Mitchell Torok (born October 28, 1929) is an American country music singer, songwriter, artist, author and guitarist, best known for his 1953 hit "Caribbean". Torok also charted in 1957 with the song "Pledge Of Love", which reached No. 26 on the Billboard Hot 100. He scored again in 1959 with an updated version of "Caribbean" (#27 on Billboard). In 1960, his recording of "Pink Chiffon" topped out at No. 60 on Billboard. Torok wrote all three of his chart hits himself.
Torok was born in Houston, Texas, to Hungarian immigrants Niklos and Irene Torok, with an older brother named William. He was playing guitar by the age of 12, and attended Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas from 1948 through 1953, on a football and baseball scholarship. He minored in world history and graduated with a bachelor's degree in art and journalism. Torok played baseball with a team from Garrison, Texas (the Bulldogs) while in college and also pitched for the Minden Redbirds in Minden, Louisiana, during the summer of 1950. During that period, known for his guitar playing and singing in Houston, he was also hired to write a special song for the Conoco Oil Company in Houston. It was titled "Continental Roll Along" and was used as a promotional recording given to company employees to celebrate the company's 100th birthday.
He also recorded his first session in Houston with a duet partner named Sally Lee, masters of which later wound up on Imperial Records. Torok enrolled in Stephen F. Austin College in Nacogdoches, Texas, in 1948, on a baseball and football scholarship. During the next two years, he performed his own morning radio show on KSFA and KFRD, in Rosenberg. Impressed by the rolling East Texas hills, Mitch recorded two singles for the FBC label in Rosenberg, the "Nacogdoches County Line" and the "Piney Woods Boogie".
One of Torok's idols, Hank Williams, died suddenly on January 1, 1953. Torok, prior to graduating in May, was immediately struck by the pall of sadness that enveloped the country music industry and its many fans. Inspired by a need for some happy songs, Torok immediately penned a happy-go-lucky song titled "Mexican Joe", which he wrote in thirty minutes on a cold January night, initially intending the song for another one of his idols, Hank Snow. But a new record producer and label owner from Hollyiwood, Fabor Robison, happened by Nacogdoches, Texas, the home of Stephen F. Austin, Torok's alma mater, and found Torok and the song. Torok, though wanting some of Robison's supposed heavy West Coast artist to record his song, reluctantly gave it to Robison and his Abbott record label, to record with one of his own struggling artists, the then unknown Jim Reeves, in Shreveport. (Torok, feeling the chances of Reeves' record hitting were small or non existent, planned to use the Jim Reeves record as a 'demo' to send to Hank Snow.) Reeves had been hired to be an announcer on KWKH and the Hayride Show, but not allowed to sing. Torok's song was titled "Mexican Joe" and, when Reeves was finally offered a chance to sing one number, it became a huge number one hit (six encores) and spent seven weeks riding the top of the Billboard Country Music Charts. Torok was then signed to Abbott Records and a month later wrote his own number one hit that became popular in both the Billboard country and jukebox charts, and remained at the top for four weeks. The song was "Caribbean". It remained on the country chart for 24 weeks, and was also a top five hit on both the Best Sellers and Disc Jockey charts.
Torok became a member of Louisiana Hayride on KWKH-AM in Shreveport. In 1954, his song "My Arabian Baby" appeared as the B-side of Snow's hit "I Don't Hurt Anymore". He gained a No. 8 country hit with "Hootchy Kootchy Henry (From Hawaii)" and in 1956, after joining Decca Records in Nashville, he had top ten success on the UK Singles Chart with his songs "When Mexico Gave Up The Rhumba" and "Red Light, Green Light". This success led to a four-month tour of the British Isles, UK in 1956, headlining in all the old famous vaudeville houses in England, Ireland and Scotland, including the London Palladium. His shows included English comedian Dickie Henderson and the "Goldfinger" singer, Shirley Bassey, and it marked the only time Mitchell has performed with a full pit orchestra with written arrangements on all the songs, led by Torok's own conductor, Maurice " Tex" Bromley, at the on-stage piano with him. In the next few years, Torok made further recordings for Mercury, RCA, and Starday, and his last US chart entry was "Instant Love" for the Reprise label in 1967.
Prio to that, he had two other hits on the Billboard Hot 100: "Pledge of Love" hit No. 25 in 1957, and "Caribbean" hit again in 1959, peaking at No. 27. In 1960, "Pink Chiffon", also on Decca, peaked at No. 60 and in 1996 this song was used as main title music in RKO Pictures movie Laura Smiles (2006).
Torok continued to write songs, working in partnership with his wife (who has used both Gayle Jones and Ramona Redd as pseudonyms, the latter being her maiden name), and had recordings by artists including Skeeter Davis, Kitty Wells, Hank Snow and Willie Nelson, Jerry Wallace, Billy Walker, Barbara Eden, Glen Campbell, Dean Martin and Clint Eastwood, who sang Torok's song, "No Sweeter Cheater than You" in the Warner Brothers HONKY TONK MAN movie. He also wrote the title song "Look Out, Ol' Norwood's Comin' Home!" for Glen Campbell's Paramount movie NORWOOD, and five other songs in different Campbell albums, including "Arkansas, a tribute to Glen's home state. Hank Snow recorded Torok's songs "Caribbean", "Dogbone", "My Arabian Baby" and "The Mysterious Lady From St. Martinique" on one of his last RCA albums. "The Redneck National Anthem" was a top 20 hit for Vernon Oxford in 1976.
Combining his art and music, Mitchell was commissioned to paint a 110-foot, five-panel mural titled "The History of the Grand Ol' Opry", which was on display in the Ryman Auditorium until it was remodeled for live performances. The mural served as a fund raiser for Hank Snow's Abused Children's Foundation while there, as tourists made donations after viewing the mural. He then created the "ELVIS-A-RAMA", which consisted of a 12-foot-high, 125-foot-long mural with a 22-minute light and music show depicting his life, from his truck driving days in Memphis to his death in 1977. It has been shown in Nashville, in Branson and recently in Las Vegas, and signed by over 50,000 Elvis fans.
Mitchell and his writing-partner-wife Ramona also created a tribute to Nashville's 200th birthday while writing for Cedarwood Music, with a 12-song LP recording titled Nashville, filled with songs based on Music City's colorful history. And they also wrote, produced and performed on a Texas history album, titled The Ballads of Texas. Torok has also written a book and accompanying CD, titled "Jim Reeves, Me & Mexican Joe", which tells the story of how the song made its way to Reeves.
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