Joe Lang Tribute
MEMORIES OF MARLENE
By Joe Lang
January 16, 2018. Losing a friend is always a painful experience. It was particularly painful yesterday when I learned that Marlene VerPlanck had left us the previous evening.
I knew that she was seriously ill, but had seen her only a week earlier, and she seemed determined to beat whatever it was that she was fighting. I say that because she was not forthcoming about her health issue, even to close friends. Right to the end, Marlene remained a strong and brave lady, determined to deal with the challenge on her own terms.
My first awareness of Marlene’s artistry was on American Popular Song, a radio show hosted by Alec Wilder. The series first aired in 1976. It was a show that introduced me not only to Marlene, but also to Barbara Lea and other marvelous singers.
Marlene was the guest on one of the first shows. I was immediately struck by her singing, especially the way she articulated the lyrics. It was a part of her artistry that once led me to write that she was “a lyricist’s best friend.”
A year or two later Marlene appeared at Michael’s Pub in New York City as part of a series highlighting many of the performers who appeared on the radio series. She was even more exciting in person than she had been on the radio.
Not long afterward I read about a new Marlene VerPlanck album. I went to a favorite record store, Crazy Rhythms in Montclair, to order it. The owner said that he had an earlier album by her in the closeout-stock he had bought from Savoy Records. It was a 1955 album credited to simply “Marlene,” no last name, titled I Think of You With Every Breath I Take. I bought a copy
I was going to see her at Gulliver’s in West Paterson that evening, so I took the album along. We had not previously met, and she was most gracious. I showed her the album. She asked me where I had bought it and what I had paid for it. I said Crazy Rhythms charged $5. Amazed, she informed me that it was a collector’s item that was selling for $75. When I told her that they had about a half-dozen more copies, she said that she would go there to buy them.
She was proud of that album, and wanted copies to share with friends.
As the years went by, we went to see Marlene at every opportunity. We became two of her most loyal fans. Soon a personal friendship developed between the Langs and the VerPlancks. We were enthralled with her special talent, but equally enjoyed her warm and welcoming friendship.
One of the most endearing things about seeing Marlene was watching Billy watching her perform. They were a deeply devoted couple, and Billy truly believed her to be the most talented person in the world. He would gaze at her in complete adoration, and softly utter words like, “Wow, she’s marvelous” or “I don’t believe how wonderful she is.” It was sincere and touching.
Marlene was equally devoted to Billy. He arranged all of her charts, and often provided her with original tunes with lyrics penned by friends and associates. Billy had a gift for melody, and Marlene brought out the best in each his tunes.
I have fond memories of the times that we spent together on strictly social terms. In particular I remember attending their annual New Year’s Eve parties. Another VerPlanck enthusiast, Ray Hoffman, and I used to spend much of these evenings hanging with Billy as he tended the bar, listening to his engaging band stories.
Billy and Marlene had met on the Charlie Spivak band when she was just starting out in the business. They moved to Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra, and soon became husband and wife. As the evening wore on, and Billy had served himself a few drinks, the stories became better and funnier. I wish his stories had been written down and preserved.
Marlene was completely devoted to the music that she loved. Early in their marriage, Billy encouraged her to learn about the technical side of music, so that she would be prepared to handle any kind of musical challenge that came along.
This was especially important in the world of commercial jingles with which she became involved. She had to be able to read down a chart, and execute it precisely within very tight time frames. She had the voice capable of singing just about anything, but it was her technical acumen that set her at a special level.
Such was her commitment and talent that she became one of the most in-demand jingle singers in the business. Long before I was aware of her name, I was hearing her sing things like “Mmm, mmm good, that’s what Campbell’s Soups are,” “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should,” and “I love New York.”
When this specialized segment of the business began to decline, Marlene turned more and more to singing what she loved most, the Great American Songbook. Her catalog of over 20 albums for Audiophile could form the basis for a course on the Great American Songbook, Her albums devoted to Johnny Mercer and Alec Wilder remain among my favorites.
In 1997, I was privileged to present a program of songs by Alec Wilder at the New York Sheet Music Society, in celebration of his 90th birthday year. My choice of singers to perform the material was easy: Marlene VerPlanck and Barbara Lea. They were both eager to participate, and with the support of Tony Monte at the piano, these two ladies, the most accomplished interpreters of the Wilder catalog, performed an enchanting and memorable program. Long afterward, Marlene remembered that afternoon as one of her special memories.
I have reviewed many albums and performances by Marlene during my years of writing for Jersey Jazz. It became an increasing challenge to write something fresh and different about her as I was running out of superlatives. It was, however, a pleasure to hear her performing new material. She never felt satisfied to rely solely on the wonderful catalog of songs that she knew, rather was always seeking out new songs, and invariably came up with gems that made you shake your head at her magnificent taste.
Another impressive aspect of Marlene’s character was her toughness.
Johnny Mercer’s centennial was celebrated in 2009. Marlene was invited to participate in a concert devoted to Mercer in his hometown of Savannah. While at Newark airport to take the flight to Savannah, Marlene tripped and broke her ankle. Airport personnel brought her a wheelchair. She boarded the plane, performed at the concert, and then had her injury addressed. For the next few months she worked from a wheelchair.
That year she also lost her beloved Billy. Many of her friends were concerned about how she would respond to being on her own after over 50 years having Billy at her side. She proved to be resilient, busier than ever. She aggressively sought bookings, and expanded the range of venues where she performed.
Each year for many years, Marlene spent the month of March touring in Great Britain and Europe. A few years ago, she had a fall at the end of January that resulted in several broken bones, including her pelvis. She was determined to rehabilitate herself in time to make her scheduled trip overseas, a month away. When the departure date arrived, she boarded the plane for England. During the following month she performed over 20 concerts across England.
She faced her final illness with the same determination, but this time she could not overcome the relentless challenge she faced. Her family and friends prayed she would win again, but pancreatic cancer is an unforgiving foe.
Marlene VerPlanck will be much missed by everyone whose life she touched. There will be a massive void for each of us, but we will always have her music to remind us what a great lady Marlene VerPlanck was, right to the end.
RIP dear Marlene!