Cabaret great Marilyn Maye :: At the top of her game
Marilyn Maye, celebrating her 84th birthday this month, returns to Feinstein's at Loew's Regency for a two-week run through May 5, 2012.
The living legend, a native of Kansas City and Johnny Carson's favorite singer (she appeared on "The Tonight Show," a record seventy-six times during his tenure), recorded several albums for RCA Records during the 1960s, appeared in regional musical productions, and has had a thriving nightclub career across the country.
In recent years, Maye has set New York nightclubs ablaze with her no-nonsense delivery and still-impressive vocals, and an energy that would tire those half her age.
EDGE recently spoke to Maye by phone while she was taking a short break as a guest of friends in Palm Springs. She spoke of her career, music and her upcoming engagement.
EDGE: You started so young in this business and you had the rare thing of a parent who actually encouraged you in show business. It worked out for you, but do you have an opinion about kids starting out so young in show business?
Marilyn Maye: I think it’s a given gift. I don’t think you can just decide to be in this business. You have to have the passion and the talent. Some want to be in the business so badly but then they are not particularly talented. It’s all-encompassing, it’s difficult, it’s constant. They need to know that they are going to devote their life to it. My mother was not a pushy stage mother but she was very musical and recognized my gift early on and wanted me to pursue it.
EDGE: Has this resurgence in your career in recent years been a surprise to you?
Marilyn Maye: The resurgence has been in New York, but I’ve never stopped working. It’s not really a surprise but it’s very rewarding. It’s been wonderful and I’m busier than ever. The resurgence in New York has been wonderful because for a long time there wasn’t a right place for me. I love working with my trio. Billy Stritch is from Texas and has been working with me since he was eighteen-he says I was his first. We worked frequently together in the Midwest. When he opened the Metropolitan Room in 2006, he told me, "There is a good club for you."
Later that year at the Cabaret Convention, Donald Smith was honoring Jerry Herman. He knew I’d done some of his shows on stage and asked me to take part. I was asked to do one night at the Metropolitan Room. I figured we’d have four or five people in the audience. They were lined up around the block! New Yorkers-not just the performers but the music lovers-do their homework. They know the history. They were aware of my work.
Stay in shape?
EDGE: I’ve seen you at Cast Party until the wee hours of the morning and your own shows often last two hours without intermission. How do you maintain your energy and stay in shape?
Marilyn Maye: I wish I could tell you. I take vitamins, but I have great inner energy. And if there is something going on, I don’t want to miss it! If there’s a party, I’m there! I always say, "Just keep moving."
EDGE: You project an image of optimism but this business can be very tough. Was there ever a time when you wanted to throw in the towel and say "To hell with this, I can’t do it anymore"?
Marilyn Maye: This is how I make my living. You don’t quit your job. It was never a prerequisite to be a star. It’s what I’m about, what I am. I once asked a lover, "Do you love me or Marilyn Maye?" He said, "How can I separate them?" There is a great deal of depressing stuff about the business: clubs close, the airlines are miserable, making travel difficult. But the upsides outweigh any of the negatives.
EDGE: All of these years, you’ve maintained a home base in Kansas City. What does going home do for you?
Marilyn Maye: Usually, I don’t like to leave wherever I am. But I get to see my daughter Kristi, who lives there. And my assistant is like my blood sister. I have my stuff there. Kansas City is a great jazz town and I have a lot of history there. I worked a club called The Colony, five nights a week for eleven years, except summers when we went to Las Vegas and Tahoe. A lot of those fans still come to my shows. Occasionally they even show up at Feinstein’s.
Dealing with texters
EDGE: One of my favorite memories was watching you go to someone who was texting during one of your songs. During the instrumental, you went over and gently put your hand over his and said, "Put that away, baby. You miss a lot of life that way." Then you went back and continued singing. Is it harder to reach audiences now?
Marilyn Maye: Well, that was unusual. In New York, people are sensitive to the music. I work to them, not just for them. The audience is the star and it’s my job to entertain them. I don’t have a problem communicating with them. Maybe that’s a skill. I show them they are important to me.
EDGE: You seem to have a large gay audience whenever you perform in New York. As someone from the Midwest who came of age in a more conservative era, was that an adjustment for you get accustomed to in showbiz?
Marilyn Maye: I was not a typical Midwestern person. I started on the road as a teenager. I never saw any difference. I don’t know what I’d do without my boys. Thank God for them. I couldn’t be more thrilled. Talk about sensitive, knowledgeable people. I worked with Mark Franklin for twenty years as my accompanist. We did the Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson shows, and we recorded "Rapport," one of my last albums for RCA. He died at age thirty-nine and it was like losing my son.
EDGE: You also have recently used your great experience toward teaching and coaching singers. What are some of the mistakes singers make when they are coming up?
Marilyn Maye: They sing in the wrong key. They’ll say, "But I’ve always sung it in that key." Well, maybe that’s the problem. Phrasing, rhythm. Or sometimes they work so hard in service to the song that they forget to cultivate it for the audience. Singing is not just for your own enjoyment. Make it a story . . . Years ago, one of my husbands and I owned a dance studio and I taught the music, mostly to teenagers. The more I did shows in New York, people would tell me it was like being in a master class. So it works out very well: now I schedule sessions to teach adult singers while I’m doing shows in New York.
EDGE: What was the best time of your life?
Marilyn Maye: Right now. Every day. While we’ve been on the phone, I’ve picked three orchid blooms. I have so many wonderful friends and tonight Joe [a friend in Palm Springs] is having a party for me and he’s invited twenty-four people.
EDGE: I had a feeling that would be your answer. Any regrets?
Marilyn Maye: Well, I was never very successful in marriage. I had three alcoholic husbands. I’m no longer in the drama of all that! The point is, it’s a learning process. You can’t go back and fix it. All that experience helps me sing ballads well.
EDGE: What kind of show can you promise us at Feinstein’s this spring?
Marilyn Maye: It’s all about my birthday, it’s all about happiness. I once did an album called "The Happiest Sound in Town" and that’s what we’re calling this show. I want to show people how to make their own kind of music, their own kind of life. I’m not a Pollyanna, but there is a good side.
Stay active. Don’t retire. I’ve gone to Provincetown for the last four years. I watch the Carnival parade and there is so much fun. It’s not about drinking and drugs. It makes such a statement. What’s wrong with that? Positive thoughts are part of good health.
Marilyn Maye appears at Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency, through May 5. Go to www.feinsteinsatloewsregency.com and www.marilynmaye.com for more information.