Indefatigle Marilyn Maye Makes 54 Below Debut
By Ellis Nassour
You just can’t stop her – from singing and returning for appearances in her home-away-from-home New York, where the indefatigable Marilyn Maye has a legion of fans. Undoubtedly, as they do with every engagement here, they will follow her as she "sails" downstairs for her eagerly-anticipated 54 Below debut with MAYE-den Voyage, opening March 5 for 10 shows through March 16.
Miss Maye, turning 85 next month, but looking mid-70s [and singing as if she’s in her mid-40s!], is going strong with amazing vigor, nerve, and derring do – not to mention having a solid, crystal, munificent belt most singers three-quarters her age only dream of. Often, she goes full blast with brash power for up to 90 minutes without taking a deep breath.
It’s one big party as she runs the gamut from super elegant to super fun. Her performances are steeped in emotion and feeling, so it’s not surprising she has her audiences wrapped around her sound. Audiences love her back with enormous loyalty and affection.
Asked time and time again where her verve and vitality come from, she jokingly replies, "My genes came from a secret musical fountain of youth. It’s important to keep the negatives out of your life and just concentrate on the positives." With her powers virtually undiminished, she’s like ole Man River: she just keeps musically rollin’ along. Along the way, she’s gathered several steamer trunks of show business smarts.
Miss Maye jokes to fans, "I’ve had three husbands and one meaningful love affair. None worked, but my relationship with you has the emotional depth of a rewarding marriage. Singing is what I love. When I’m onstage, it’s my moment in time."
Cabaret aficionados have come to regard Miss Maybe as a national treasure. She received a Grammy nomination in the mid-60s as Best New Artist; and has been honored with the Mabel Mercer Award, Town Hall’s Nightlife Awards Legend. 2009 New York Nightlife Critics Award, and 2009 and 2010 MAC Awards for Celebrity Artist of the Year. The Smithsonian Institution chose her recording of "Too Late Now," from her RCA Lamp Is Low album, for inclusion in its Best Performers of the Best Compositions of the 20th Century Collection, where Miss Maye joined such greats as Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland.
"The awards and honors are so lovely," says Miss Maye, "especially at this time in my life, when they’re so totally unexpected."
Miss Maye points out, "54 Below will mark my 17th engagement in New York since 2006, not including appearances for the Mabel Mercer Foundation, Town Hall festivals, and Scott Siegel’s Broadway by the Year, the 92nd Street Y’s Lyrics and Lyricists, and cabaret award programs. It’s going to be most exciting to spend almost two weeks singing in this lovely new room. I love red, so I’ll feel right at home."
She brags New York audiences are the best. "They understand the work. They get it. They know that what I do isn’t easy, that it’s carefully planned and then honed through the years. By the end of the evening, I’m walking on air, infused with a giddy certainty that life really is a cabaret! The approval, respect, and enormous recognition I’ve received at the Metropolitan Room and Feinstein’s has brought overwhelming joy. I cannot tell you how much the friendships I’ve made have enriched my life."
When Ella Fitzgerald was asked who her favorite singers were, she named Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae and "marvelous Marilyn Maye, the greatest white female singer in the world."
On Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show a record-breaking 76 times, he called her "super singer." After one appearance, Carson turned to the camera and his millions of views and quipped, "And that, young singers, is the way it’s done."
Stephen Holden in The New York Times calls her "the embodiment and summation of a brash, sock-it-to-’em nightclub tradition that runs from Garland through Bette Midler, and with jazz added."
Marilyn Maye first appeared in the spotlight as a pre-teen in Topeka, Kansas, amateur contests in Topeka, Kansas, and never stopped singing. After making a name in Mid-West, she came to the attention of RCA Records and was often in the city to record.
Venturing into New York’s club scene was a natural progression, but she was reluctant to leave the Midwest because of her daughter and relocate. "It was a decision I later admitted was a mistake," she notes.
From Kansas City’s best clubs, she appeared at the Copacabana, The Living Room, and Rainbow Grill. She also headlined in Las Vegas casinos, and in Chicago and Los Angeles. In 1966, while performing here, Ed McMahon caught her act and insisted she had to on The Tonight Show.
"It was a wonderful break," explains Miss Maye. "Amazingly, I didn’t have to audition. Johnny had faith in Ed, and all I had to do was show up and sing." She received a standing ovation and Carson issued her an open invitation to join him whenever she was in town. She continued to appear after the program’s moved West.
Miss Maye’s RCA recordings consist of seven albums and 34 singles, including the first hit recording of "Cabaret." More recent recordings include The Singing Side of Life and Maye Sings Ray.
She has another regret: never having appeared on Broadway; but regionally, Miss Maye has starred in Can Can, Hello, Dolly and Mame, and portrayed Sally and Carlotta in Follies. There’ve been numerous concert appearances with symphony orchestras..
Not surprisingly, Miss Maye has favorite songwriters – "too many," she says, "but then that makes putting together a show easy." They range from Duke Ellington, Jerry Herman, whose show tunes she introduced first on RCA, Kander and Ebb, and Sondheim to one of her absolute favorites, the legendary composer Johnny Mercer, whom she’s often saluted in her shows.
"To my great regret," she says, "I never got to meet Johnny. I understood he drank a lot, something he had in common with my husbands. So I could have really worked with him. One day, while I was recording at RCA, someone slipped me a note on a torn piece of paper. It read, "No one sings ‘Misty’ like you!’ and it was signed Johnny Mercer. And he didn’t even write ‘Misty.’ I ran to the hall looking for him, but he had slipped away.
"Johnny was in many ways a tortured soul," adds Miss Maye, "and it’s easy to find the drama in his lyric text. I don’t know another composer who provides the perfect music to show the many aspects of the how I enjoy performing."
Regarding MAYE-den Voyage, at 54 Below, Miss Maye has been her usual tightlipped self about what songs she’ll be singing. "If it’s still possible," she laughs, "I like to surprise my audiences."
Tedd Firth returns on piano and as music director, with Tom Hubbard on bass, and Jim Eklof on drums, who’s collaborated with Miss Maye for over 50 years. "Jim knows me better than I know myself," she jokes.
The music cover is $45 and $35 for bar seating, with a $25 food/beverage minimum. Show times for the engagement vary. Reserve online at www.54Below.com [service charges apply); or by calling (646) 476.3551 after 4 P.M. 54 Below opens for cocktails and dinner at 5:30.