Mary Ellen Tanner died this week, and Lee Hay, my old friend from WVXU, and I attended what we used to call (in the south) the “viewing.” Really, it's a chance for friends to gather and share their sadness. Sure enough, the place was packed: Just about everyone in the jazz world was there. Mary Ellen's life partner, John von Ohlen, the magnificent drummer who put the Blue Wisp Big Band together back in the 70's, Lee Stollar, Mary Ellen's long-time accompanist, along with the horn section of the Big Band. I haven't seen many of the guys for years, and everyone (including me) seems to have faded, like the negatives of old photographs.
Mary Ellen was a real band singer and a significant solo singer. I knew her from the old Bob Braun Show on Channel 5. The Katie Laur Band made frequent trips with the Braun Show troupe, and on one of these excursions, to West Virginia, I think, I sat behind Mary Ellen and Nancy James (another Braun Show singer). They were young and lovely, and I was too shy to talk to them, but I overheard their conversation. Mary Ellen was complaining about her high heels (which I suppose she did until the end of her life), and they were both bummed out by the cost of clothes for the show, which they had to pay themselves.
I remember thinking, “They're just people, just girl singers like me,” and from then on I was less intimidated. In fact I did a story on Mary Ellen for CityBeat. And I watched her grow as a singer, from the Braun Show to the years her trio played the Celestial in Mt. Adams. She knew her lyrics, had great pitch and knew how to deliver a ballad, something by Gershwin or Cole Porter or Rogers and Hart, and those weren't easy songs to sing. I don't suppose we'll see another like her. You can take your high heels off now, Mary Ellen; thanks for the memories.