Friends and musicians who worked with her say her silky contralto and vocal stylings silenced audiences, such as those who saw her show with the Mike Walker Trio at the Montmartre on Lorne Street or at Bob Sell’s Colony Club.
With her vibrant presence, distinctive Eurasian appearance, wide range, captivating tone and the tight vibrato of an antipodean Eartha Kitt, she was the complete package. Mavis Rivers before her had set the bar high for New Zealand jazz vocalists and Marlene was her natural successor.
Her repertoire was a mix of jazz classics, show tunes and blues numbers, and while she was influenced by the likes of jazz standard-bearers Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, her interpretations were all her own. She commanded the cabaret stage, coffee lounges, dine-and-dance venues, the weekly radio shows she did with the Crombie Murdoch Trio, and the Crystal Palace Ballroom as Keely Smith to trombonist Merv Thomas’s Louis Prima and the Latin beats of their band, the Prophets.
The stellar years of Marlene Tong’s Auckland-based career lasted about as long as Vincent van Gogh’s working life – within a short but glittering decade.
It is reported that she was “discovered” singing in the bath. Pianist Ronnie Smith apparently heard her through the wall, when she was there, working in a Rotorua hotel, and asked her to sing with him. She was soon playing her first Auckland gig at the Picasso. Other engagements followed in swift succession, including dates at the Quintet, the Asia Club and with the Lew Campbell radio orchestra.
Tong was discovered singing in the bath by pianist Ronnie Smith, who heard her through the wall of a hotel.
In a 1960 Auckland Star write-up with Marlene at 20 and her Epsom fruiterer father, William Tong, who espoused the love of traditional Chinese music, she said: “It’s dreadful. That clang, clang, clang gets on my nerves. Of course, jazz gets on Dad’s nerves, so we’re even. But I think he is secretly proud when he hears me on the radio.”
For three weeks in September 1960 US jazz duo Pete Jolly (piano/accordion) and Ralph Peña (double bass), composers both, toured New Zealand, the earliest of the international jazz performers to visit. Their tour ended in Auckland and they performed there on September 18 at Bob Sell’s Colony Club, where Marlene was singing with the Mike Walker Trio. Two nights later, the duo were on stage at the Auckland Town Hall’s Concert Chamber. Marlene considered it her biggest break when they asked her to join them there in concert.
The Colony Club was one of her regular gigs and it was where she made her one and only recording in 1963 for Harry M. Miller on his La Gloria label. The live EP featured selections from her set – ‘The Man I Love’, ‘Am I Blue’, ‘Green Dolphin Street’, and ‘So Many Beautiful Men’ – with backing from Mike Walker and his first trio: Mike on piano with drummer Tony Hopkins and bassist Neville Whitehead.
Bob Gibson’s album notes to the EP say the combo of Marlene and the atmosphere at the Colony Club were “the ultimate” in sophistication, and that, “… on this unique recording, she reaches out to a new audience – to everyone, in fact, who appreciates a song with a beat and a singer who makes every note and every phrase a work of art.”
There were concerts and international residencies, jazz festivals and nightclub appearances throughout the 1960s. The Auckland Star reported Marlene completed a three-week season at Sydney’s Chevron Hilton in 1964 and was at the Montmartre before leaving for performances in Japan, Thailand and Hong Kong.
She toured Tahiti and New Caledonia in 1965, and had a three-month residency in Noumea at Gilbert Thong’s well-known nightspot, the Tivoli. Back home, she stepped in when US soul singer Barbara English dropped out of the Gene Pitney-Millie Small tour in 1965.
She undertook cabaret work in Wellington and as television music shows proliferated, often with live audiences, she became more visible to a wider New Zealand audience. With Tommy Adderley she fronted a TV show called Duo in 1966 and, in 1967, she performed at the first Orewa Jazz Festival.
While it might have been the glittering gowns of the chanteuse sophisticate and the rarefied air surrounding a natural-born stage performer, it was Marlene’s musicality that made the lasting impression.
“SHE COULD HOLD AN AUDIENCE SPELLBOUND” – BASS PLAYER KEVIN HAINES.
Long-time kingpin of Auckland jazz Mike Walker says, “She was a wonderful singer, had a great sense of humour and was always laughing. Everything was just spot-on: her timing was great, feeling was great – everything about her singing was wonderful. She was head and shoulders above …”
Bass player Kevin Haines, who worked with the Mike Walker Trio during the Marlene years, says, “She had the real deal when it came to jazz singing. We used to do two shows per night and the trio would back different people. Sometimes it was a horn player and sometimes it was a singer, but Marlene stood out as being pretty exceptional. She could hold an audience basically spellbound.
“And she sang scat great. She was like an instrument. That was the point – she was a real singer. She was listening to other real singers. She was unique in the way that she phrased and her voice was quite unusual.”“She used to do an amazing version of the tune, ‘I’m Afraid the Masquerade is Over’. She used to do it as a super-slow ballad. It was astounding, just the way she could interpret. The words of that song are very emotive … it’s all about two people breaking up. Oh, boy, the way she could sing that put the hairs up on the back of your neck. Quite incredible.
Trombonist Merv Thomas, who hired Marlene to sing the Keely Smith part to his Louis Prima at the Crystal Palace, told Chris Bourke in 2007, “I don’t know whether it was me that suggested it … but someone, somewhere along the line said if we are going to do Louis Prima we need a Keely Smith and maybe you should get Marl.”
Thomas was also central in her only recording: “I actually recorded it at the Colony for release for Harry Miller. He engaged us. I did the tech thing and built all the gear.”
With her increasing concert and club engagements, television appearances and international touring, Marlene was on track for widespread fame had she not been found in possession of the tail end of a jazz cigarette. The police of the day had reefer madness on their minds and rigorous anti-marijuana laws to defend, and Marlene, as a public figure, was made an example of and banned from appearing in front of a television camera.
“In 1964 … to headline writers, jazz and drugs went together like a horse and carriage, and the vice squad had been focusing on ‘the beatnik set’ in recent years,” Chris Bourke wrote in Blue Smoke.
TONG TURNED HER BACK ON NEW ZEALAND ABRUPTLY AND LEFT TO LIVE IN AUSTRALIA.
Whether it was the bust or something else, Marlene turned her back on New Zealand abruptly and left to live in Australia with her new husband, a man in shoe business rather than show business.
“I don’t remember Marlene actually smoking much at all, if any. I think that was really badly handled and [she was] badly done by. David Ross, a lifelong friend of Mike Walker and owner of Video Assist, a company that provided videos for musicians, and worked closely with them, knew her well for her heyday in Auckland clubland.
“I was in Wellington when all that happened and I know it had a huge effect on her. She just walked away from New Zealand, which is a damn shame, because we’d never seen a true jazz singer like her, until her, and I don’t believe we’ve had anyone since. Maybe Jacqui Fitz [Fitzgerald] would come close, but Marlene was something else.”