Date Posted: 2007-10-26
By Paige VanVorst
Marlene VerPlanck is one of the most consistent artists on any of our labels. Her seventeen Audiophile CDs are each gems, ranging from her debut recording (originally on Savoy) from 1955 to her latest release (ACD-334), the reissue of a session that appeared briefly on the DRG label a few years ago.
Marlene and her husband-musical director J Billy VerPlanck are survivors of the Swing Era. This is not to say they are doddering fossils left over from the 1930s- they were both precocious talents who came into music at the tail end of the big band era- Billy took advantage of World War II to get a good musical grounding when he was barely in his teens- he was already a seasoned pro when a young girl singer joined Charlie Spivak’s band. She impressed him immediately with her musicality- she learned the band’s entire book in a week- and she was beautiful. They met in February, were married in October and are still together more than fifty years later.
The newlyweds had a tremendous opportunity in 1956- they joined Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra, Billy as fourth trombone, Marlene as a sometime vocalist when the band’s head diva, Lynn Roberts, was on the outs with Dorsey, a frequent occurrence. This version of the Tommy Dorsey band also featured Jimmy Dorsey and Billy was in the band when they recorded So Rare, the last Dorsey chart-topper.
Unfortunately for the VerPlancks, Tommy Dorsey died suddenly about six months after they joined the band when he choked on a piece of food. Their period with the Dorseys was wonderful- the band was getting a lot of work and the chance to appear regularly on TV with Jackie Gleason. When the band headed back on the road after Tommy died, the VerPlancks opted to stay in New York and seek local jobs.
Fortunately for them, New York was then the center of the recording industry - Marlene was in huge demand as a backup singer, appearing behind everyone imaginable from Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett and Perry Como to Blood, Sweat and Tears and KISS. Billy worked for several years as the musical director of Savoy Records, arranging the backing for dozens of jazz and rhythm-and-blues sessions.
They both became heavily involved in the jingle business, in many cases recording three or four times a day. Marlene’s voice was immoralized singing the “Mm-m Mm-m Good” tag for Campbell’s Soup and it is Marlene’s enthusiastic “Yeah” that punctuated the tail of Michelob commercials for many years.
The VerPlancks were fortunate they got involved when they did as the scene ultimately shifted- for the last twenty years New York has been a recording ghost town, with much of the business transferred to Los Angeles or Canada. Fortunately the VerPlancks were able to make enough when they were busy to carry them the rest of their lives- they have a lovely home in Clifton, New Jersey and work whenever they want.
Marlene was virtually anonymous during her long stretch in the jingle mills, but gradually she developed a name for herself, working nights with Bucky Pizzarelli after a long day in the studios. One of her early LPs found its way to Loonis McGlohon, an all-around music maven from North Carolina. “He was a songwriter, pianist, producer, director, an all-around Renaissance man,” Marlene said. “ He worked with Alec Wilder on the American Popular Song series on public radio.He called me a lot to come down to North Carolina to do concerts with them.” Through Loonis, Marlene became associated with George Buck, Wendell Echols and the Audiophile label, and she became an Audiophile artist in 1976- since then there have been seventeen CDs featuring Marlene, all of them arranged and conducted by Billy., who has fashioned a variety of different settings for Marlene. Marlene’s work attracted fans in high places- Frank Loesser insisted on having Marlene record the demo whenever he wrote a new song. As he told Billy, “You know what I love about your wife? She sings a song perfectly, and I hear it, and I love it. Then, after it leaves here, it gets fucked up.” As Ruby Braff put it, “She’s the only one who sings in tune and I can understand all the words!”
Marlene has a tremendous natural talent and in addition she continues to study with a vocal coach. She has perfect pitch and diction that is the envy of everyone in the business. Her voice is crystal-clear and everything sounds effortless.
Marlene’s status in the cabaret music world was recently reaffirmed when syndicated columnist Maximilien deLafayette published a 722-page book on cabaret music: Entertainment Divas, Cabaret, Jazz Then and Now. The cover photo is of VerPlanck. As the author told Stars Illustrated: “Ms. VerPlanck was my first choice, because she is the best in the business. She has superb stage presence, the technique, experience, repertoire, know-how, magnificent voice and authentic Jazz and American Standards repertoire”
Marlene and Billy keep busy with annual tours to Europe. where they have a tremendous following, particularly in England, and they have made appearances at most of the top rooms in New York. Whenever she had a new CD, she’ll put together a show around it, and New Yorkers flock to wherever she’s appearing. She’s one of the brightest lights on the New York cabaret music scene.
At Audiophile we are proud of our longstanding relationship with the VerPlancks, and the newest release is no exception. On My Impetuous Heart Marlene tackles eighteen wonderful numbers ably supported by a trio featuring Hank Jones, and as bonus there are guest appearances from Marian McPartland, Bucky Pizzarelli and George Shearing. Many thought this was Marlene’s best-ever CD when it came out briefly on DRG a few years ago and we’re proud to have it on Audiophile