Singer Marilyn Maye: A Force of Nature at 88

The Marvelous Marilyn Maye

My mouth dropped open as Marilyn Maye came around the corner in full makeup, hair done, eyelashes in place and wearing a glamorous daytime ensemble at 1:30 in the afternoon. “How is it possible that you look so beautiful at this hour?” I stammered. She laughed, flipped her wrist at me and said, “Oh honey, if I’m not done up, I’m not out in public.” She was two performances away from winding up a 10-show run at Feinstein’s/54 Below as a special guest of the club’s co-owner, the singer, pianist and Great American Songbook advocate, Michael Feinstein.

Later this month, Maye will open a three night solo run at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, playing two shows each night September 16, 17 and 18 with her killer trio: Pianist/Conductor Tedd Firth, bassist Tom Hubbard, and drummer Eric Halvorson. Her appearances are part of the seventh annual Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) Coca-Cola Generations in Jazz Festival, running through October 2. Maye last performed at JALC in May at their annual gala, when her Fats Waller medley brought the entire room of patrons and celebrities to its feet, squealing with delight.

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Maye is relishing the opportunity to perform material she doesn’t do too often in cabaret rooms. She mentioned just three of her song selections for the Dizzy’s gig to me — “Something Cool,” “Midnight Sun” and “Lush Life.” Yes, please! Is it too much to hope for “Take Five?” She’s pleased that JALC recognizes her as the jazz master that she is, and she’s a very busy master, indeed. Between club and concert appearances and the group classes and private lessons she teaches all over the country, Maye says it’s pretty much fly, unpack, perform, teach, pack, fly…all the time. She lives in Kansas City, MO.

I pointed out to Maye that she’s 88. She groaned and said, “Ugh…it’s almost part of my name now! ‘Octogenarian singer, Marilyn Maye.’ I just don’t think people should use that to promote me. Who the heck is going to come out to see an 88 year old singer?” Well, apparently a whole lot of people, including Bette Midler, Chris Noth, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly and youngsters like Michael Urie, but I did get her point. She’s not just “good for her age,” or a novelty. What makes people pack the few glamorous nightclubs we have left in this country to see Marilyn Maye at 88?

She occasionally does a high kick.

She’s a phenomenon of nature. Her depth is the kind that only comes from experience, and it’s markedly different from those who have only been at it for a couple of decades. Her dynamics and range are enviable. She swings seriously hard or gently depending on the crowd. Her patter and jokes seem completely spontaneous, and are mercifully limited. She’s a naturally hilarious person who can amuse her audience just by the structure of a medley. She occasionally does a high kick. She personifies entertainment. She’s thrilling. She was born for the job.

And that entertaining is her “job,” well, she’s more than clear about her position on that. Maye has been performing professionally for 78 years, since she won a contest at age 9 whose prize was to perform for 13 weeks on the radio in Topeka, KS. The inevitable unfolded from there. You can read Maye’s history on her website or in one of the many articles and reviews that have been written about her through the years. But briefly: Maye came up at a time when nightclubs were a “thing” and a singer earned a living wage. One of her engagements lasted 11 years (The Colony in Kansas City) and another has lasted 61 years (The Inn at Okoboji, where she’ll return this summer). Eventually she caught the attention of Steve Allen and then The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, on which she appeared 76 times. There were awards and accolades (which keep coming), an exciting, nationally debuted recording on RCA with arrangements by Don CostaManny Albam and Peter Matz, followed by 6 additional albums at RCA. One of her recordings, “Too Late Now” was selected for the Smithsonian Institution’s permanent collection of 20th-century recordings. She appeared in major New York engagements at Copacabana, The Living Room — where she recorded her second RCA album, The Second Of Maye, live — The St. Regis Hotel, The Rainbow Grill and Michael’s Pub.

A 1965 album cover
A 1965 album cover

In 1964 the Beatles came to America, Sonny and Cher appeared on the scene shortly thereafter, and the whole live music world turned upside down. Major stardom eluded her and Maye kept on doing her job. “I didn’t, and I don’t now, over-think it,” she explains. “I just no longer had the national platform I’d had with Carson and Mike Douglas.” She worked continually at club dates and concerts and musicals (Follies, Hello, Dolly! and Mame among them), mainly up and down the middle of the country. Then in 2005 the late Donald Smith of the Mabel Mercer Foundation invited her to appear at the New York Cabaret Convention to sing the music of Jerry Herman.

Boom. Well, almost. The crowd certainly didn’t know what had hit them.

A year elapsed and Maye was wisely invited back to the convention in 2006. Billy Stritch (along with Tedd Firth, one of her two accompanists for clubs and concerts) mentioned that a new place had just opened called Metropolitan Room and maybe she could book a night there after her appearance at the convention. She said yes and wondered if anyone would come to see her. She needn’t have worried. “It was like a movie,” said Maye, “I arrived at the club and there were people lined up down the block to get in.” Since then, just try to get a ticket for one of Maye’s shows if you hesitate.

Like a gift bestowed by some musical god.

I’m moved to say this was not a comeback, because Maye wasn’t gone, retired or slowing down. It was more like a gift bestowed by some magnanimous musical god to a city and a genre parched for experience, flawless musicianship, generosity, economy, authenticity, glamour and showbiz.

“It took me a year from that point in 2006 to build a New York audience,” said Maye. “I invested in it. I would come for a minimum of 5 shows, never fewer. I made no money and it cost me plenty. But that’s what you have to do with a career. You work at it. You don’t think, ‘Oh gosh, I’m not famous.’ So what? You do your very best with one day and the next day you get up and do your very best again.”

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Just a reminder: Maye was 78 years old at the time she began “investing” in a presence in New York City. It has paid off in a rabid following of fans, tons of ink and a new generation of entertainers, to whom she’s been teaching her secrets in master classes and private sessions nationwide.

A painting of Maye by Janet Kuemmerlein, commissioned by the American Jazz Museum / via
A painting of Maye by Janet Kuemmerlein, commissioned by the American Jazz Museum / via

I ask Maye to imagine she’s the CEO of cabaret. What concerns about the firm’s future keep her up at night? She answers, “Well, the name, for one. Cabaret has such a bad name! People have to understand what it is, and that goes for the performers as well as the audience. It’s live, it’s entertainment, and it’s fun and happiness. Cell phones concern me — audiences should look at and listen to the performer, not tape them or photograph them constantly at the expense of the live experience. As for performers, I think there are many people in cabaret who don’t understand singing is a job and a business. Some people think of it as a self-serving occupation. The audience has paid to be entertained and have fun. It’s the performer’s job to serve them. It’s not a time to be grand and thrill to the sound of your own voice.”

Oh, Marilyn, I think we’ve seen a few of the same people.

I asked Maye about the classes she teaches now. She taught performance before to kids aged 6 to 18 in a dance studio she owned with one of her ex-husbands in Kansas City. “In New York, many times after my performances, singers approached me and asked if I taught master classes,” said Maye. “One singer was undaunted and kept suggesting that I teach the ‘Art of Performance.’ The new aspect for me was working with adults. I began holding classes in New York 10 years ago, and I’m now coaching classes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Palm Beach, Orlando, Kansas City and St. Louis. In the cities where I perform, for a night or two, more often than not, a class is held after those performances. It’s such a rewarding part of my life now, to watch people who have a passion for singing improve in their performance.” I asked what secrets she spills to her students. “Some of the things I teach are practical, like mic technique or how to communicate to your musicians, and other things I can really only try to improve upon like phrasing, dynamics and connecting to your audience. I just hope to develop talent and teach my students to invest the time to develop what is God-given. It makes me very, very happy to work with people who love the Great American Songbook. Things that bother me are when I see a lack of training in movement, or the absence of vocal dynamics within a performance. You know, a song is never supposed to start out at its loudest, or most energetic, and stay there. The dynamic needs to travel between 1 and 10, as I explain it, throughout the song. And something that surprises me is how many people sing in the wrong keys for their voice and don’t know it. I don’t understand why their accompanist doesn’t tell them.”

I know what Maye has given New York City. What does NYC give Maye? “You get to meet your peers,” she says. “Great people come to see you, and you meet and greet afterwards. It’s fun when a famous person comes up to thank me. I get to do what I love to do, and it’s just happy, happy, fun times. And as I mentioned, teaching the classes enriches my life in ways I didn’t expect.”

Maye was ready to run for her appearance on Seth Rudetsky’s Sirius XM show. In closing, I asked her what she’d do if she won a $20,000,000 lottery tonight. Without a beat, she answered, “Oh, I’d hire the New York Pops, rent Carnegie Hall and do my symphony concert. I’d buy an apartment in New York City….and I’d have a party! I’m a party girl.”

Party on, Marilyn.