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The Billy and Marlene VerPlanck Collection

This blog post was written by Matt Barton, curator of the Recorded Sound Section.

It’s not unusual for the Recorded Sound Section and the Music Division to share custody of a collection, with Recorded Sound taking the recordings and the Music Division taking the written scores of a particular artist. But the Billy and Marlene VerPlanck Collection, acquired earlier this year from their estate, has a particularly rich story behind it.

Poster for Billy VerPlanck memorial tribute, 2009. Billy and Marlene VerPlanck Collection.

He was born John William VerPlanck in Norwalk, CT in 1930. She was born Marlene Paula Pampinella in Newark, New Jersey in 1933. They first met when both joined orchestra leader Charlie Spivak for a winter tour, he as a trombonist, she as a vocalist: “The band was leaving from the front of the President Hotel in New York in February 1956,” Marlene told journalist Marc Myers in 2013. “My parents drove me into the city and it was snowing. We sat in the car, and one by one the guys in the band began showing up. All of a sudden we see this one guy with an overcoat that was too small on him with a trombone case, carrying a glass of milk. My mother grabbed my arm and said, “I hope you don’t get in the car with that one.”[1]

They married later that year, after both had joined the reunited Dorsey Brothers’ outfit. In the wake of Tommy Dorsey’s sudden death in November, 1956, the band was scheduled to tour, now under Jimmy Dorsey’s sole leadership, but the VerPlanck’s opted out, choosing to further their careers around New York, Billy as an arranger for Savoy Records in Newark, NJ and Marlene with the John LaSalle Quartet on Capitol Records. Billy wrote for artists as varied as Etta Jones, Coleman Hawkins, Loonis McGlohon, Melvin Sparks, Sonny Stitt, Phil Woods, Houston Person, Ralph Marterie and Thad Jones.  In an era dominated by the loud. brassy charts of Stan Kenton, and Neal Hefti’s “atomic” work for Count Basie, Billy’s arrangements stood out for their subtle harmonic invention.

Marlene Paula (Marlene Paula Pampinella), publicity shots, ca. 1955. Billy and Marlene VerPlanck Collection.

After leaving the John LaSalle Quartet, Marlene worked steadily as both a solo artists and a session singer, especially for commercial jingles. Jingle work made her a household presence, if not a household name, especially when she became the voice of the “mm-mm good” Campbell’s Soup theme in 1965. She would sing many variations of this for Campbell’s over the years, but a lone Michelob beers session achieved a life of its own:

Contents of “Verplanck ‘66” jingle demonstration reel. Billy and Marlene VerpPanck Collection.

“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.”[2]

 

Xylophone arrangement of “I Wished on the Moon” (Ralph Rainger/Dorothy Parker). Billy and Marlene VerPlanck Collection.

The steady income afforded by Marlene’s jingle work gave the couple the freedom to hone their respective crafts. Billy would be Marlene’s arranger until his death in 2009, creating hundreds of arrangements for her performances and more than twenty albums. The two seem to have never hit a rut in their collaboration, constantly taking on new challenges. A chance meeting while on vacation in Paris with the hot seven-piece combo Saxomania led to a full album of the group playing Billy’s arrangements with Marlene.

2) Marlene Verplanck, 1995. Billy and Marlene VerPlanck Collection.

Jingle work demanded that Marlene always sing with clean and precise diction, and these were hallmarks of Marlene’s style as she developed into one of the leading interpreters of the American songbook.  She became a fixture on the jazz and cabaret scene in New York and New Jersey, as well as overseas festivals. She never ceased refining her craft, performing until just a few weeks before her death from pancreatic cancer in January, 2018.

All aspects of their careers, together and apart, are well represented  in the Billy and Marlene Verplanck Collection, now at the Library of Congress. In addition to Marlene VerPlanck’s album master tapes, there are many unreleased recordings of her dating back to the early 1950s, as well tapes from her numerous jingle sessions. Billy Verplanck’s arrangements for Marlene and others, from small groups to full orchestra are also in the collection.  It is a rare and rich legacy.

The recordings in the Billy and Marlene Verplanck Collection are currently awaiting processing, but inquiries may be directed to the Recorded Sound Research Center or the Library’s Ask-a-Librarian.  Billy VerPlanck’s arrangements are held by the Music Division and inquiries may be directed to the Performing Arts Reading Room.

[1] Myers:Marc Interview: Marlene Verplanck. https://www.jazzwax.com/2013/01/interview-marlene-verplanck.html. Accessed August 5, 2019

[2] Langer, Emily, “Marlene VerPlanck, commercial ‘jingle queen’ and singer of Great American Songbook, dies at 84,” washingtonpost.com, January 19, 2018

 

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