Interview & gig review by Alan Dutters
"Marlene who?" I ask. She's sung with Sinatra, Perry Como, Tony Bennett, big band names as well. "I thought you knew about jazz?" teases a more knowledgeable friend than I. "You should check her out, she's good," I'm instructed.
Check her out is just what I did. In a pleasant moment of good fortune, she had a tour in the UK. An exchange of emails and we agree to meet after a Sunday performance in Milton Keynes. I also arranged to see her play in Windsor a week later.
Marlene Pampinella is a Newark, New Jersey gal, who considered journalism before beginning her singing career at aged 19. She began in earnest as young vocalist with the bands of Charlie Spivak and Tex Beneke. While working with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra she met her future husband, trombonist and arranger J. Billy VerPlanck.
I Think of You With Every Breath I Take, her debut album, was released in 1955. Throughout the '60's , '70's and '80's, VerPlanck became a highly rated, much sought after studio singer as well as doing many hundreds of voice over's for jingles and commercials of the time.
It was during the 80's that VerPlanck's international notoriety began to grow, due to her regular tours throughout Europe and the UK. Collectively, she has recorded over 20 albums, mostly through the '90's and 2000 onwards. Her second album Marlene VerPlanck Loves Johnny Mercer was released in 1979 on the Audiophile label. Every album released thereafter, has been on Audiophile. A partnership such as this one, built on loyalty and trust between artist and label, is a rare commodity in today's industry.
I arrive at The Stables in Milton Keynes to interview VerPlanck. My timing doesn't work to catch her afternoon show. As I sit in the reception/bar area, I'm already regretting my prior engagements. I can hear loud applause, drum solos and muffled renditions of songs I want to listen to inside the theatre rather than outside. The doors open and out pour happy, smiling fans with plenty of chat, viewing their signed CD's. Not far behind is Marlene VerPlanck.
She points to a quiet corner, and long leather sofa. "Let's talk over there." I get organized, pen, notebook, recording setup on my tablet. "Why don't you tell me about yourself?" I begin. "Why don't you ask me a question?" she replies. Verplanck is petite, neat, bright eyed, articulate, alert to intrusive questions and very likable.
Every March, she arrives in the UK and plays a whole bunch of shows, confiding "It's like coming home and seeing all my friends." While in the UK, she plans on recording more songs for another album. The latest album, I Give Up (I'm in Love) is her 23rd to date.
With her vast knowledge and experience in the industry, I believe my next question is something her fans would like to know- "do you have any plans to record a duet with anyone?" She glares at me- "Who would want to record with me?" When I say in all sincerity, "lots of artists," she tell me "Michael Buble isn't available" and to carry on with the next question.
I know she has played venues such as London's Ronnie Scott's during the last fortnight to a full and appreciative house. So the next logical question I think is if she going to target the larger venues in future. "Do you know how hard this business is?" she asks. Then she asks "what more can I do?"
I've made some assumptions which are wrong. I thought she would have a team of people setting up her gig agenda, completing PR work on her behalf. It seems it doesn't work like that. She continues- "I send out my emails, I pick up the phone I get these shows myself. When I'm touring I work every day." Her New Jersey crisp articulation makes the statement even more pointedly.
Somehow, I drifted into the notion that the hard work had been done over the years. Now it's just a matter of putting a yearly European tour together based on her notoriety and recordings. Wrong. I'm learning as we chat in more detail that she has a fanatical fan base, but it's limited in size. It's akin to having to re-invent herself to potential punters each year she tours.
A couple of her fans in Milton Keynes offer the opinion that she's never received the recognition she deserves. Chatting with audience members in Windsor, I'm met with exactly the same views.
I ask if the story of Tommy Dorsey telling Billy never to get married was true. Unbeknown to Dorsey, Marlene and Billy were getting married the day after. "Oh yes, yes. Tommy Dorsey had just got divorced. He had taken Billy out for the night. During the evening, he told Billy never to get married. Billy was too scared to tell him we were getting married in the morning," she recalls the story like it was yesterday. She breaks into a huge laugh, with a broad smile at the recall of her Billy. They were married for 52 years until his passing on June 2nd 2009. She sums up their relationship, marriage and time together. "We were lucky."
The more we talk the more I understand the direction, logic and rationale of her career. I ask about performing songs which are from current, mainstream, topical artists. "Why would I want to cover songs which don't compare with Johnny Mercer, Alan J. Lerner, Porter, Cahn etc." she says. "They are the masters. There are so many wonderful inspiring songs to choose from." See what I mean- difficult to pick holes in that level of sensibility...
She told me earlier that she doesn't write songs or arrangements she was born to sing. That's the motivation each and every day, to sing. Ok I get that, but how has she stayed in musical employment for so many years? "Hard work, I work hard every day. I've no time for those who want success or a living served up to them." God I love this woman when she's passionate, and she speaks with passion quite a lot. "If you want something and are prepared to work hard, it usually comes your way," she conveys with purpose.
A week on, we are once again meeting up on a leather sofa. This time, it's at The Fire Station Arts Centre in Windsor, a small venue, with wonderfully subtle lighting. The auditorium is laid out with chairs, stools and tables adorned with crisp white tablecloths. A mix of bistro and European cafe ambience. VerPlanck is looking relaxed and stylish in a mustard and black sweater, with tailored black trousers. The place starts to fill up with punters, accompanied by champagne and wine.
The trio supporting VerPlanck throughout the tour are into their own first number, a warm up for them and the audience. "They're good aren't they?" she says, watching from the sofa. I'm just about to make some dippy comment like "shouldn't you be up there?" Instead she leans over and says "gotta go" and with that, she takes to the stage, which now becomes a band of four.
She opens with a Stephen Sondheim number, "Good Thing Going." Once completed the audience not only react with applause but cries of "Whoa!" "OK," I'm thinking, "maybe they've started with their best number, let's see how the set progresses."
"I Love the Way You Dance," a Frank Grant/Ronny Whyte composition, conjured up a smoke filled bar on New York's West 3rd street. Whiskey and perfume blending into the early hours as the loving couple swayed around the dance floor.
It wasn't a fluke or one off. This girl is talent. She reminds me of the quote "form is temporary, class is permanent." VerPlanck cares. Be it about the composer, lyrics, origins- they clearly all matter. She made it seem every song was carefully unwrapped, delivered, appreciated, and then returned to a place of safekeeping until next time.
In my humble opinion the likes of Cahn/Spence's "So long My Love" ain't an easy song to get right. First of all, there is a story to be told, a love affair coming to an end... deciding to leave before being told it's all over. Opening lines not much more than spoken words. Then a general increase in tempo to convey that tears won't be falling. It has an arrangement and tempo where the singer can't hide. VerPlanck and her trio don't disappoint. They hit the rhythm and tempo with uncanny ease. Wonderful song, beautifully conveyed.
VerPlanck has taken time and care when choosing this set of songs, so no surprise she does the same on her choice of backing trio- Bobby Worth (drums), Paul Morgan (bass) and John Pearce (keyboards), who she refers to as my music man.
The trio get to show their individual skills when working through Billy Strayhorn's "My Little Brown Book." Not hard to work out they were enjoying themselves. It was nice to see how they watched and played off each other for intros and close outs to each song. They also played from sheet music, which is somewhat of a rarity these days.
I failed along with many of the audience when VerPlanck asked "does anyone know the Dinah Shore song from the film Belle of the Yukon? " Probably for some of the audience, it was the first time to hear the delights of "A Sleigh Ride in July," written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke.
With stories and respectful remembrances, she took in songs by Peggy Lee, Benny Carter, Billy Eckstine, Kenny Rankin and Leon Nock, who was in the audience.
I suspect you've either heard "What a Difference a Day Makes" by Dinah Washington. Or the Northern Soul version made popular by Esther Phillips in 1975 (yes, I know the Dorsey Brothers had some success with it back in 1934- sorry that's way before my time). This song always feels as though it's on a leash- wild, wanting to be let loose and go. VerPlanck and her boys had the beast under full control. Those lyrics of someone finding love: My yesterday was blue dear, now I'm part of you dear. My lonely nights are through dear, since you said you'd be mine She pauses, to express the emotion, drops a key to say thank you to her new lover. Behind, the trio pace the tempo and beat just right.
You may like the songs of Sondheim, Hart and Rodgers, Alan J. Lerner etc. delivered and performed with a touch of theatre and showmanship. VerPlanck doesn't go for either. She sings. She doesn't allow anything to detract from the songs' arrangement and lyrics. It's her simplicity of style which showcases the songs, rather than self promotion.
The songs just kept coming along with the diversity of writers and composers. Kenny Rankin, Benny Carter, Billy Eckstine. However it was the Kurt Weill arrangement, and risque lyrics of Ogden Nash "A Little Touch of Venus," which brought shock and applause in equal measure. VerPlanck decided to give a master class in scat, working up and down her vocal scales as if casually singing in the shower. Another "Whoa" moment.
There is a theme to the set of lost and rejected love. It pops up again with the Fisher/Segal penned "I Keep going Back to Joe's," John Pearce on keyboards not so much tinkers on the keys, but with the heart strings, setting up VerPlanck to deliver the line "Our old waiter knows we are through," still he sets a place for you. Joyous and a tear jerker.
Once I'd discreetly re-pocketed my handkerchief, the mood is lightened with the Rogers and Hart classic "Falling in Love." Paul Morgan on bass is given the opportunity to get expressive. A knowledgeable audience shows their appreciation to his interpretation and arrangement of the song.
"The guys have a chance to stretch out here" announces Verplanck, to which we have riffs, crossovers, solo spots, Bobby Worth on drums in particular connects with a foot-tapping audience. Before the guys stretched out, she closed with "Too Late Now" from the film Royal Wedding, lyrics by Alan J. Lerner, originally performed by Jane Powell. So after two hours on stage, delivering over 20 songs, her timing and diction is as clear and concise as the opening number.
VerPlanck meets with her audience, signing autographs, punters buying CD's, taking selfies and group photographs. For my part, a man scribbling in a notebook always attracts curiosity and opinion. The gist of people's feedback falls into one of two categories:
- "Yes she's great and we get to as many of her gigs as possible when she's in the UK."
- "Yes she's great and before tonight, we've never heard of her."
I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that up to a fortnight ago, I would have been in category 2. On the plus side, I now have a whole host of back catalogue albums to enjoy.
VerPlanck is a rare talent who deserves to be heard by a larger and wider audience. Some things need to change on the marketing and promotion of her future tours that's for sure. For now, no doubt this gig has confirmed what her existing fans have known for years. For those of us who are late to the party, better late than never.
One thing's for sure- Billy would be proud of her performances. I know if I asked "where have you been all my life?" she would say "I've been right here, right here."
Also see Marlene VerPlanck's homepage
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