The Bethlehem Years

by: Mel Tormé

Like Frank Sinatra's classic LPs for Capitol and Ella Fitzgerald's songbook series on Verve, Mel Tormé's recordings for the Bethlehem label hit such dramatic heights in artistry -- and maintained them -- that the artist would never quite escape their excellence despite remaining a respected and rewarded performer for decades afterward. Bethlehem was the home of Tormé's first mature full-length statement, It's a Blue World, which proceeded from his undergraduate studies of the 1940s with the Mel-Tones and his advanced post-grad work on the first version of Mel Tormé's California Suite (which he recorded again while at Bethlehem). That Tormé on Bethlehem isn't known well by the wider music-buying public is down to the label's tortuous history (it folded in the middle of his contract) and Tormé's short stint there (six billed records within three years). It certainly can't be the quality of the material that causes the low profile, for if Lulu's Back in Town or Mel Tormé Sings Fred Astaire had remained in print like any of Sinatra's LPs, they would have acquired the same high profile. Leave it to those entrepreneurial wizards at Shout! Factory to introduce the first major-label compilation devoted to that excellent period. Better still, beyond the gripe of including only 16 tracks, The Bethlehem Years makes all the right choices for material. The two records mentioned immediately above are each given four slots, with Tormé's buoyant vocals backed in great fashion by Marty Paich's Dek-tette, which makes a statement that a well-chosen ten-piece band can pack a punch while also leaving the vocalist plenty of space. Tormé's gift for entertaining at live appearances is also given quality time, including several songs from his appearances at the Crescendo in Los Angeles. ~ John Bush

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