Picks and Pans Review: My Singing Teachers

updated 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Mel Tormé

Ignore the title. This chatty tour isn't a textbook. Instead, the Velvet Fog offers vignettes about folks who redefined American pop singing, names like Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Fred Astaire, Ethel Waters and Nat "King" Cole dot the 22 chapter headings. The book's engaging first half focuses on individuals, with each chapter serving up a bit of bio and insight into how a vocalist affected American music and Tormé himself. Often Tormé provides personal touches—like how he first heard Bessie Smith at age 5, with his father and two uncles in a Chicago movie palace, or how he tried but couldn't get friendly with Astaire (too private and insecure). And sometimes he pitches significant detail—explaining his focus on lyrics rather than melody, for instance, or why he simplified his scatting. At other times he just makes glancing tributes to the influence of a legend like Smith or Waters. Unfortunately the book's second half sags with unwieldy chapters like Band Leaders Who Sing. But the real virtue of My Singing Teachers comes with its takes on the underrated, like Lee Wiley, or the half-Greek, half-Lebanese, Mozambique-born Al Bowlly. When Tormé and pal Hugh Hefner have their Monday-night get-togethers at Hef's California mansion, it's Bowlly they listen to. (Oxford University Press, $19.95)

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