May 5, 1932 - May 26, 2017
Her fans knew her as Marilyn Mann, a high-wattage singer who dished out the standards with zest, wit and volume. For decades, her sign "Mann at Work" popped up in local bars and restaurants, alerting patrons they were in for a great time.
The town will be a little more subdued with her gone. Mann, a beloved lounge entertainer of the old school, died May 26 in her Pendleton home after a period of declining health. She was 85.
For more than 55 years, Mann sang in various clubs throughout Western New York. Among them were Salvatore’s Restaurant on East Delavan Avenue; the Red Lobster on Sheridan Drive; the Colonial Inn; and the Cavalier. In later years, the "Mann at Work" sign appeared at the Williamsville Inn, Adam’s Como Lounge, Turners Landing and Ship N’ Shore.
Her daughter, Susan Dougherty, reflected on her mother's habit of spontaneously rewriting song lyrics and telling jokes. One typical Marilyn Mann one-liner went, “My doctor told me it was dangerous to drink alcohol while on medication, so I stopped taking my pills.”
"She was a cabaret singer. Not a jazz singer, but a cabaret singer, in the true sense. Like Mabel Mercer," said Andy Vitello, who owned the Blue Note, a popular Buffalo jazz club. "She knew how to work the bar. She knew how to work the room. She had that striking red hair, that personality."
Born Marilyn Groat, Mann grew up in Black Rock and graduated from Riverside High School. She met her husband, Joseph Semanski, in a Buffalo bar.
"It was destiny," Dougherty said. "Dad was a homebody. He was sleeping on Friday night when his buddies called him and told him he had to come to this bar because it was loaded with babes. The bar was across town but for some reason my dad got out of bed, dressed and drove there. To this day, he can't believe it himself.
"He walked into the bar and our mom caught his eye right away. He was the shy type and sent a buddy over to tell my mom that this guy standing at the bar was interested in her. In true Marilyn fashion, she whistled to him and waved him over, and the rest is history. My mom was engaged to someone else at the time, but married my dad six months later."
They were married 62 years and had five children. After the fifth child was born, Mann launched her singing career, taking her stage name from the middle syllable of her married name.
She got her start at a Niagara Street bar called Sully's. Her daughter said, "A singer named Jean LeVan took Mom under her wing and taught her the ropes, including makeup, dressing and how to play the cocktail drum."
Mann's chief collaborator was keyboardist Jimmy Davis, and they attracted a wide following. She also made many informal appearances over the years with friends such as Jackie Jocko and Joe Peters.
Offstage, she was a devoted wife and mother. She helped her husband manage Countertop Service, the business he founded in 1963. In the 1990s, she worked as a real estate agent with Metro Colvin.
Her father was Native American and she passed her pride in that heritage on to her children. She also bequeathed them her love of performing. Her son Thomas, who died in 2007, was an accomplished musician and composer.
Her daughter said that on Christmas Eve, her mother would have all the children perform something – sing, play an instrument, recite a poem – before receiving their Christmas gifts.
"It made for an entertaining evening for many years," she said.
Mann retired from show business in 2011. She continued to live an active life, meeting her high school friends for luncheons and functioning as the matriarch of her large extended family.
On June 5, the family held a celebration of her life at Ship N’ Shore, where she used to sing. Dougherty said 400 people turned out to reminisce.
She recalled a raucous crowd-pleaser her mother loved, "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone."
"Of course we will," she said. "And it will all be good."
Besides her husband and daughter, Marilyn Mann is survived by three sons, Joseph, of Gloucester, Va.; Kevin, of Amherst; and Jack, of East Amherst; as well as 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. She is also survived by a sister, Carole, of LaPlata, Md.; and a brother, Hank, of York, Pa.
Story topics: Marilyn Mann