Mary Ellen Tanner and I are very different people. I'm a puppy dog when it comes to audiences. I take liberties with melodies, rhythm, only asking the band to trust me. Mary Ellen, is always, always in control. When I saw her perform recently at a golden wedding anniversary party, I was visited briefly by my late dear friend, Morgy Craig. It sounded like him speaking, but perhaps it was only the part of him I internalized before his death.
"That's perfection," he said, in his overpowering laugh-filled voice. "That's the stuff."
She was singing "I Remember You," a song from the '30s, redone by someone else in the '50s or '60s. It is a song Morgy loved, because he could take those long, controlled breaths, swoop effortlessly with his phrases, until you almost expected he'd turn blue. After he quit smoking and had a quadruple heart bypass, he was amazing, and as I listened to Mary Ellen, I heard her sing the phrase, "When the angels ask me to recall the thrill of them all," without any pause for breath (try it sometimes if you don't think it's hard) smoothly, beautifully ascending, on the last phrase, the notes in one controlled breath, ending on the last "you" like a steel magnolia, crystal clear, pitch beyond perfect.
She was with her current trio, including her long-time accompanist, pianist Lee Stoller, who knows more songs than God, and is equally grave. Mary Ellen and Lee seemed destined to work together, and they did so that day as one voice — the listener heard them as a single entity. Lee was excellent at setting her in a lyrical but spare sea of music, as if she were a diamond in a ring. John von Ohlen, who has played drums with her for many years, stared blankly through his own perfect brushwork, perfectly accenting her last phrase — a small lick, but a wonderful example of why we come eventually to listen to grown-up music in a live setting — for the expertise of the performers, hanging out there over the abyss, for the touch of shimmering possibilities.
Mary Ellen is middle-aged now, from the girl I first knew so many years ago, and it is hard for a woman to decide how to age in the entertainment business. I have dealt with it, and I know Mary Ellen has. Does one dye one's hair and wear corsets, as San Francisco singer, Mary Murphy, is rumored to have done, appear in wigs, like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, with gowns or miniskirts?
"Frankly, these rhinestones cost a fortune," Mary Ellen said to me once at The Blue Wisp, her eyes, darkened with mascara, were intense. Today she wore her blond hair in a neat coif. She is small, and she wears high heels that she swears she loves, and generally, she stands about four hours a night, slaving over a hot microphone.
Under the rhinestones and the show-biz accoutrements, though, I could see the artist in her, the little girl her father put onstage when she was 4 years old, the young woman I knew when we did the Bob Braun Show together so many, many years ago, learning her craft in a setting that was destined to teach her more than she expected, through her years with the demanding (and excellent) pianist, Frank Vincent. (At Cal Collins' funeral, someone mentioned Frank, saying if you sang a wrong lyric you could ruin his night. "You could ruin his life," Mary Ellen spoke up from the crowd. It brought down the house.)
At the end of the gig, Mary Ellen wrote out checks to her band while von Ohlen packed his drum kit, his wonderful, incomparable cymbals, cradled as carefully as a 6-week-old baby. He and Mary Ellen, companions for many years, were off to a Jazz festival the next week — John to perform and Mary Ellen "just as a person," she said, knowing I'd understand what she meant. She was hoping for a well-deserved rest from a throat and sinus infection derived from the summer's hideous air quality and hours of exposure to secondhand smoke. If I hadn't known she wasn't feeling well, I could have never told from her singing. I hope she gets rest and begins to feel better soon. We can't afford to lose her voice. ©