Marilyn Maye, the Super-Singer, Still Draws a Crowd in Her 90s
Marilyn Maye commands the stage like no other in her glittering gowns, charms and disarms her audiences with witty banter in between show-stopping songs, and exhibits a depth of musicality that few other performers can match.
After more than 75 years in show business, Kansas City’s jazz diva extraordinaire still packs a punch. Maye turns 90 on April 10, but don’t let that number fool you: Her unflagging work ethic, peerless showmanship and potent voice can make much younger singers jealous.
Maye’s performance at a Jazz at Lincoln Center gala last year utterly floored emcee Harry Connick, Jr., so much so that he stopped by her dressing room and said, “You are great. You have to do my show.” To which Maye replied, “I certainly do!” She appeared on Harry Feb. 20.
As she has for several years now, Maye will celebrate her birthday with a run of shows at Feinstein’s/54 Below in New York. In Kansas City, she’s performing at the Gem Theater in June and at Yardley Hall in November. Before leaving for another one of her multi-show engagements at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Maye talked extensively about a remarkable career that doesn’t let up.
“We’re booked until next year,” Maye says, “so I’ve got to keep singing. I laughingly say I’m singing as fast as I can.”
A native Kansan and Overland Park resident, Maye hasn’t stopped singing since the age of three. While she and her mother lived in Iowa, she remembers leaving school early so she could grab a streetcar and get to the station in downtown Des Moines for the radio show she had when she was 15 called “Marilyn Entertains.”
“It was for the Armed Forces, basically,” says Maye of her show that aired in the middle of World War II. “People would write in their requests and the servicemen would also write in their requests, and I would sing to them.”
For a couple of years after high school graduation, she was the staff vocalist at WHAS in Louisville, Kentucky, one of those musical positions that has long been phased out but is fondly associated with the radio programming of the era. She would do two 15-minute shows a week with smaller instrumentations, and on Fridays, she did an hour-long show with a full orchestra.
But it wasn’t until Maye returned to Kansas City for gigs at the Colony, a nightclub on Broadway where she sang for 11 years, that she got her big break. Steve Allen was the first host of The Tonight Show, an innovator in late-night comedy and a prolific songwriter in his own right, and he happened to see her perform. Shortly thereafter, she was doing a USO tour with her then-husband, pianist Sammy Tucker, singing on battleships in the Mediterranean Sea.
“And when I got back,” she says, “my mother said there’s a Steve Allen who called you. I said, ‘I don’t know any Steve Allen.’ I dialed the number, and it was a California number. When he answered, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s THE Steve Allen!’”
Maye would sing often on Allen’s 90-minute syndicated TV program that ran in the early 1960s, and she would hit the road for one-nighters with Allen, pianist Paul Smith, and two members of Allen’s comedy troupe from his TV shows, Bill Dana and Louis Nye.
“We flew a lot, but when it was less than 300 miles, we would drive,” Maye says. “We would all ride in the car together. Not Paul, but Louis and Steve and Bill Dana and I. And Steve would pontificate on stuff: show biz and television and all kinds of things. It was really wonderful to be with him that much, and he was always just fabulous to me.”
Maye appeared during the last week of this particular iteration of Allen’s talk show in 1964. The wife of an RCA executive had heard Maye several times on that show and told her husband, “This is the Kansas City singer I’ve been telling you about. You need to watch her and listen to her.” He called Maye, and she eventually signed a contract with RCA.
That first album, “Meet Marvelous Marilyn Maye,” was released in 1965, with Allen contributing the liner notes. Right out of the gates, Maye uncorks an absolutely blistering version of “Get Me to the Church on Time” and the album glides from there. The arrangement for “Misty” was hers that she did as a trio at the Colony, which prominent arranger Don Costa then transcribed for orchestra on the album. From 1966 to 1970, Maye would record six more albums for RCA.
The talk-show circuit continued to be good to Maye thanks to Johnny Carson, who invited her to sing a record 76 times on The Tonight Show and gave her the nickname “Super-Singer.” Many of her appearances from the New York shows were regrettably taped over, historical documents that are gone forever. But songs commingle with film from her Tonight Show performances for “A Tribute to Johnny Carson,” a show she does occasionally at venues like 54 Below in 2014 and the Art House in Provincetown, Mass., in 2016.
“He loved music. He played drums, and he played guitar. He admired a lot of good performers musically,” Maye says of Carson. “He liked my performance as much as my voice, I think.”
Maye developed a friendship with Carson’s bandleader, Doc Severinsen, who still tours himself at 90 years old. Besides the Carson show, Maye and Severinsen would do concerts together with symphony orchestras.
“The band on the show didn’t really get to play a lot,” Maye recalls. “They accompanied and they would do eight bars coming in and out of commercials. My arrangements are good, and I do my own arrangements. I don’t write them; I have a pianist or conductor that writes them, but I create the structure of what I do. The boys loved all my charts. In fact, I think [Tonight Show saxophonist] Tommy Newsom did two or three charts for me. When we would rehearse, of course they would play it terrifically the very first time. But Doc would turn to me and say, ‘Don’t you think we oughta take that again?’ They just wanted to play! And they loved the charts and we just had fun.”
Maye was a favorite of Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin on their respective talk shows, and she estimates that she was on The Mike Douglas Show more than The Tonight Show with Carson. She would work with more comedians in places like Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe or Reno. Such names as Alan King, Buddy Hackett and Shecky Greene, all of whom appeared on Carson’s show dozens of times, would do their 10 or 15 minutes and then introduce Maye for a musical interlude.
She credits Greene for having comedic chops in her own act. “He was in my audience when I worked Vegas a few months ago. I said, ‘You know, it always surprises me when I know when not to talk, or the timing of something that I say. All of the sudden, I realized it’s you. It’s my exposure to you.’
“That’s part of what I believe in performance, that it should be fun. I don’t want to educate them about my bad times. I think they’ve got their own bad times. I do talk about my three husbands, that they were all alcoholics and they’re all gone. I put my hands down by the floor and say, ‘And I really mean gone!’ You try to make it fun. And I think working with so many comedians helped.”
What Maye also loves to do is teach, and it’s this kind of wisdom about stagecraft that she instills in her students. In January, she did an hour-long presentation at a conference in New York called Jazz Congress about the art of performance.
Marilyn maye performs at the iridium in new york city, december 2017
“‘Watching you is a master class.’ [Critics] use that expression a lot in my work,” she says. “I was asked, ‘Aren’t you going to do master classes?’ And I said I need to do this, because the more I saw people work, the more I thought I need to share my beliefs in it. Right or wrong, they’re my beliefs, and they work. I’m not a teacher that is behind a piano or in a studio all the time. I practice what I preach. I’ve been doing it for 70 years, so I have practical experience! I pass on what I feel is the right way to perform.”
Some of her tips involve little but fundamental things like how to use and handle the microphone. But on a broader scale, because the lyrics are conversational, communication is the key that unlocks the riches of the Great American Songbook.
“It’s the connection that you strive to get with the audience. And the force of just knowing what you’re singing about,” Maye says. “I’m particular about what I wear and how the look of it all is. I’m very particular about my musicians. I have wonderful people, and in my master class I always tell them, ‘You can’t overcome a bad piano man.’ There’s no way you can make it work if your pianist isn’t good.”
Teaching runs in the family. Maye’s daughter, Kristi Tucker, is a vocal instructor at Miller Marley School of Dance & Voice in Overland Park and has a track record of students who have performed in Broadway shows. Her mother, meanwhile, creates acts for singers of all ages.
“When you see somebody do their act that you’ve designed or when you’ve given them what you feel is the right thing, it’s lovely,” Maye says. “There’s a certain amount of pride when you see the blooming that they do. It’s a wonderful thing when all of the sudden they really take charge of the audience. I have a 16-year-old that’s fabulous, and she’s singing just great. And I have people in their 80s, you know. I always say that some people play golf, some people play bridge. Some people want to sing.”
Which is exactly what Maye is set on doing, even as she hits 90. It’s what she knows, it’s what she loves, and she’s just darn good at it. There are lyrics to one of her most requested songs, “It’s Today” from the Broadway musical Mame, that perfectly encapsulate what she’s all about, almost like a personal mission statement.
“There's a ‘thank you’ you can give life / If you live life all the way.”
And with a leg kick for good measure, she brings down the house as she rounds out the song. “Strike the band up, pull the stops out. Hallelujah! It's today!”