Cinegrill Looks Mmmm, Good to Top Studio Singer

Remember the haunting sound of the vocal in Campbell’s “Mmmm, good!” commercial? And the ungrammatical little ditty that led many to believe that “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should”? How about “Weekends were made for Michelob”? All different, all effective, and all examples of the singing of New York City’s nonpareil studio singer, Marlene VerPlanck.

For more than 20 years, VerPlanck has ranked at the top of the call list for Madison Avenue’s advertising jingles. “I guess I’ve literally done thousands of commercials,” she said in a phone call from San Francisco (where she was headlining at the Plush Room last week), “including all the majors, from McDonald’s and Salems to Pan Am and the ‘I Love New York’ campaign.”

Behind the all-purpose versatility, however, the buoyant, highly energized VerPlanck always saw herself as something more--an up-front stylist who could sing the great American song repertoire with the best of the jazz and cabaret performers.


Tonight, she will take a major step toward that goal when she opens a two-week run at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Cinegrill--VerPlanck’s first appearance outside the recording studios in the Los Angeles area.

“I had a wonderful run at studio singing,” she said. “I was at the top for 20 years, and I’ve got no complaints at all. As a studio singer you’ve got to be adaptable to any situation--group singing, solo singing, trio singing or duo singing. And you have to have every style under your belt--contemporary, ‘40s, ‘30s, doo-wop--you name it. It’s wonderful experience, and I love the whole span of it, because you never know what kind of music you’re going to sing until you walk into the studio.”

In addition to her commercials work, VerPlanck has sung back-up vocals for performers ranging from Frank Sinatra and Perry Como to Tony Bennett and Kiss.

Despite the lack of glamour in the day-in, day-out tedium of studio sessions, special moments do occur. She recalled a session in which she contracted 16 singers for Sinatra’s “Trilogy” album.

“I phoned them all,” she said, “without telling them what the session was to be. Of course, these days, singers hardly ever work ‘live’ with an orchestra, because almost everything’s done with overdubbing. So when they walked in and saw this huge, wonderful 55-piece orchestra sitting there, they said, ‘Hey, Marlene! What’re we doing?’

“I just shrugged and said, ‘Oh, I don’t know. Let’s go to the stand and see what the music says.’ When they saw the music with Frank Sinatra’s name on it, they all started squealing like a bunch of bobby-soxers.”

Surprisingly, she has not found the change from anonymous commercials to featured performer difficult to make, except in one respect: “I’ve been increasing my live performances every year for the last 10 years and I’ve done 10 solo recordings (on Audiophile Records), so working solo has been an easy, gradual sort of development.

“The hardest part,” she said, laughing, “was memorizing songs. In the beginning, I was just spastic when it came to learning lyrics. When you work in the studios, you go in, read the music and then go on to the next session. But when I started singing, I suddenly found myself doing my own act, and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’m doing an hour on stage and I’ve got to have it all in my head!’ ”

VerPlanck’s Cinegrill show will include a generous sampling of the classic songs she favors, assembled by her husband, arranger J. Billy VerPlanck, into the story of a love affair. “I begin with the initial meeting with a person,” she explained, “and then go through all the ups and downs of the relationship. It gives me a lot of range in the singing of the songs--first love, breaking up and so forth--and the songs themselves are selected to carry the story forward.”