Mary Ellen Tanner's song of her youth

Tuesday, May 5, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mary Ellen Tanner
Her father, she says, had her singing on stage at the age of 3. She won a talent contest and $25.

Mary Ellen Tanner -- under the gentle lighting at the Celestial's Incline Lounge in Mount Adams, where she sings on weekends -- looks much as she did 20 years ago when she was Bob Braun's "girl singer." Luminous vapor of blond hair, wide brown eyes, unselfconscious smile.

At the Mike Fink, where we lunch one afternoon in a more unforgiving light, the waiter discovers he can gush and fill a water glass at the same time.

He says she is beautiful. He likes her jacket. He loves her voice. CP:Mary Ellen Tanner

Flustered, even after decades of such treatment, she thanks him and orders a club sandwich. "I'm not much of a fancy eater."

Well, maybe not. She saves fancy for her music. The Enquirer's pop music critic, Larry Nager,calls her work "classy interpretation of classic songs." Songs such as "Lover Man" and "You'll Never Know." Songs not of her generation, but of her father's.

By the time she was 12, Mary Ellen's dad was getting her gigs with big bands. She sang at dances at the old Castle Farm on Reading Road, at county fairs, at Newport Stadium. She sang to the Winton Place Vets and at her church.

Then she discovered Elvis and the Beatles. Uh-oh. Besides, she decided she'd rather be a cheerleader on Friday nights than stand behind a mike. Her father, Robert, a Covington police officer, bided his time.

A mean Petula Clark

After high school, she took a job as a secretary. She left after three years, and "the company was much better for it." She went on the college circuit with a rock band -- Indiana University, Miami University, Ohio State.

"She used to do a mean Petula Clark," the band's leader, Stan Hertzman, wrote in the liner notes for her CD. "Unfortunately, one year of full-tilt rock 'n' roll was enough for Mary Ellen Tanner." Robert Tanner was back in the stage-dad business, and she was back to the music she loved. She studied voice while working on Nick Clooney's WCPO show. Then she was back on the road with a band again. Old songs. The good stuff.

She got a job on the Braun show in 1978, singing and hawking Bufferin and Sani-flush. "God, it was wonderful. We had so much fun. And we thought it would never end." It did, of course.

In 1984, the show was canceled. By then, there were fewer nightclubs, fewer jobs for musicians. Married and divorced, she took more lessons, then started teaching voice herself at CCM. With her trio -- pianist Lee Stolar, bassist Jim Perkins and drummer John Von Ohlen -- she plays the Celestial on Fridays and Saturdays from 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. and sings Thursdays from 5:30 to 9 p.m. with pianist Wayne Yeager. Being a girl singer, these days, won't make you rich. Maybe it never did. Last year, she dug her way out of bankruptcy. There are no pension plans for singers, so "I'll be singing until they gong me, or I get the hook," she says.

On a Saturday night, she leans into a song. A couple of nouveau cigar-smokers puff away at the bar, not paying much attention. There's some talk elsewhere in the lounge, but it's quiet, respectful. This room loves her. And just then she is not thinking about the utility bill or tomorrow's groceries.

"If I've sung something a hundred times, I still hear what it says." Her CD, When the World Was Young, ends with her favorite song, Oscar Levant's "Blame It On My Youth."

"If I cried just a little bit when first I learned the truth," she sings, "don't blame my heart. Blame it on my youth."

Her voice is sweet and true and laden with what she knows.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at