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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the June 18, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Jazz Series Lights Up Montgomery Nights
Athough she was well-known — for her face and her
voice — on New York City’s once bustling studio and TV commercial
making scene, Marlene VerPlanck’s career as a jazz singer only began
to take off in the 1980s. For much of the 1960s, 70s, and early ’80s,
VerPlanck was an in-demand studio singer. When the nature of New York’s
commercial jingle studio business began to change and that work began
to dry up, she began performing, at the behest of good friends like
the legendary, Saddle River-based jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli.
She now has some 15 recordings out on the Audiophile label.
VerPlanck headlines the new Jazz Under the Stars concert series at
the Montgomery Center for the Arts on Sunday, June 21, at 7 p.m. The
monthly Saturday night series opened on May 24 with legendary drummer
Joe Morello and continues through the summer. Still to come are the
Midnight Sun Big Band on July 26, and jazz pianist Laurie Altman on
A native of Newark, VerPlanck’s parents ran a restaurant in the city’s
North Ward, where she grew up. After many years in New York City’s
studio scene, she and her husband, arranger Billy VerPlanck, settled
into a home in Clifton, a 15 minute commute from New York City on
a good day.
"I didn’t perform while I was doing studio work, so I’ve only
really been performing since the 1980s," says VerPlanck in a phone
interview from Clifton. "One of my earliest performing jobs was
with Bucky Pizzarelli. He asked me to do a duo with him, and we were
at a club on the Upper East Side for a while, and all kinds of good
people were stopping in, Zoot Sims, Phil Bodnar, and others."
The performing work kept accelerating through the 1980s for VerPlanck.
Before that she was the meliflous voice of commercials for Campbell’s
Soups, "Mmm good, Mmm good, that’s what Campbell’s soups are,"
as well as Michelob beer, "Weekends were made for Michelob."
"It was a fun part of my life," she says. "I liked an
every day challenge and it was a fun way to make a living. Besides
there were all the trappings of working with some of the greatest
musicians on jingles and on albums."
VerPlanck and her husband worked album studio sessions and pursued
the jingle business with equal gusto for a time in the 1960s and 70s.
Then, with the advent of modern day electronics, the jingle business
began to change.
"We did everything there was to do in the studio," she recalls.
"Billy wrote arrangements and did documentaries and anything to
do with studio work, and we did that for a good many years until there
was no more studio work left. I turned naturally to performing, and
performing is a lot harder because there aren’t as many venues and
it’s harder to land some club engagements that you’re going after."
"I’d love to be in the Blue Note or Birdland or some other place
in New York on a regular basis, but I don’t have a major record company
deal, so how can you compete with Sony Music or Telarc Records?"
So where did all the commercial jingle work for radio and TV go? And
why did it go?
"I think advances in electronics had a lot to do with it,"
she says. "Nowadays when you hear a commercial, you don’t even
know what product they’re talking about. When I was singing jingles,
I did a lot of solo work and a lot of group work. You had to be a
"Singers knew the singers and the announcers came in after the
singers, and we never knew who the announcers were. In those days,
we did things with live bands, and the business went in spurts like
that, but by the time it was finished in the mid-1980s, you never
even saw a musician. It went into electronics, computers, drum machines,
and things like that," she recalls.
Always a favorite of the Jersey Jazz Society, for her great mastery
of the "Great American Songbook" standards by Gershwin, Harold
Arlen, Frank Loesser, Rodgers and Hart, and others, VerPlanck has
had her share of success for such a late bloomer to the business of
performing. She spends a month each year performing in England and
she has toured Japan and France in recent years.
Asked about growing up in Newark in the 1950s, VerPlanck
says she didn’t know anything about Newark’s once-bustling jazz club
"What clubs? I didn’t know anything about any clubs! When I started
singing as a 19-year-old, I immediately got with a couple of bands,
like Tex Beneke’s band. That’s where I meet my husband Billy, and
we both moved over to Tommy Dorsey’s band, and we just kind of gravitated
to New York, and stayed there to seek our way into the studio business.
It was quite a nice journey," she says, "working as a studio
singer with all the stars, Frank Sinatra, Bennett and Como, and then
I did a bunch of television commercials."
Fortunately for fans who don’t live in New York or New Jersey, VerPlanck
has worked with the Audiophile label, based in New Orleans, since
the 1980s. The owners are a transplanted London couple, George and
Nina Buck, who run the Palm Court Jazz Caf, on Decatur Street in New
Orleans. Her latest recording is "Speaking of Love," a collection
of "Great American Songbook" standards she released last summer.
Reflecting on the fact that no one else in her family chose music
as a vocation, VerPlanck says some people think it’s easy to be a
singer. But she takes a studious approach to the art, and always has.
"I guess people think it’s easy to sing, but I take a lesson every
Tuesday," she says. Why would a veteran need this? "It’s because
singers can get into bad habits very quickly, and if you don’t have
somebody overhearing your situation, it can happen. The reason I’m
having such a nice run is because of my teacher, Maria Farnsworth,
who takes care of me every Tuesday. People ask me, ‘How do you do
it?’ How do you sing so well?’ and I say, ‘I work at it.’"
At the Montgomery Arts Center, VerPlanck says she’ll do what comes
naturally to her and her trio.
"I’ll be dwelling on the American popular standards plus a couple
of newer tunes. My husband Billy is a wonderful songwriter, and I
always manage to put something of his in there. People tend to really
like his songs," she says, explaining she doesn’t fancy herself
"I’m not a writer, all I can dwell on is getting the song out
as perfectly as I can possibly can sing it," she says.
At Montgomery Arts Center’s Jazz Series on Saturday, VerPlanck will
be accompanied by Ted Firth on piano, Gary Mazzaropi on bass, and
Joe Cocuzzo, drums. Asked if she ever performs with her husband, VerPlanck
"As an arranger, he knows his way around piano, but he doesn’t
trust himself playing out on a job," VerPlanck explains. "We
work a lot together and rehearse together and work out songs together,
VerPlanck says making the leap from studio singer to performing singer
hasn’t always been easy, but she and Billy have been successful enough
that they can afford to pick and choose the jobs they want. The pair
field calls and book her trio into clubs and festivals around New
Jersey and New York City.
"I work pretty steadily now," VerPlanck says, "but nobody
works every night anymore, and nobody even works every week. I’m working
as much as anybody is doing, so I can’t complain."
— Richard J. Skelly
1860 House, Montgomery, 609-921-3272. Marlene Ver Planck is featured.
Raindate is Saturday, June 28. $20 adult; $5 child. Saturday, June
21, 7 p.m.
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