MUSIC : Pop’s Gift to Jazz : Singer Steve March carries the imprint of father Mel Torme and adoptive dad Hal March, and praise from the likes of Liza Minnelli.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Heckman is a regular contributor to The Times. </i>

Singer Steve March will bring the inspiration of Mel Torme and the memory of Hal March along with him when he takes the bandstand Thursday night at Le Cafe. Both associations are completely logical. March is the natural son of jazz singer Torme and the adoptive son of March (best-known as the host of television’s "$64,000 Question”).

He describes his singing as “jazz-influenced,” noting that it “may have something to do with my dad, Mel’s, gene pool.” The influences from March--who died in 1970--are more intangible, but no less significant.

“My dad, Hal, was the kind of man who believed in character, and I like to think I got some of that quality from him,” March says. “I know people tend to think of him in connection with the TV game show scandals. But to me, he was a totally supportive, thoroughly decent person--the dad I grew up with--and I honestly don’t think he knew what was going on when he was hosting the show.”


The younger March got into the game show business when he was the principal singer on the syndicated TV show “Name That Tune” from 1979-81. His musical track record also includes a solo album (released a decade ago), the production of Liza Minnelli’s last Columbia release and numerous live performances with the vocal group, Full Swing.

Singer-songwriter Lorraine Feather, Full Swing’s leader, has high admiration for March. “There are a lot of things to praise about Steve, but his best qualities are his natural charm, his natural ear and his beautiful voice,” she says.

“I think that my strength is out-and-out singing,” March says. “I’ve been doing pop stuff for a long time, but there’s so much jazz inflection in what I do that I guess it’s kind of inescapable. But I don’t really see myself as a jazz singer. I don’t even listen all that much to jazz. My CD collection is filled with Todd Rundgren and Donald Fagen and Hall & Oates. I mean, I grew up with the Beatles; that’s where my sensibilities are, even with all the jazz inflections that I must have gotten, somehow, from my dad, Mel.”

March’s ability to move easily across stylistic boundaries may, however, have had less than optimal effects on his career.

“There were times,” he explains, “when I was so chameleon-like that I would do this, dabble in that, and people would say, ‘What do you do?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know. I’d like to be a pop singer, but it doesn’t look as though that’s going to happen.’ Then, when I tried to sing jazz, people would say, ‘What? Jazz?! You’re never going to make money singing jazz.’

“So it’s taken me all this long to listen to myself and say, ‘I don’t give a damn what anybody says I’m supposed to do. Do what you do best and just go do it. If you’re good at it, there’ll be a market for it.’ ”

March is supporting his singing by serving as host for an internationally syndicated television show called “Box Office America.” He introduces the Top 10 movies of the week, occasionally talks to actors and directors and provides lead-ins for clips from each of the films.

The familiarity with movies comes naturally. Like many second-generation Hollywood performers, he was raised in an environment that would make most film fans drool with envy.

“When we moved here from New York, the first person who came to visit us was Desi Arnaz Jr.,” March recalls. “And on the blocks where we lived on Roxbury, our neighbors were Jimmy Stewart, Lucille Ball and Gary Morton, Jack Benny, Freddie Fields, Polly Bergen, Rosemary Clooney. It was amazing.”

Hal March married his mother, Candy Gould, when he was 4. He grew up, self-identified, as a sports jock. And as much as he loves music, he waxes equally enthusiastic when discussing his amateur career as a fast-pitch softball pitcher. In 1985, March was the starting center fielder for the U. S. team that won the gold medal in Israel’s Maccabiah Games; in 1989, he was second in the team’s pitching rotation.

“I love it,” he says. “I’ve been pitching for about eight years now, and I’ve already won over 150 games.”

His relationship with Torme has been slow in coming. “I guess there was maybe a little unspoken distance between my dad, Mel, and myself. But for no real reason. There was no animosity. It’s just that Mel worked a lot, and the simple fact was that I wasn’t brought up with him.

“But I think he’s actually come around to feeling I’ve got some talent. At least it’s not like, ‘Gee, when is the kid going to give up this singing thing!’

“The truth is that our personalities are pretty different,” March adds. “I’m pretty loose--just a fun-loving youngster. My dad’s a little more serious than I am. And we have different tastes in music--to say the least.”

Father and son have appeared together only rarely. One of the events was a 1979 episode of Dinah Shore’s talk show--"a kind of ‘Children of Celebrities’ show,” March says with a sardonic laugh.

“It was me and Mel, Mel Tillis and his daughter, Pam, and Dee Brown, who was (bassist) Ray Brown’s kid. But the best time was when I got to do the Kool Jazz Festival with Mel when I was with Full Swing,” he says of the 1983 New York event. “We did ‘What Is This Thing Called Love?’ and I got to do his original part--which was a nice little moment of ‘Oh God, he trusts me!’ And when I’ve performed at At My Place, I’ve made him get up a couple of times--much to his chagrin--to sing.”

March feels “real good” about his life: “I’ve got a happy marriage, I like what I’m writing, I’m singing better than I ever have, and I don’t have any self-doubts.”

His friendship with Liza Minnelli--who has glowingly described March as “her favorite male singer in the world"--continues, and she is campaigning to help him secure a new solo album, he says.

Best of all, he seems to have gained a focus that he believes that his career was missing.

“Instead of worrying about whether I can sing a song or whether people will like it or whether I’m going to get a record deal,” March says, “I finally don’t care about any of those things. I’ve just put together a bunch of songs that I know I can sing. I really do believe that if you’re good, you’ll make a living in this business. And I do believe that I’m a good singer.”

Where and When What: Steve March sings at Le Cafe, 14633 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Hours: 8:30 and 10 p.m. Thursday. Price: $8, two-drink minimum. Call: (818) 986-2662. Box for page