June 18, 2024

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Interview with Marlene VerPlanck (1933-2018): A polished jazz vocalist: Video, Photos

Marlene VerPlanck, a polished jazz vocalist who began her recording career in 1955, had a strong second career in the 1960s and ’70s as a prolific jingle singer, sang backup on Frank Sinatra’s Trilogyalbum, recorded solo albums throughout the ’80s and ’90s, and had a third career recently as she toured and performed to critical acclaim in the States and abroad, died January 14. She was 84.

Despite being diagnosed in November with pancreatic cancer, Marlene continued to sing in New York and New Jersey, and planned to perform into the spring, according to her site. Marlene preferred to keep the bad news to herself, sparing herself the unwanted pity of friends and avoiding becoming the cause of their lowered spirits. Marlene wasn’t big on the blues.

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Relentlessly upbeat and determined, Marlene in recent years was tireless. She sustained injuries following accidental falls but made her gigs anyway, despite the pain and need for care. The hospital or doctors were consulted after the music, which was always her priority. Even in December, when the trip to local venues to perform resulted in complete exhaustion given her condition, she would sing as many songs as she could in perfect form, never once letting on that she was gravely ill. Her sparkling eyes never betrayed her fear or the illness that had taken hold of her. She always delivered a good time at clubs and wasn’t going to let her illness get in her way.

Marlene was a dear and generous friend, and a constant email companion. A ferocious fan of JazzWax, she would from time to time mischievously drop off at my apartment a loving tin of her remarkable eggplant parmigiana and a fresh-baked roll. She was a terrific cook who had grown up in her family’s Italian restaurant in New Jersey. Her enclosed note would express concern that my work schedule might be causing me not to eat. The same love she brought to the stage could be found in every bite.

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A singer who came up at the tail end of the big-band era, Marlene first recorded for Savoy in early 1955. She was backed by Joe Wilder (tp), Hank Jones (p), Eddie Jones (b) and Kenny Clarke (d). “They couldn’t find anyone else,” she’d joke about the A-list sidemen producer Ozzie Cadena pulled together for her debut. That year, she toured with the Charlie Spivak band, where she met arranger Billy VerPlanck. It was love at first sight. They left Spivak together to join Tommy Dorsey’s band and they married months later. Billy was the love of her life and would later arrange the music on several of her albums.

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By the late 1950s, Marlene sang the hot notes in the John LaSalle Quartet, a singing trio plus Marlene (she’s on the cover above). But in the 1960s, as the demand for jazz singers declined, Marlene smoothly transitioned into the jingle-singing business. Her youthful, jazzy voice, her professionalism and her ability to swing way up and hit the highest notes led to lucrative and steady ad work in New York recording studios. Her voice was heard singing on hundreds of adds, most famously “Mmm Good” for Campbell Soup and the warm “Yeah” in Michelob beer ads. On jingles, her voice had an unmistakable optimism and came across either as the consumer’s young mom or a female best friend.

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Singer Marlene VerPlanck has a new album coming—Ballads, Mostly. It’s a delicious collection of moody songs with an upbeat feel. Seven of the 15 tracks were arranged by Marlene’s late husband, Billy VerPlanck, who died in 2009. Though Marlene spent three decades recording demos and jingles starting in the ’60s, she began her professional career in the bands of Charlie Spivak and Tommy Dorsey and recorded many terrific jazz albums over the years.

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During our recent conversation, Marlene talked about how she got her start and meeting a guy in the street with a glass of milk: 

Where did you grow up?

Marlene VerPlanck: I was born in Newark, and we lived there until I was 16. Then my family moved to Bloomfield, N.J., about 15 minutes away. We needed a bigger house for me and my younger brother and sister. We were a very close Italian family. There are 13 of us in my generation, and I still get together with my first cousins.

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Was your family musical?

MV: No. My family was in the restaurant business. My grandfather started the biggest Italian restaurant in Newark—Biase’s—and it was around for about 85 years. Originally my grandmother was in the kitchen there. My mother also was a master chef. My favorite recipe of hers was lasagna.

Did you train as a singer?

MV: No. Actually, I didn’t start singing until I was 19 years old. I recorded my first album in 1955, a session for Savoy that Ozzie Cadena produced.

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How did you go from no experience to a Savoy record date?

MV: As a kid, my mother always had the radio dial on WNEW in New York, which played big band and pop music. I also used to sing along with records all the time. I used to go down to WNJR in Newark and pull records for Carl Ide, who had a show. I hung out there and one day decided I was going to sing. I never looked back.

You really hadn’t been singing professionally? 

MV: Just a little. Before age 19 I had never worked at a club. Then, in the summer of 1955, I began singing at The Well in Caldwell, N.J. I was so young and green. My dad took me to the club and told them he was my agent.

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Who was playing?

MV: There was a trio. After I sang, one of the local piano players said, “You know, I’d use you on the job but you don’t know any songs.” So I went home and learned every song in a fake book. When I came back, there wasn’t a song I didn’t know, and I kept the gig for several months. That must have been where Ozzie first heard me. [Pictured: Marlene with the John LaSalle Quartet; if you have this one on CD, please let me know]

Not a bad Savoy session in November ‘55.

MV: Oh, you mean Joe Wilder, Hank Jones, Eddie Jones and Kenny Clarke. Yes, I know [laughs]. They were brought in special to record my album.

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In early ’56, Charlie Spivak [pictured above] asked you to join his band.

MV: For a singer, it was a great opportunity. The big band era was over, but there was still a market for people who liked to listen to bands.

Did you tour? 

MV: Yes, right away. The band was leaving from the front of the President Hotel in New York in February 1956. My parents drove me into the city and it was snowing. We sat in the car, and one by one the guys in the band began showing up. All of a sudden we see this one guy with an overcoat that was too small on him with a trombone case, carrying a glass of milk. My mother grabbed my arm and said, “I hope you don’t get in the car with that one.”

What happened?

MV: I wound up sitting between him and another guy in one of the cars. He was so gentle and nice, we hit it off immediately and started talking. He was funny and everything I ever wanted in a guy. We were so compatible. After each gig we’d go and talk. He also had brought his records and phonograph. He was the only one in the band who did that, because he was passionate about music.

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And the guy’s name?

MV: Billy VerPlanck [pictured above]. We met in February ’55 and married in October. My family name was Pampinella, but I had been going by Marlene Paula, my middle name, at clubs. After we wed, I took Billy’s name, which I liked very much.

In October?

MV: He proposed in an elevator. I didn’t hesitate. I really loved him by then. We were together and in love until Billy died in 2009.

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How long were you with Spivak?

MV: Not long. We joined Tommy Dorsey’s band for a short period. Billy worshiped Tommy. He thought he was the greatest player and a superb businessman. The last Dorsey band was great—it had Louis Bellson, Charlie Shavers and Sonny Russo. Billy wrote arrangements.

How was it singing with the band?

MV: Our first gig was in North Carolina. There must have been 6,000 people in the audience. I figured that on the first night, Tommy would ask me to do one or two songs. So I learned the book to be sure I had them all covered. But that night he asked me to do them all. At intermission, Tommy called out to me: “Marlene! Marlene!” I’m quaking in my boots. What did I do wrong? Tommy said, “When you take your bow, take a real one.” I had been just nodding [laughs]. He was right. Tommy was a real showman.

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What was it about Dorsey?

MV: When Tommy walked out on stage, he was the last one to come out. Trombonist Vinnie Forrest usually did the intro. Then Tommy would stride on stage like a stallion. Big and broad and imposing. He had a presence. Jimmy was quiet and laid back. Tommy was the leader.

A nice guy?

MV: You didn’t get close to Tommy. The more you stayed away the better off you’d be. The night before Billy and I got married, Billy rode with him in his car to the next gig. Tommy said, “Don’t get married, it’s just trouble.” Billy was so scared. After we got married, Billy was afraid to tell him. Then Tommy died in November, and we had a decision to make.

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How so? 

MV: At the end of ‘56, after Tommy died, the band went to Las Vegas. But neither of us wanted to go out there. I said to Billy, “Let’s stay in New York. If we don’t do it now, we’ll never get back here again.” It turned out to be the best thing we ever did.

Why?

MV: Because the work picked-up for both of us. Fortunately, Billy said he didn’t want me to be a musical moron. I could learn songs fast but I wasn’t a sight-reader. So I studied with Helen Jordan. I put my nose to the grindstone and worked my tail off for six hours a day, seven days a week, for three years. At the end, in 1960, I could read anything.

Why was that important?

MV: I wound up with a ton of work for demos and ad jingles for the next 30 years. It was a very lucrative period. All the songwriters from the Brill Building would come in and I’d make demo records, which they’d then use to sell publishers on the songs, who in turn would use them to win record deals for artists.

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What about jingles?

MV: I was like one of the women on the show Mad Men. I started singing “Mmm, Good” for Campbell’s Soup. I sang the “Yeah” in the Michelob beer ads, I sang “Nationwide is on your side,” and many of the most familiar ad tag lines.

Did you work with Sinatra?

MV: Yes, on Trilogy. I sang on the date and contracted the 16 background singers in the choir. It’s the album with Don Costa arrangements. His charts were to die for.

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Did Billy come to the sessions?

MV: Billy usually never came to my record dates. He didn’t want to get in the way. But in this case, I said, “You have to come, you’ll love it.” Billy agreed. Up until that point, Sinatra was doing only one take of each song. When Billy came in, they had just finished Just the Way You Are. But on playback, there was a mistake and they had to re-do it. Billy got to hear it live. You could cry it was so beautiful. We were two crybabies when we heard things that were great.

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What happened after?

MV: Billy saw Sonny Burke in the booth. He said to me, “I just have to shake his hand.” If Billy liked something someone played or did, he’d always go up to the person to shake his hand. He tapped Sonny as he was walking out. Sonny turned around briskly. Billy said, “I just wanted to tell you I was on Jimmy Dorsey’s band and played your arrangement of Loverevery night. Sonny smiled from ear to ear. “That’s my favorite arrangement,” he said.

You and Billy were quite a couple.

MV: We were. I miss him. He never went out with the guys and I never went out with the girls. We went out together and went to each other’s sessions. We both got lucky.

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