May 19, 2024

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Marlene Verplanck was from Italian – American stock: 1933-2018: Video

On stage, Marlene Verplanck stood quite still, diminutive and always graceful, just letting the lyrics of the songs she sang breathe and speak for themselves. It was her perfect intonation and vocal clarity that always impressed, every performance like a masterclass, her accompanists hand-picked for their taste and swing.

In Britain, it was usually John Pearce on piano, earlier it had been Geoff Eales and it was nearly always Bobby Worth at the drums. Marlene built up a network of club venues and concert locations here in Britain and her annual jaunts which had started in 1989 became a regular feature of her schedule. Her British fans were constant, happy to see her again and again.

A new UK tour was due to start in March and was again to include a Sunday set at Ronnie Scott’s. But then came the news of her death on 14 January from pancreatic cancer. She was 84. Although it was first diagnosed last November, she had kept quiet about her illness, fulfilling her gigs in New York and New Jersey until a short while ago.

Marlene was from Italian-American stock, born in in 1933 in Newark, New Jersey, where her family ran an Italian restaurant. She first sang briefly with Charlie Spivak’s band where she met her future husband, the trombonist and arranger Billy VerPlanck, and both were then with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Marlene and Billy married in 1955 and stayed together in both a personal and musical partnership until he died in 2009.

With the band business on its knees, Marlene moved seamlessly onto the New York studio scene in the 1960s, recording literally hundreds of jingles and commercials over the next 30 years, every word clearly enunciated, every high note cleanly hit. She later embarked on a solo vocal career, masterminded at first by Billy, who was always at her side on her early visits to the UK. She recorded more than 20 albums, mostly with all-star jazz groups including one led by Pearce, others with big bands and memorably, another with the French all-saxophone group Saxomania. Any notion that she might retreat into anonymity once Billy had died was soon dispelled as Marlene flourished, playing the best New York venues and touring internationally, always upbeat and apparently tireless.

The US writer Doug Ramsey said she “was a delight to be with, gracious and funny”, and so she was. RIP Marlene.


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