where I lived technically alone – I suppose, without checking it out, that must be the two or three years after the various house-sharings and prior to my marriage i.e. the early 1980s.What was I listening to back then the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s? -nothing ‘contemporary’, I think. For much of the time I was attempting to educate myself into enjoying Beethoven; and so to Kelly’s Record Exchange (upstairs in Cardiff indoor market) I went many a Saturday with dispensable contemporary folk (bye bye Carly Simon et al) and I came home with rather tattered-sleeved secondhand discs of the symphonies, the Emperor Concerto and piano sonatas. But of course, I also listened to Joni, Bob and the Fisherfolk.
A couple of times a year at that stage in my life, and particularly in the pre-Christmas run-up, I’d take a trip to London for some mild browsing and shopping, and always called in to the used record stores around Charing Cross Road and Soho Market. There was one particular shop I loved, where the vinyl was just crammed in –not always with any perceptible notion of order –and their basement stock contained classics, easy listening, jazz, swing/crooners and humour. I found myself often drawn to picking out quirky things with which I was only modestly familiar. On one visit I brought home a Flanders and Swann LP (with its sleeve in a very sorry condition) –I played it to death and loved it. On another occasion a Noel Coward compilation, on another the double album of Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter songs –even today this is among my most prized series of recordings –have it now in CD of course. On yet another occasion, I came home with this live Mel Torme LP. What did I know of him? Why did I choose it? Did I notice perhaps that it contained the ‘Christmas Song’ (‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire…’) and did I notice on the liner notes that he was in fact its composer? Did I feel it might be a nice seasonal sound to take back home to my funny telly-less little terraced home?
If that was what I’d imagined, I wasn’t wrong. I have warming, perhaps slightly romanticised, memories of me nearing Christmas, enjoying my homely solitude, the fire banked up with coal, spreading on the floor all the Tear Fund/Traidcraft items which I had bought as gifts (working out what would fit whom), listening to this album on repeat, no doubt singing along. There couldn’t possibly be a voice that more comfortingly combines silk and huskiness, and the live performance takes us not only through Christmas Song, and another of his own compositions ‘County Fair’, but a couple of Rogers and Hart songs – the lovely ‘Blue Moon’ and this one under discussion; the Gershwins’ great ‘Love is Here to Stay’, a couple of Cole Porters, and several others, all with a genuine, winning charm.
‘Mountain Greenery’ was track one on side 2, I seem to recall –and I’d probably known the song from childhood days – Forces’ Favourites on the radio, perhaps –but to discover it again was very nice indeed. It’s a Rogers and Hart song, such a neat, playful construction both melodically (that fun climbdown on ‘greenery’ and the climb back up on ‘scenery’) and, particularly, lyrically, with jokey and inventive rhymes throughout –‘your lover let…/coverlet’; ‘planned which is…’/’sandwiches’ etc. Some great couplets: ‘How we love sequestering/Where no pests are pestering’, and ‘Beans could get no keener re/ception in a beanery’- clearly one madcap lyricist was Lorenz Hart! And I should mention the very inviting song-introduction which encourages us alluringly to a real recklessness –‘spring is here so blow your job/Throw your job away’ and ‘now’s the time to trust/to your wanderlust.’ So there’s much to delight in, while you’re sitting on the floor wrapping presents. And of course,it’s the old pastoral, Romantic idyll, the lure of the rustic retreat, the sweet scent of freedom and travel, the promise of places of perpetual peace and freshness.. shared of course romantically, this time with a small r, though the playful wit gives it a tongue-in-cheek urbane archness.(A bit like Marlowe’s ‘Come live with me and be my love..’, now I come to think of it!)
Admittedly, it’s also very much a song of its time, and not beyond mild sexism – inviting the beloved out into the country so that he could sit and watch her cooking beans –if I hear it correctly! I’ve heard Ella doing this song too on her own Rogers and Hart song book collection- it’s nice, but this version for me, by Mr Torme, is still the quintessential.