I have a Christmas story for you. I am sharing, with permission, an excerpt from one of the best Christmas columns I have ever read, written by Mark Evanier. Mr. Evanier is a Los Angeles-based writer who has inspired me for many years.
He wrote this on the occasion of the death of singer Mel Tormé in 1999. That sparked a special Christmas memory for Mr. Evanier, and I'm honored to share it with you today:
It happened at the Farmers Market in Los Angeles.
It is a quaint collection of stores and produce stands. You buy your pizza slice or sandwich then carry it on a tray to an open-air table.
During the summer, the place is full of families and tourists. But this was a winter weekday, shortly before Christmas, and the crowd was mostly older folks. It's a good place to get a donut, to sit and read the paper.
On this day, I headed for my favorite barbecue stand and noticed that Mel Tormé was seated at one of the tables.
My favorite singer, just sipping a cup of coffee.
I had never met Mel Tormé. I didn't stop and say, "Excuse me, I just wanted to tell you how much I've enjoyed your music." I wish I had.
Instead, I got a sandwich and settled down at a table to consume it. I was about halfway through when four Christmas carolers strolled by.
They were young adults with strong voices and they were all clad in splendid Victorian garb. The Market had hired them to stroll about and sing for the diners.
The singers concluded to polite applause. I waved the leader over and directed his attention to Mr. Tormé, seated nearby.
"That's Mel Tormé. Do you know who he is?"
The singer was about 25, so it didn't surprise me that he said, "No."
I asked, "Do you know 'The Christmas Song?'" That's the one that starts, 'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…'"
"Oh, yes, of course," the caroler said.
“I said, “That's the man who wrote it." The singer thanked me, returned to his group for a brief huddle…and then they strolled down towards Mel Tormé.
As they reached him, they began singing, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…" directly to him.
A big smile formed on Mel Tormé's face — and it wasn't the only one around. Most of those in attendance knew who he was, and many seemed aware of the significance of singing that song to him.
As the choir reached the last chorus, Mel got to his feet and said, "Let me sing this one."
The carolers — all still unaware they were in the presence of one of the world's great singers — looked a bit uncomfortable. I'd bet they were thinking, "Oh, no…the little fat guy wants to sing."
But they stopped and he started to sing…and out came this beautiful, melodic voice. The look on their faces was amazed at first…then properly impressed.
On Mr. Tormé's signal, they all joined in on the final lines: "Although it's been said, many times, many ways…merry Christmas to you…"
I looked and at all the tables surrounding the impromptu performance, I saw huge grins of delight…which led into a huge burst of applause. It all only lasted about two minutes, but no one who was there will ever forget it.
I have witnessed many thrilling "show business" moments — where all the little hairs on your epidermis snap to attention and tingle with joy.
Usually, these occur on a screen or stage. I hadn't expected to experience one at a Farmers Market — but I did.
Mr. Tormé thanked the harmonizers for the serenade and one of the young women said, "You really wrote that?"
He nodded. "A wonderful songwriter named Bob Wells and I wrote that…and we did it on the hottest day of the year in July. It was a way to cool down."
Then one of the young men said, "You know, you're not a bad singer."
Mel chuckled. He realized that these young folks had no idea who he was, until this moment.
"Well," he said. "I've actually made recorded a few albums.”
"Really?" they asked. "How many?"
He smiled and said, "Ninety."
Today, I'm reminded of that moment. And I'm impressed to remember that Mel Tormé was also an accomplished author and actor. Mostly though, I'm recalling that pre-Christmas afternoon.
I love people who do something so well that you can't conceive of it being done better. It doesn't even have to be something important: Singing, dancing, plate-spinning, whatever. There is a certain beauty to doing almost anything to perfection.
This was in the pre-cell phone camera era. No recording exists of that chorus that Mel Tormé sang for the diners at the Farmers Market. But believe me, it was perfect. Absolutely perfect.
David Carroll, a Chattanooga news anchor, is the author of “Volunteer Bama Dawg,” available on his website, ChattanoogaRadioTV.com. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405.