There’s a new angel in heaven today…

Marlene VerPlanck

I wish I could claim credit for those words, which jumped out at me from a post on my Facebook feed this afternoon. But I trust vocalist Ben Cassara won’t mind my using them.

He was referring to the passing of one of the true torch bearers of the American Popular Song Book, Marlene VerPlanck.

Marlene sings a poignant ballad by Alec Wilder and Loonis MacGlohon

Not only have I been an avid fan, but I treasure the memories of fascinating conversations during several dinners with Marlene and her dear husband of five decades, composer and trombonist J. Billy VerPlanck, as well as recording several on-location interviews over the years.

I will always remember my first meeting with Marlene in New York. It was either 1980 or ’81, at a time when she was actively engaged as a studio singer in addition to her other life performing the crème of American Popular Song standards.

If you are of a certain age, even if you’ve never heard Marlene in the latter context, you are likely to at least recall her voice from countless commercials on radio and TV.

Mmmm, mmm good…Mmmm good…that’s what Campbell’s Soups are…Mmmm, mmm good.

Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.

Weekends were made for Michelob…Yeahhhhhh.

MacDonald’s jingles and more…

No, not the lyric poetry of Johnny Mercer…not the artful songs of Alec Wilder and Bill Engvick…but very lucrative work for a dynamo of a gal with a great voice.

A mad whirl of Manhattan studios…

While at Washington’s WETA-FM, I was fortunate in having a vehicle in which to indulge my love of quality types of music that happened not to be classical, though “classic” they certainly were. I’d contacted Marlene and she graciously consented to get together in New York and to let me join her for an afternoon of studio gigs. I’ll never forget the experience. It was a fascinating look behind the scenes into the fast-paced world of the sight-reading studio singer.

While the first session was a “spec” recording for a proposed spot for USA Today, the whirlwind afternoon in midtown Manhattan wasn’t only about commercials. At another studio across town to which we rushed, Marlene was part of a group of studio singers doing tracks for a TV awards program. And there were music directors, like Elliot Lawrence, whose names I knew from their arrangements and conducting for favorite singers. Oh, yes, Les Paul was at one of the gigs. Heady stuff!

As was dinner that evening with Marlene and Billy, whom I also found delightful. They kept an apartment/office in Midtown, around 8th Avenue in the West 40s, and they invited me to join them for dinner at a cozy little Italian joint in the neighborhood. Lots of fascinating stories and the chance to spend time with this engaging couple who so loved life, making music, and each other. Indeed, I loved the lively dynamic between them, Marlene a petite package of Italian-American energy, and Billy, a big laid back guy whose calm demeanor served as a great counterpoint and anchor.

Around the piano at Cates…

We’d meet again a few years later, in July 1987, around the piano at a much missed little gem of a restaurant/jazz club in Old Town Alexandria called Cates. The same chemistry I so enjoyed with Marlene and Billy in NYC was there, with the added convivial element of pianist and songwriter Loonis MacGlohon. The three were planning a new album together, and Marlene allowed me to record her working on one of the songs as part of an interview I was taping. And such a warm blend, with the aforementioned combination of Marlene’s energy and Billy’s laid back demeanor, joined by the relaxed Southern comfort of Mr. MacGlohon. If the piano weren’t there, we could have been sitting on a front porch in some inviting small town in the Carolinas, with the scent of magnolia blossoms and honeysuckle hanging in the fragrant air of a summer evening, talking about our favorite music and the art of composing lyrics.

Marlene, Billy, and Loonis provided a lovely afternoon of music and conversation during our 1987 chat at Cates.

No doubt, Loonis and Billy will have a well-tuned piano and a cool drink…and some fresh arrangements waiting for Marlene when she arrives.

Something that spoke to Marlene’s character…

Long after I had a “vehicle” to interview her or promote her recordings as an active music broadcaster, as I had enthusiastically done in a previous life, she stayed in touch, often sending me copies of her latest CDs. We’d see each other when she and Billy drove down from New Jersey. That kind of continuum does not always exist.

The last occasion I got to spend time with Marlene and Billy coincided — happily enough! — with a birthday of mine. It was December 3, 2000, in the Alexandria home of Marlene and Billy’s friends Jan and Jerry Kline, at the time of one of Marlene’s performances at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery. After the show, we had a late dinner —garnished with more delightful conversation — at Clyde’s in Alexandria. So, I guess it was the next evening that we met again and I set up my trusty little Sony TC-D5M and some microphones in the Klines’ living room. It would, regretfully, be the last time I’d enjoy the company of Marlene and Billy. I’ll share the interview one day, but for now I think the photo Jan or Jerry took of us in their music library captured the mood of the evening.

With Marlene and Billy…and some choice vinyl!

I think you can probably tell from the album covers why Marlene, Billy, Jan, and Jerry were such dear friends and kindred spirits. Between Marlene and Billy, you can see one of my favorites of the many albums Marlene recorded, the Alec Wilder collection.

Some things we didn’t get to do…

As songwriters have expressed, and better than I ever could, we inevitably reach a point where the world is rushing by a bit more rapidly than we’d prefer, the months and years somehow telescoping and hoped for things getting missed in the unceasing rush.

A few years ago, Marlene responded to one of my photos (or perhaps it was the audio narrative of the experience) from a sunny June afternoon spent on the Brooklyn Bridge, saying she’d never walked across that span. I responded that she was on for my next visit, playfully adding if she’d promise to sing to me “Like the folks you meet on, like to plant my feet on the Brooklyn Bridge…” as we strolled high above the East River.

Somehow, though, our timing just didn’t come together for future trips to the Apple. In 2016, she invited me to be her guest at an upcoming engagement at Kitano. As luck would have it, I’d recently had shoulder surgery and I was not far enough along on the recovery journey to travel. I lamented in my reply that her gig coincided with the first post-op visit with the surgeon, and the words “Bet you can guess where I’d rather be.”

Thinking back on Marlene’s incredible energy levels, I somehow “knew” we’d meet again. Sadly, her time came too soon…and that was not to happen.

So, yes, a new angel arrived in heaven today. And I know she will be warmly welcomed into that great celestial boîte by Johnny Mercer…Loonis MacGlohon…Alec Wilder and Bill Engvick…indeed all the songwriters of this esteemed pantheon, whose lyrics she so intelligently and genuinely brought to us, whether live or in her recordings.

Thanks for the memories, Marlene. And give my best to Billy. I know he awaits you with love and open arms.

Marlene in live performance — The Party Upstairs (Francesca Blumenthal and Ronny Whyte)

Yes, that will most certainly be quite the party “upstairs” as this new angel arrives.

©2018 Steve Ember