By: Sandi Durell
In a recent telephone interview, I asked Marvelous Marilyn Maye (yes, she’s been dubbed as such for quite a while) for the titles of a couple of songs she’d be singing in her upcoming show “A Tribute to Johnny Carson” opening at 54 Below on May 6th.
Wouldn’t you know . . . “Being Alive” and “I Will Survive” – how perfectly well chosen – a mantra for an extraordinary performer who had appeared on The Johnny Carson show 76 times!
How did it all begin? “Ed McMahon came into the Living Room in New York.” (a well known supper club in the 50s/60s) “I was doing a 3 week engagement, 2 shows a night, 7 nights a week, hence my stamina . . . I didn’t even have to audition.” Skitch Henderson was the conductor at the time and after that first appearance, well, it’s no wonder that Ms. Maye kept getting called back. Milton DeLugg took over when Henderson left followed by Doc Severinsen. “I was given the choice to do 2 songs or 1 song and an interview. I chose 2 songs and so sat on the panel maybe 5 times,” says MM.
Johnny Carson was always very complimentary to Marilyn when she appeared, even turning to the camera and stating “and there, young singers, is the way it’s done.” And audiences at 54 Below will have a chance to see and relive those moments with clips of Marilyn Maye’s appearances on the Johnny Carson Show as part of her upcoming show. Ah, those Mid-Westerners know how it’s done!
From the mid 1960s thru 1990, Marilyn made continuing appearances during a time when music was changing – the 70s – but she continued to carry the torch for the American Songbook occasionally throwing in a current tune like “I Will Survive.” It presented a tug for her since RCA was trying to push her to sing more contemporary songs, but Marilyn made her commitment to the music she loved to sing.
Ms. Maye always got great air play and appeared on the Mike Douglas show almost as many times as The Tonight Show. And it all began with Steve Allen, who had a show called “The Steve Allen Show” (he was Carson’s precursor on “The Tonight Show”). Allen found Marilyn in a local Kansas City club, brought her on his show, which is when she was noticed by RCA and hence Johnny Carson.
She appeared with Steve Allen in Las Vegas and on the road doing lots of one-nighters, the group consisting of Bill Dana, Louis Nye and Paul Smith on piano; Marilyn and Steve were great friends.
She talks lovingly about being flown out to the West coast for appearances on The Tonight Show recalling all the times she’d come back to her hotel room late at night intending to watch her appearance taped earlier, but seemed to always fall fast asleep, never quite managing to catch herself on the show.
What does Ms. Maye do in her spare time? (what spare time would that be, I was thinking) “I’m so busy running around singing, packing and unpacking.” “But, I did spend two years in Galveston with a hardhat on, restoring an old house, it was kind of leaning . . . and flying in and out working some place and flying back . . . and I do love decorating.”
When Marilyn came to New York City in 2005, invited to perform at the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s Cabaret Convention, she took audiences by storm and it’s been a love-fest since then.
At her young tender age of 86, she’s performing most of the time, running master classes and doing private coaching. What keeps driving this world class entertainer? “It’s what I do . . . not easy by any means . . . it’s a total way of life.”
Marilyn Maye, a singer’s singer, will be appearing for the third time at New York’s nightclub 54 Below on May 6, 7, 9, 10 & 13, 2014 with Billy Stritch on piano, Tom Hubbard on bass and Ray Marchica on drums.
Tickets/Information: 54 Below.com 646 476-3551, 254 West 54th St., Cellar, New York City