Seasons change, as does the musical climate, and only the strong survive. And it's also true that what goes around, comes around...and talent will always get first dibs at the refreshment table.
Six decades and beau-coup packed houses later...jazzy-pop vocalist Marilyn Maye has been making a career of wowing audiences with her gorgeous and exciting interpretations from the Great American Songbook.
From Grammy nominations to Hall of Fame inductions. Plus owning one of the coolest titles ever for appearing on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" more times than any other singer, Marilyn Maye is "surviving" just fine.
MARILYN MAYE INTERVIEW 12/18/2014
"Marilyn Maye, Girl Singer" (1970)
Casey Chambers: In your show tonight, you mentioned you were 86 years old. No one believes that, by the way, but if true, then that means 86 years ago you were born in Wichita, Kansas.
Marilyn Maye: Mm-hmm. My parents lived in...oh God...another small town in Kansas and went up there to the hospital, you know? And the hospital isn't even there anymore. I always make a joke and say they didn't put up a tribute of any kind or a statue or anything when they tore it down. (laughs)
Casey Chambers: You got your feet wet working in radio as a teenager in Des Moines, Iowa after winning a talent show. Later, you became a staff vocalist for a radio station in Kentucky. What did that position entail?
Marilyn Maye: I did a half hour show with a small combo they call it. A small group of musicians. Guitar, bass, drums, piano. I think that was on Wednesdays. Then on Friday nights, for an hour, I did a show with a full orchestra. Can you imagine, on radio, a full orchestra? But they did!
The show was sponsored by a very famous beer company in Louisville, Kentucky. And they evidently had enough money to hire a full orchestra. So, of course, it was great experience because in later life when I started doing symphony concerts, it was not as foreign to me as it might have been.
Casey Chambers: What were some things you learned in radio that proved valuable later on when you began recording in the '60s?
Marilyn Maye: Discipline, I suppose. You must know your material and choose it carefully because when you line it up for a show, the pacing must be right. Since the listeners couldn't see you...with your personal connection to them...you had to be very careful about the presentation. And, you know, the power of delivering a lyric.
Casey Chambers: You signed with RCA in 1965 and your first album garnered you a Grammy nomination. What do you remember about that experience?
Marilyn Maye: I remember being very surprised. It was in a very strange category. It was for Best New Artist. And I was in a category with Horst Jankowski, who was a classical pianist. The Byrds and Herman's Hermits. Both rock and rollers. And Tom Jones. It couldn't have been more varied as far as category was concerned. And I don't remember who won, but I didn't. I was very surprised and honored. It was an honor to be nominated. (Editor's note: Glenn Yarbrough and Sonny & Cher were also nominated. Tom Jones won.)
Casey Chambers: Did you attend the ceremony?
Marilyn Maye: I did, I did. It was in New York and I presented an award. I wish I kept better records because I don't remember who I presented the award to. But I remember being on stage and presenting an award to...(laughing)...someone.
Casey Chambers: Okay. Were you listening to the music of the other nominees that year?
Marilyn Maye: No. (laugh) In a word, no. I was an advocate of The Great American Songbook. I still am and always have been.
Casey Chambers: Marilyn, I believe you appeared on two episodes of the popular '60s variety show..."The Hollywood Palace". What do you remember about that program?
Marilyn Maye: What a joy. I remember that's where I first met Bob Mackie who has become a very dear friend of mine in these later years. Bing Crosby was the host of one of the shows and Donald O'Connor was the host of another. It was a thrill to meet them. And it was a thrill to participate in such a meaningful television show. It's a shame we don't have those wonderful big band shows for people to hear these days.
Casey Chambers: You also made a few appearances on the iconic..."The Ed Sullivan Show"...
Marilyn Maye: Oh gosh, yes. And I must tell you, one of those shows was with the great jazz drummer, Buddy Rich. Great, incredible jazz drummer that had his own band. Very famous. And on "The Ed Sullivan Show", it was that band who accompanied me on one of my appearances.
And then also, he and I worked together in various cities. The last one I remember was in Omaha at the theatre there. And he was great to me. He has not a reputation for being great to everybody, but he was to me. (laughs)
Casey Chambers: Well, that's good.
Marilyn Maye: And Johnny Carson loved him a lot, too because Johnny loved to play drums, y'know? And Buddy was his favorite drummer.
Casey Chambers: Johnny must have loved you as well, seeing as you made 76 appearances on "The Tonight Show". Was there any one that was particularly memorable for you?
Marilyn Maye: Oh wow! That's a very difficult question. They were all memorable. They were all so special and I think at the time I may not have realized how very special it was.
But I look back and think...I was so busy trying to make it right and making sure my music and performance was good that I really didn't understand the enormity of it. That I went into millions of homes. Johnny was so very good to me. He made incredible statements. He raved about me more than my mother would. (laughs)
Casey Chambers: Do you remember what song you performed the first time you were on the show?
Marilyn Maye: No, I wish I could. I don't know what it was. It might have been "Misty" from my first album because that was getting a great deal of airplay. And the album had just been released around that time.
But we did perform "Here's That Rainy Day" several times because that was Carson's favorite song. We also repeated "Come In From The Rain". Johnny loved that one too. Tommy Newsom did the big band arrangement of it and he loved that. He would say to me, 'Do that one again.' And so we did.
Casey Chambers: You recorded many songs for RCA including your highest charting single..."Step To the Rear"...which landed at #2 in 1967.
Marilyn Maye: Mm-hmm. "Step To The Rear" was from "How Now, Dow Jones." And in my audience quite often these days is Tommy Tune, who was in the chorus of "How Now, Dow Jones" when he was a young man. And he said, 'We were all so thrilled when we would hear your version of "Step To The Rear" on the radio.' (laughs) That was such fun.
I think "Sherry" might have done even better than that. I do know "Sherry" was a big hit as well. They both were Broadway show songs. And I was chosen to record them before the shows opened. "Sherry" was from a Broadway musical based on Sheridan Whiteside. It was about a man, actually. And that got tremendous airplay.
RCA knew I could do ballads and up tunes. "Sherry" was an up tune. "Step To The Rear" certainly was. And then there was "Cabaret". I recorded that wonderful song before the Broadway show opened. And long before the movie.
Casey Chambers: Yeah, and "Cabaret" became your first Top Ten in the fall of '66.
Marilyn Maye: See...you know more about it than I do. (laughs)
Casey Chambers: I've done my homework on you, sister!
Marilyn Maye: Yeah! (laughs)
Casey Chambers: I'd like to ask about another song you recorded in 1969..."Think Summer". It charted in the Top 20 and was unusual in that it was a duet.
Marilyn Maye: With Ed Ames. It was with Ed. He was an RCA artist also in those days. And his A & R man and my A & R man got together and thought it would be a good idea for us to record that. It was almost a big hit. And I was told if it became a hit, we would do an album together. Not an idea of my choosing. (laughs) And that's all I'll say about that. (laughs)
Casey Chambers: Joe Rene (re-Nay) was your producer. Am I pronouncing his name right?
Marilyn Maye: Yeah, Rene. He was my A & R man. He represented the artists and chose the repertoire that you'd record. That's what A & R means.
And he's the reason for my recording with RCA. He saw me on...actually, his wife saw me on "The Steve Allen Show." The national television show. Which I was doing while I was appearing in Kansas City. I would fly out to Hollywood and do "The Steve Allen Show". Then I'd fly back to this little club in Kansas City. I did that many times. And the last show that I did before it went off the air, was the show where Joe Rene saw me.
He called me and said, 'I want to record you.' And I said, 'well, I've already had an offer from another label.' And he said, 'Yeah, but I want to record it with a full orchestra in Webster Hall in New York City.' And that sounded pretty good to me. (laughs)
"Meet Marvelous Marilyn Maye" (1965)
Casey Chambers: Your second album..."The Second Of Maye" (1966)...was recorded live at The Living Room.
"The Second Of Maye" (1966)
musicians played. We recorded it all together at one time in a large studio called Webster Hall in New York.
The second album was coming up and they (RCA) got the bright idea that because I was successful in that club that we'd do a live recording in that club. And so that's how it came about. And it was beautiful. A lot of good songs on that album. We did "The Sweetest Sounds" on that one.
Casey Chambers: Yeah, also..."It Never Entered My Mind".
Marilyn Maye: Oh, I know it. Some of those I haven't done for so long. I'm glad you mentioned that one. We're doing The Metropolitan Room on New Year's Eve and that would be a great idea. This will be our fourth New Year's Eve and I've got to go back to that album.
And The Living Room was also where Ed McMahon saw me. He was the one who proposed that I do The Tonight Show and they agreed.
Casey Chambers: My favorite album is your third..."The Lamp Is Low" (1966). And Peter Matz conducted the symphony on that one.
"The Lamp Is Low" (1966)
Casey Chambers: "Too Late Now" appears on that album. Your rendition of that song has been recognized by the Smithsonian Institution.
Marilyn Maye: Right, right. Yes that's lovely. It was chosen as one of the best recordings of the century along with Ella Fitzgerald and Barbra Streisand. She had one cut on it and I had one cut on it. And she recorded many more albums so I was rather thrilled when that song was chosen. It was lovely. While I was in Washington D.C. for an appearance, I was visiting some friends and had time to go to the Smithsonian Institute. I just wanted to make sure it was still there. And it was. (laughs)
Casey Chambers: You mentioned Ella Fitzgerald. We both share a love for her work and I understand she was a fan of yours as well. Did your paths ever happen to cross over the years?
Marilyn Maye: We became very good friends. Very good friends. We used to sit in dressing rooms and visit. She would come to see me after a show and we'd sit and talk. And then she'd be appearing somewhere and I would sit and talk with her...for hours, y'know? Oh gosh, we were together in New York. Houston, Texas. Whenever our paths crossed we would get together because she was a precious angel. Ella was shy. She was very shy. And wonderful and very down to earth, and a lovely lady. And the fact that she referred to me as a 'great white singer' is not a racist comment. (laughs)
Casey Chambers: Now I remember reading that somewhere...
Marilyn Maye: She said it twice. On Carson's Show and on The Mike Douglas Show. Or maybe it was on The Merv Griffin Show. It was on one of those talk shows. They had asked her who she liked. Who she listened to. And she said, 'Well I listen to Sassy.' Which is Sarah Vaughan. 'And I listen to Carmen.' Y'know, Carmen McRae? 'And I listen to the greatest white singer who is Marilyn Maye.' So that's how that was taken.
Casey Chambers: And earlier this year you were presented a Legends Award...
Marilyn Maye: That's right. Last January, I was given the first Legend Award from The Society For The Preservation of The Great American Songbook. Dick Robinson, who owns a great many radio stations, is the president of that society. And I received the very first one. I think Jack Jones is receiving the award next year.
Casey Chambers: That's great. Congratulations. Marilyn, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you for your time.
Marilyn Maye: Thank you, Casey. It's so sweet of you to take an interest and I'm glad we could talk. The nicest thing is that you came to see my show because what you saw on stage is what I'm about. And I'll be closing the year performing New Year's Eve at the Metropolitan Room in New York.
In February, we'll be working Birdland, a famous jazz club in New York. In April, we're working a beautiful club called 54 Below. It's gorgeous. In New York. So there's lovely stuff happening. I'm going to my lake resort in the summertime. This'll be my 58th year to appear there. I know four generations of the people there.
Casey Chambers: So, Marilyn, there you were...And here you are. A Midwestern girl...swinging from the stars in The Big Apple. You've been living the dream.
Marilyn Maye: That's right. And at the time, not really knowing it. (laughs) I really was just so busy working that I don't think I realized the importance of it all. And thank goodness, in later life, I do.
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