Steve March-Tormé – Interview

Carly Kutsup: Your latest single “I Remember Christmas Time” reminds me of the classic Christmas tunes my grandparents and parents played on the now vintage record player. It really brings that nostalgic feeling of Christmas back and reminds me of being a kid spending almost every holiday traveling into New York City to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.  What influenced you to write this song 76 years after your father [Mel Torme] wrote “The Christmas Song”? What did you draw from for this song?

Steve March-Tormé: Well, this song didn’t start off like this. This is a song that I wrote called “A Different Time” and it’s a reflective tune looking back on how I ended up in Wisconsin, especially for somebody who was born in Manhattan and lived in Westchester County for about 12 years. I lived in L.A for 30 years and I ended up living out here in Appleton, Wisconsin [with] my daughters and wife. I was at a park one day with my kids when they were two and four years old and I was reflecting on what a strange circuitous route I have taken to end up in the middle of the country after living in L.A. for so many years. It was a look back at that, and it was a lovely tune. I really liked it and a friend of mine who I just finished doing a bunch of Christmas concerts with, Michael Bailey, said, “You know, I’ve always loved that song and it brought a tear to my eye the first time I heard it.” I said, “Well, then it’s probably a good song.” He said, “But I keep hearing a different title” and I said, “Well okay, what do you hear?” He said, “I keep hearing ‘I remember Christmas time and I keep seeing this. It keeps evoking these images of my Christmas.” I said, “Well that’s fine. Why don’t you write a song and call it ‘I Remember Christmas Time’.” He said, “Well, we already have the music here. If you change the title and we change some of the words and make it more about looking at our past, the way we looked at Christmas as kids, I think we might have something special.” So that’s really what happened.

I now have two songs with different lyrics, but “I Remember Christmas Time” was not intentionally written like “Well, my dad wrote a song. I’ve waited 76 years. It’s time to write mine.” It just kind of came about by accident. The great thing is so many people have liked the song. [It was] on 52 stations across the country. That’s unbelievable; 19 states and three countries, so I’m thrilled. Our goal obviously is for this song to get traction so that next year it becomes part of the pantheon of Christmas songs. What I really want is to have someone cover it, and as much as I like my version and ego wise, I’d love to say, “Yeah, I had the hit record”, I’d like to hear Vince Gill sing it. He’s got a beautiful voice. He would bring in a country audience that I think would also like that song.

CK: Especially with COVID, people are really wanting that warm feeling. That’s what that song reminds me of, that warm Christmas feeling of getting together with family rather than sitting at home during the holidays.

SMT: I couldn’t agree more and it just kind of turned out that way. The lyrics are pretty Norman Rockwellian with Christmas trees and lights and “Auld Lang Syne”. And yes, timing wise, in the last two years it’s not been a big secret it has been really tough for a lot of people. Actually, if you want to go beyond that, the last six years have been a tad tenuous for a lot of people. I think it’s nice for people to hear something that helps them just turn their mind off.  In fact, I, myself, just want to enjoy this and think about what it was like when I was a kid and how much I love Christmas. I keep hearkening back to how different it is when you’re eight years old because when you’re a kid, you’re starting to count down the days from like December 1st “Only 24 more days! Only 24 more days! Is it here yet?” Then, on Christmas morning it’s, “Can we open our presents? Can we open our presents?” while flying down the stairs.

CK: What is your favorite thing about the holiday season and how do you typically spend it?

SMT: It really is my kids. They’re old enough now that it’s not all about presents. We get them good stuff and we always try to surprise them every year by getting them something nice, but they love decorating the tree. They love the tradition. Surprisingly for a couple of pretty woke teenagers, they’re really into the tradition of “We gotta do the tree,” and we always do this the same day. It’s “This is your ornament, and this is my ornament and this one goes on first.” They get to spend time with their grandmother, my wife’s mom, because my folks have all passed away, they love that. It’s seeing how much fun they have. It’s a real typical parent’s answer, but that really is the truth. That’s the best thing about Christmas for me; it’s them opening a present and saying surprisingly “Are you kidding?!?!” That’s pretty cool.

CK: What does the songwriting and producing an album process look like for you? What is your typical flow?

SMT: I am driven by melodies and harmonies. I’m stereotyping a little bit, but a lot of music written today is rhythm driven, which is fine. People start with a drum track and then they write something to it. Then they try to write a melody to it or lyrics. I’m kind of the opposite. I will hear a melody in my head because I was brought up on all these pretty melodic pop writers: James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, Steely Dan, Todd Rundgren and The Doobie Brothers. They are kind of pop artists with some jazz inflections. I usually start with a melody and the lyrics come later. Everything’s been written about, so you’ve got to try and find new ways to write something from your viewpoint that’s not the same old rhyme scheme. I get bored quickly, so I won’t write lyrics like “Everything is going to be alright. I’m going to see you tonight.” It’s just too easy. So, I will agonize over trying to put together interesting lyrics without making it so obvious, but at the same time not being obnoxious. There’s a fine line between writing something that’s clever that you like and something that’s obnoxious.

Sometimes I will write something as an obvious homage to the songwriters I grew up on. There’s a song I wrote called “Smoke in the Dark” that’s on my last album. I’ve never seen someone smoking with the lights out completely. I’m sure some people do, but part of smoking is seeing the smoke. I don’t envision people sitting in a completely dark room lighting up and smoking a cigarette and I was thinking about somebody who I thought would do that because they smoked so much. It was one of my idols, Joni Mitchell. I purposely put musical passages in that song and lyrics in that song that, if you know her work at all, you go “Oh okay. That’s interesting now. That’s from the “Blue Album”, that’s from “Hejira”, that’s from “Court and Spark”.” I tried to make it subtle, but still obvious enough that people that are fans of hers would get it.

There’s another song called “A Night at the Zoo”, which is a tribute to Steely Dan, I used some of their chord changes, but I don’t try to hide it. Usually, it’s my own stuff. Even the song that you were referring to, “I Remember Christmas Time”, the very end of that ends with a glockenspiel going “ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding.” That’s the opening line to my dad’s song “Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire”. So, I tried to hide that in there. It’s a nice little tribute to him.

CK: Other than the influences you have mentioned, what other musicians have had an influence on you personally as well as on your career?

SMT: Todd Rundgren who I believe is a Philly boy, not a Jersey boy, because of his chord changes, the way he writes songs. He has a very specific way that he puts chords together. He got the way he writes from listening to Laura Nyro and Bert Bacharach of all people. It’s a lot of major seventh chords and minor seventh chords, which aren’t necessarily used a lot in pop or rock music. I listen to his stuff a lot.

I don’t think my dad influenced me other than trying to write interesting stuff, like putting that tag at the end of “I Remember Christmas Time.” I try to write some special material once in a while. If I put together a medley, I try to make it interesting so that if it’s two or three songs they can go back and forth without it just being “this song goes to this song goes to this song”. I’ll try to take the bridge from this and put it to the verse to this and then go back to the ending of this. My dad did that a lot. He was really good at it. I’m not trying to emulate him, but I I’ve got the genes so there’s some stuff that I’d be influenced by even if I never lived with him. He’s my dad, so I know that there’s some influence there.

I think, Randy Newman to some extent. I like the songs he writes. I wish I could write like The Beatles, but then again, a billion of us wish we could write like The Beatles so I’ve tried not to; you’re only going to embarrass yourself. I don’t write anything like it, but I was heavily influenced by a “West Side Story”, which came out like 1954.

CK: You talked about your father and how he had his influence on you as far as having come from a musical background, but how did your stepfather [Hal March] have an influence on you and your career as a musician?

SMT: He had more of an influence on my life, but he also had an influence on my career as a musician because he was also a song and dance man. He wasn’t just a TV host. He could sing and he could hoof a little bit. He did musicals. Back in the days when actors weren’t working on a TV show, during the summer they do something called Summer Stock. They would go out to these little theaters out in New Jersey or Massachusetts. You would get to see someone that you see on TV all year long doing the “Odd Couple” or “The Music Man”. 

My stepfather brought me up. He was the disciplinarian in the house. He was the one that told you “No, you’re not going out there because your grades aren’t good enough”, but he also, as far as my career goes, told me “It really doesn’t matter to me what you choose as a profession. If you want to be a garbage man, I will support you all the way. Just try to be the best garbage man you can be. Period.” Instilling that kind of self-esteem in somebody is invaluable. It is priceless and there are too many males and females, but I will only speak from the male perspective, whose dads didn’t give them that self-esteem and beat them down by saying “You’re never going to be anything”, “I wish we never had you.” There are kids that come from really bad homes. A lot of them end up incarcerated. The best thing one can possibly get out of telling their kid they’re not going to make it is “See, I told you so.”

I have two teenage daughters and I’ve told them the same thing: “Do anything you want, and I will support you.” They are confident. Their self-esteem is through the roof because we’ve given them that kind of basis and I got that from my stepfather and my real father. Even my real father never said “You know, it’s really tough to be in this business. I’ve been very successful, but that’s very unusual. It’s a tough path you’re going down here, and people are going to compare you to me.” We also didn’t spend that much time together, so it wasn’t going to happen anyway.

I have even told my kids “If the farthest you ever go is regional theater, great. You’re still going to enjoy the whole thing of performing for people and evoking emotion amongst them, making some people cry at times because you’ve opened yourself up.”    

CK: You formed friendships with other children of celebrities, such as Liza Minelli, Desi Arnaz Jr. and Dean Martin Jr. How did that helped you navigate the entertainment industry?

SMT: Good timing. My wife and I watched a movie the other night called “Being the Ricardo’s”. It stars Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz and it’s a behind the scenes look at “I Love Lucy”. It’s about the show itself, what was going on in their marriage at the time, what was going on with the show and what was going on politically because Lucy was being accused of being a communist. It was in the headlines and it was complete nonsense. I really liked the movie a lot and when I read the reviews some people said, “You know, I didn’t really like ‘I Love Lucy’ and I didn’t think that show was funny and this was even less funny.” I thought, “Well, it wasn’t a comedy.” It’s actually a pretty sad story and it really takes a look at Lucille Ball, her career, how she came up, how she met Dezi and how she fell in love with him because he was so smart and funny. Once they started doing this show, they were constantly battling censors because Lucy got pregnant with her second child and Dezi said, “Well, let’s have it be a part of the show.” The producers said, “Absolutely not. No way!” Phillip Morris, who was the main sponsor of the show, told them that they couldn’t show a pregnant woman on TV and when Dezi asked why, he was told “Well how did she get there?” Dezi’s response was, “I think people know how she got pregnant.” He was told, “No, no, no. You two sleep in separate beds in the show.” Dezi responded with, “Well, then we’ll put the beds together.” Again, they were told “Absolutely not!”  So, they were going through the social mores of that time, which would be the late 50s, early 60s. They were dealing with that. They were dealing with her being accused of being a communist, which means certain people wouldn’t watch the show, and they were dealing with the fact that she was suspicious of Dezi’s infidelities early on in their marriage.

I spent a lot of time in that house. I spent a lot of time in Lucy’s house with Dezi Jr. This was after she got divorced from Dezi Sr., but I even spent time with Dezi Sr. too in his house down in Bel Mar. Desi Jr. and I would go down there for a summer and spend time with him. It was interesting to be around people like that because I’ve done interviews with newspapers and radio stations and they have said, “You seem like a fairly normal guy. You seem kind of grounded.” Well, I am a fairly normal and I am grounded because my dad didn’t let me get away with anything. I didn’t come from “Well, when you’re 16 that BMW will be waiting for you.”  I worked for my car for two summers.

Unfortunately, in some ways, there were cautionary tales from the people you mentioned. Some of them just spiraled out of control and not really their fault, but things happened in those families. I had an interesting relationship with Dean Martin Jr., who you mentioned. He was Dean Sr.’s golden boy. He was almost too handsome; like really pretty. He was between Dean and Dean’s wife, Dino was a combination of the two… blonde hair, blue eyes, overall, a great looking guy. He was also a really good athlete. He raced cars over in Europe. He was the kind of guy that couldn’t go fast enough, and it wasn’t drugs. It was in the literal sense. He just couldn’t go fast enough. He was the first person I saw who had a Lamborghini Miura, which is now an iconic sports car. There aren’t that many of them out there. He had one of the first ones. He was driving around Beverly Hills and he was only 17. After that, it was another car and then they weren’t fast enough, so he went to Europe, and he bought a P4 Ferrari; one that he actually raced on the Le Mans Circuit. He’s driving that around and you can’t drive fast as you’re going to get stopped all the time. So, he joined the Air Force Reserve where he could fly jets and really go fast. Unfortunately, he got inverted in the San Gabriel Mountains and lost perspective of where he was. That was the end of him. He crashed into the San Gabriel Mountains, probably going about 600 miles an hour and he died. We were all at the funeral and it was surreal. It was just so strange. You would think it’s something that would be written into a television show and people would go “That’s a little too over the top.” I was sitting there at the funeral and sitting behind me was Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. All these different people were there for Dean’s funeral.

I was around a lot of this. Carrie Fischer and I went to high school together and Richard Dreyfuss was the year before me. Lorraine Newman from Saturday Night Live was in my math class too. I was around a lot of this and again I’m really fortunate that my family life, even though it wasn’t “Leave it to Beaver”, at least it wasn’t out of control. I didn’t run off to Vegas and say, “I’ll see you later. Don’t tell me what to do.” I had the reins on me, so I really learned from being in that environment that I’m better off having a gyroscope that’s not spiraling out of control. It was probably good for me to be around people like that, some of whom had a few more problems than I did because there was no anchor for them.

CK: What has it been like to host your own radio show as well as have been the vocalist on the game show “The New $100,000 Name That Tune”?

SMT: I got a call from a guy who was managing me at the time. He said, “I have an audition for you” and I said, “Okay.” My ambition was basically get a record deal. Be out of there, doing music. I said, “You got an audition for me for a game show?” He goes, “Yeah” and I said, “What’s it for?” He tells me it’s for a game show. I asked him “Why would I want to audition for a game show when I am trying to get a record deal?” He said, “Well, if you’ll shut up and listen for a second, I’ll make some sense here. It’s a nationally syndicated game show that’s on ABC. The show is “It’s the Hundred Thousand Dollar Name that Tune” and if you get the gig you’re going to be on every week and millions of people are going to see you as opposed to the maybe 100 that are going to come to a club.” I said “That does make some sense”, so I went in for the audition. I’ve never forgotten this because there was no band, there was no piano player there. If you brought a guitar and you can sing and play, they’ll let you do that, but basically, I went into an office and there was a casting person and an associate director. It was a little office. That was it. I said hi and they asked if I was Steve. I was then told to sing. I stood there. That’s the hardest audition in the world to do… just stand there a cappella with no accompaniment. There’s nowhere to hide. No microphone. You just stand there. I sang Elton John’s “Daniel” and I’m kind of acting it out. Then I think I did “Blue Suede Shoes”. I wound up getting the gig. They called me a week later and said “Yeah, perfect. We like the way you look. The girls will like him.” I had pretty long hair at the time, and I did a lot of teen press because of it. You can look it up. It’s a little embarrassing, but it was fun. That was an interesting experience. I did it for three years. I replaced Kathy Lee Gifford, who was the singer beforehand.

When I wrote my last album here, I called up my wife. We were here in Appleton, WI maybe a couple of months. She said, “There’s a radio station here that’s really pretty cool. Maybe you have heard of it. It’s called ‘The Avenue’.” I said, “No, but I don’t really listen to the radio.” I listen to CDs a lot, but every once in a while, I listen to the radio. She then told me, “Their playlist is pretty unusual. You might like it.” So, I turn on 91.1 “The Avenue” and they’re playing Billie Holiday and then the Doobie Brothers and then Mel Tormé and then Joan Baez and then Duke Ellington. I thought this is all over the place and they were a little more jazz oriented, but they were still doing pop stuff. I called them up and said, “Hi. My name is Steve March-Tormé and I live here in Appleton now. I just finished this album. Can I send it to you and see if you guys might be interested in playing something?” Now, you can’t do that with, for example, an AM radio that is part of a syndication, but since “The Avenue” is a non-profit radio station, you can do this. I got a call back from the guy about three days later and he said, “Yeah, there are two or three songs here we really like.” I said, “Wow. I’m flattered. If you’d taken one, I would have been thrilled.” Then they called me back two days later and asked if I would do a station ID. I said sure and figured the last name doesn’t hurt. Two days later the GM calls me and says, “You have a good voice for radio. Have you ever thought of hosting a show?” I said, “No, but thanks for the compliment.” He then informs me that they have an opening for a host and asked if I could do that. I told them, “Well, I hosted a couple of TV shows back in L.A. I think I could handle radio in Wisconsin, but I don’t want anything, but the Primetime slot. If you’re going to put me on, I want three to seven in the afternoon when people are driving.” He said, “Okay, you got it.” A couple of years later, they weren’t really happy with the morning person and asked me how would I feel about doing mornings in addition to the afternoon. I said, “Fine, but you have to pay me more since I’m doing more work” and they agreed. They put me on from six to nine in the morning and then from three to seven in the afternoon. About a year ago, they asked me what I thought about doing Saturday mornings as well. So now, I do Saturday mornings from 9am to 12pm, weekdays from 6am to 9am and 3pm-7pm. This has been really great for me because we’re syndicated so you can hear us not only in Nebraska, New Jersey and Portland, but also in the Netherlands as well as Switzerland. We’re all over the world. For me, when I go to a concert, there are people who say, “Oh yeah, I listen to you on ‘The Avenue’.”  

CK: You are a jazz musician, but heavily influenced by pop music. What made you do jazz rather than go into pop?

SMT: It’s in the instincts. It’s in my genes. I mean, I’ve got a pretty natural jazz influence coming from my dad without him ever sitting down and saying, “All right here’s what jazz sounds like and here’s how you should do this.” I’ve listened to a lot of his records along with people like Billy Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald. I’ve heard enough jazz influence people. Steely Dan is basically jazz over pop music. So, I think, it’s just in the genes. It just kind of comes naturally.

CK: In addition to playing the piano, what other instruments have you played?

SMT: When I started out with my rock bands when I was about 13, I played guitar and not very well. I just kind of played and over the years I spent more and more time in front of bands. I really didn’t want to be in bands anymore. There’s always some sort of problem when you’re in a band. Even if you like everybody, there’s always going to be egos crashing and other problems, such as this guy didn’t make it to rehearsal because of his car. It’s always something. I always wanted to be a solo artist and I just mostly sang in front of trios, quartets, symphony orchestras or a big band.  In the last seven to eight years, I really picked up the guitar and piano again. Now I play a lot of keyboards and a lot of guitar. It allows me to open up and do some of the projects I’m doing here in Wisconsin. There’s a ten-piece band I’m in and we do everything from Bill Withers to Chicago to Elton John to The Beatles to Tower of Power to Steely Dan. We can do all this stuff and these guys are that good as players. I’m proud of the fact that I can actually play now. That I can really play guitar and keyboards and do what I want to do. I’ve tried the drums. It would take too long. I would have to really spend hours to become a good drummer.

CK: Was this something you picked up naturally or did you take some sort of lessons?

SMT: By ear. I taught myself. If someone says, “Hey, can you sit down and play this song?” I can pretty much do it.

To be honest, some of the stuff I didn’t know, like most people, you can literally learn how to play off the internet now. If you can watch someone playing and go “Okay, that’s a C major seventh that’s going to go to a D minor seventh and resolve to a G.” I know enough about music theory that I can do that so that’s been really helpful. There’s a couple of Steely Dan tunes that have chord changes and we go, “Oh, so that’s what he’s doing.” I got that literally from the Internet watching someone do it. It’s also fun watching people that are trying to teach you this on the internet doing it wrong.  

CK: You’ve said that you like to provide a little bit of personality and humor during your shows. How do you think this helps with your audience and what is one story you always share?

SMT: I always do that. I can’t help it. A long time ago I stopped performing for me. I perform for the audience. I really do. I know that sounds like, “Oh yeah, sure he does”, but that really is true. When I was younger, I was like a lot of people in the fact of “Oh look. Girls are noticing me, and this is cool. I’m in a band and look how groovy I am.”  I stopped that a long time ago. I really do perform for an audience, and I hope to give them a connection so that they can come away from my show and say, “Wow, that was really worth sitting there for.  I heard some really great stories and he’s a guy I’d like to sit down and have a beer with. That was fun.”

Some great stories I always tell include how I met Dezi Arnaz Jr. If it involves my dad, I tell the story about how he wrote “The Christmas Song”, which is an interesting story because it happened on a blistering hot July day in L.A. of all things and he’s Jewish. The writer he wrote with is also Jewish and it’s one of the biggest Christmas songs.

CK: Who have you played with and what has been the most memorable experience?

SMT: I’ve sung on stage with the members of Manhattan Transfer who are just so good. I mean their ears, much less their voices, but their ears. I’ve done concerts with someone you wouldn’t expect would necessarily be someone I’d sing with, but she’s a really great singer and that’s Debby Boone. Everybody goes, “Oh the ‘You Light Up My Life Girl’?” I go, “Yeah, that was her big hit record, but she can sing jazz.” Another actress who is a good singer is Linda Purl. She’s a terrific singer. I got the chance to do a fundraiser event out in Litchfield, Illinois three years ago. It was an all-star band. They brought in Steve Kupka who is the saxophone player in Tower of Power who wrote some of their big hits. They also brought in Bobby Smith who is the trumpet player in Earth, Wind and Fire and Bones Malone who is a trombone player from Saturday Night Live and the Blues Brothers. So some top flight guys that are really great players. I’ve gotten the opportunity to play with some really good musicians.

I haven’t gone on tour with anybody else. I’ve always gone on tour by myself. One of the guys who sang with me a couple of times and who was at my first wedding is a guy named Fee Waybill. He is the lead singer of The Tubes, who were a huge group out of San Francisco. I’ve also sung with Bill Champlin, who had a group called Sons of Champlin. He wrote the Earth, Wind and Fire song “After the Love is Gone”. I’ve been very lucky to play with a bunch of really good people, but I haven’t really toured with anybody else. I’ve done concerts here and there where I’ve had guest people.

Interview by Carly Kutsup. Photograph courtesy of Steve March-Tormé.