Marlene VerPlanck, a vocalist who was a darling of Madison Avenue in the 1960s and 1970s, recording thousands of commercials before becoming known as a jazz singer and acclaimed interpreter of American popular song, died Jan. 14 at a hospital in New York City. She was 84.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, according to her family.
Mrs. VerPlanck was “not a household name,” New York Times jazz critic John S. Wilson once observed — an omission that was perhaps more than a little unfair considering that her voice was “heard virtually every day in any household that has a television set.”
She got her start in the 1950s performing with big bands led by Tex Beneke, Charlie Spivak and the Dorsey brothers. She soon married Billy VerPlanck, a trombonist, composer and arranger, who became her musical collaborator and champion.
By the next decade, Mrs. VerPlanck was known as the “New York jingle queen.” Commercials were not glamorous or lucrative, at least at first; she recalled payments of $10 for recording up to five commercials in an hour.
Her fortunes changed when she was chosen to record spots for Campbell’s billing their soups as “Mmmmmmm good!” The commercials ran for years and made the tune, as sung by Mrs. VerPlanck, an American earworm.
For the insurance company, she crooned that “Nationwide is on your side,” and for the beermaker, she intoned that “weekends were made for Michelob.”
“When we had finished,” she told the Times, “they asked me to put a ‘Yeah!’ on the end. I did it. And on all the Michelob spots since then, with Billy Eckstine, Vic Damone, Brook Benton, they edit my ‘Yeah!’ on at the end. I’ve never gone back to do the ‘Yeah!’ again. But I collect every time it’s used.”
Commercial recording allowed Mrs. VerPlanck to hone the clarity of her diction, a quality that became one of her calling cards in her performing career. “In the jingles business, you deal in words, messages,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1989. “If you can’t understand the words, what’s the point in doing the commercial?”
She sang backup for entertainers including Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Perry Como and Mel Torme, eventually establishing herself as a performer in her own right. Mrs. VerPlanck appeared at cabarets from New York to Britain and on television, developing a specialty in the Great American Songbook — particularly works by Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Johnny Mercer. Wilson described her in 1980 as perhaps “the most accomplished interpreter of popular material performing today.”
“Lyricists clearly have a good friend in” Mrs. VerPlanck, music critic Mike Joyce wrote in The Washington Post in 1991. “She’s not only mindful of their intentions, carefully enunciating their words in a pure, unaffected voice, but she’s also quite capable of investing their creations with a wide range of emotions, from the dramatic to the joyful to the exquisitely bittersweet.”
She began her solo recording career in earnest in the late 1970s and made more than 20 albums, among them “Marlene VerPlanck Loves Johnny Mercer,” “You Gotta Have Heart: The Songs of Richard Adler” and “Marlene VerPlanck Sings Alec Wilder.” More recently, she released “Ballads . . . Mostly,” “I Give Up, I’m in Love” and “The Mood I’m In.”
Marlene Paula Pampinella was born Nov. 11, 1933, in Newark, where her mother’s family ran an Italian restaurant. Her father operated a gas station.
Mrs. VerPlanck, who grew up listening to Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, began performing in her teens and made her recording debut in 1955 with “I Think of You With Every Breath I Take.”
Her husband died in 2009 after more than 50 years of marriage. Besides her sister, survivors include a brother.
Mrs. VerPlanck, who appeared as recently as December at a jazz club in New York, told the Tribune that she considered songs stories with certain ageless themes. “You meet a man,” she said. “You fall in love. And then you stay in love, or things don’t work out.” But, she added, “each time I sing a song, I try to make it different.”