Marlene VerPlanck, Singer of Jazz and Jingles, Dies at 84
By NEIL GENZLINGERJAN. 26, 2018
Marlene VerPlanck performing in England in 2006. Heritage Images/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images
Marlene VerPlanck, a singer who was seen by many on cabaret stages and heard by millions more on jingles for products including Campbell’s soup and Winston cigarettes, died on Jan. 14 in Manhattan. She was 84.
Her death, in a hospital, was announced by the broadcaster Ray Hoffman, who wrote the lyrics to several songs Ms. VerPlanck recorded. He said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Ms. VerPlanck began as a big-band singer and later became well known on the cabaret circuit, especially in New York, bringing a clear and disciplined voice to jazz and the American songbook. John S. Wilson, writing in The New York Times in 1980, said she “may be the most accomplished interpreter of popular material performing today.”
She was working until a month before her death; her last appearance was in mid-December at Mezzrow in Greenwich Village. Her numerous albums included, most recently, “The Mood I’m In,” released in 2016.
Ms. VerPlanck’s jingle work complemented her cabaret and recording career, giving her the ability to get the most out of each word and to work efficiently.
“Marlene’s finest attribute as a singer was her intonation,” the pianist Tedd Firth, who accompanied and arranged for her in her later years, said by email. “Years of studio work with producers expecting perfect results within one or two takes had honed her sense of pitch to a degree that is seldom seen in any kind of singer — jazz, pop, classical or otherwise.”
Marlene VerPlanck Video by A1R Television
Marlene Pampinella was born on Nov. 11, 1933, in Newark to Anthony Pampinella and the former Pauline Biase. After graduating from Bloomfield High School, she briefly considered a journalism career. But instead, at 19, she began singing in a Newark nightclub, the Well.
She sent a review she received there to bandleaders, resulting in jobs with the bands of Tex Beneke and then Charlie Spivak, whose musicians included the trombonist Billy VerPlanck. They dated, then split up, but when she later took a job with Tommy Dorsey’s band, there was Mr. VerPlanck in the trombone section. They were married in 1956, and Mr. VerPlanck did much of her arranging over the next half-century. He died in 2009.
In the early 1960s, a time when radio and television were hungry for little ditties, Ms. VerPlanck began working as a jingle singer.
“I went to a place called the Jingle Mill,” she said in a 1980 interview with The Times, “where I did five commercials an hour for $10.”
In 1965 her stature in that niche profession improved considerably when she was chosen to sing a jingle for Campbell’s Soup, and for decades afterward articles about her would have headlines like “Marlene VerPlanck Is Mmm, Mmm Good.”
Another assignment was for Michelob. Though she recorded that beer’s jingle only once, the job rewarded her for years.
“When I sang ‘Weekends were made for Michelob,’ they asked me to add a ‘Yeah’ at the end,” she told The Boston Herald in 1997. “And then they tacked that ‘Yeah’ of mine onto every Michelob commercial for seven years. Even when Brook Benton and Vic Damone sang the jingle, it was my ‘Yeah’ at the end. It became a very nice annuity.”
Ms. VerPlanck also recorded as a backup singer for artists as diverse as Perry Como and the rock group Kiss. For Frank Sinatra’s ambitious 1980 album, “Trilogy,” she had the job of recruiting 16 other singers for some of the sessions.
By then, Ms. VerPlanck had established herself on the cabaret scene. The jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, whom she knew from her studio work, arranged her New York nightclub debut in 1972 at Soerabaja on the Upper East Side, where he backed her.
“His guitar is all she has in the way of support,” Mr. Wilson wrote in reviewing that performance, “which leaves her very much on her own. She is attempting the most naked kind of singing — a situation in which nothing can be covered up or faked. And Miss VerPlanck is more than equal to it.”
Sixteen years later, reviewing her at Danny’s Skylight Room in Midtown, Mr. Wilson had a different reason to be impressed.
“Miss VerPlanck inadvertently showed another aspect of her singing when the amplification system disintegrated amid electric shrieks and howls and she abandoned the microphone for her final songs,” he wrote. “In this small, airy room, which is actually under a large skylight, she was able to project the shadings and pure tones of her natural, unamplified voice so clearly on ‘A Sure Thing’ that it became the high point of her performance.”
Ms. VerPlanck is survived by a sister, Barbara Marshall, and a brother, Phil Pampinella. She lived in Clifton, N.J.
Mr. Firth, who played on several of Ms. VerPlanck’s last albums, said her knack for nailing her vocals was as evident in the recording studio as it was on the stage.
“While the band would be requesting a third or fourth take on a song to get their parts right,” he said, “Marlene would be in the vocal booth wondering what was taking us so long.”