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Interview: Billy Stritch Talks Mel Torme

Celebrated singer-pianist pays homage to the legendary Mel Torme as part of The Cabaret Project of St. Louis virtual season of TRIBUTES

Interview: Billy Stritch Talks Mel Torme

Later this week, Billy Stritch sings Mel Torme opens The Cabaret Project of St. Louis' virtual season, TRIBUTES. New York's celebrated singer-pianist brings the legendary Mel Torme's swing and swagger direct from Birdland nightclub.

Billy Stritch sings Mel Torme streams two nights - January 23 and January 30th 7 p.m. both evenings. Tickets $25 at

Below, catch up with Stritch ahead of the shows!

What is your personal relationship with Mel Torme's music and with the man himself?

I was about 18 when I first heard Mel's great album "Live with Friends at Marty's" which was recorded over two nights at a now long gone East Side nightclub. I couldn't believe what I was hearing - the way he swung and scatted, his incredible vocal range, his great taste in selecting the songs, and his wonderful ease performing for a live audience. The whole thing just blew me away and I became a devoted fan from that point. I'd certainly known who Mel was prior to that from seeing him on television, mainly on Carol Burnett's and Lucille Ball's shows, but I had no idea what an incredible vocalist he was.

Years later, I had several chances to meet him. The first was in 1988 when my vocal trio Montgomery, Plant and Stritch opened for him at Carnegie Hall as part of the JVC Jazz Festival. He took a real interest in us at the rehearsal on the afternoon of the show by giving us pointers and helping arrange our song list. He was a real fan of vocal group singing (having had his own vocal group Mel Tormé and the Mel-Tones back in the 1940s and 50s) and loved what we did. After the show that evening he was so wonderful to spend time with my family backstage and I never forgot that.

A few years after that Liza Minnelli and I had a lovely evening with he and his wife Ali in Los Angeles. The four of us had a great dinner at the LA Friars Club where he talked about his career at MGM and his time working with Liza's mom Judy Garland on her television show - followed by a nightcap or two and music around his piano at their home in Beverly Hills. We played and sang until the wee hours and I could tell he was having the best time. I played for him, he played for me, he and Liza sang together, and we sat next to each other on the piano bench and improvised. Certainly it's a night I will never forget!

What brought about the show's creation?

For years, people always would tell me that my voice reminded them of Mel and certainly he was a huge influence on the type of material I was singing and my approach to the songs. Eventually in 2006 (a few years after his death) I decided maybe it was time to create a sort of tribute show. It really took off and I've since performed it all over the country as well as in London. My big regret is that I never got to perform the show for him. I'd like to think that he would've enjoyed it although I'm sure I would've been very nervous about it!

How did you make you make your song choices for the show and what can audiences expect?

Well first of all, the show is a tribute to Mel and his music but it's not an imitation by any stretch! I'm smart enough to avoid comparing myself in that way with Mel because certainly as a vocalist he was in a class all by himself! What I try to do is tell the audience about his start in show business and how he got to Hollywood and became a recording artist and successful songwriter. I do a couple of songs from his MGM movies as well. Most of the songs I chose are ones that I know were his favorites. Mel made so many wonderful albums and covered so much of the Great American Songbook that there was no shortage of material to choose from. The challenge was keeping it down to a manageable length of time because certainly there are hours and hours of great songs there!

Did your approach to performing the show change knowing it would be for a streaming environment?

Since I was lucky enough to film the show at Birdland I was already very comfortable. Birdland has been my performing home in New York for years and there's no better venue for my money. We had three cameras and I was able to perform with my wonderful sidemen (socially distanced of course) so the show felt very much like a live show, even without an audience in the room. I've been doing my own livestream show called "Billy's Place" on Facebook every week since the start of the pandemic so I've gotten pretty used to performing to the camera and not having an audience response. It's certainly different but ultimately it's all about the music and how you connect with the audience.

What do you want audiences to know about Mel Torme and his music when they leave the show?

Mel had such a varied career and covered a lot of bases. Most people know him solely as a singer and perhaps as the co-writer (along with Robert Wells) of "The Christmas Song", but they might not be aware that he started in show business at age 4 as a successful child actor on radio. He always sang but his real start in music was as a drummer in big bands when he was a teenager. He wrote his first hit song "Lament To Love" when he was 16 and went on the road with the Chico Marx Orchestra right out of high school. He was an actor, singer, songwriter, arranger and author. He really did it all.

I sometimes don't think Mel quite gets the recognition he should've. He probably was overshadowed by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and a few others, but for my money he was a far superior singer and recorded much more interesting material. Just my opinion! I just hope my show captures and conveys some of the musical joy and creativity he had.

Mel Torme was one of the greatest American singers. His virtuoso talents ranged from swing to scat to lush ballads. Stritch embodies those gifts along with his own brilliance at the piano. Billy Stritch sings Mel Torme covers many great American standards on which Torme put his personal stamp. Having personally known Torme, Stritch offers wonderful stories about Mel's life and career. Featuring two top New York this show is not to be missed! Streamed to your home. Tickets $25 at

TRIBUTES continues with two more great shows!

February 20 & 27 - Christine Andreas, Piaf No Regrets
March 20 & 27 - Tony DeSare and Capathia Jenkins sing Frank & Ella

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