Press and Reviews

 

New York, NY – March 2, 2010

The Wall Street Journal

Marilyn Maye: In Love Again

By Will Friedwald

 

Marilyn Maye and Rex Reed
Marilyn and Rex Reed
Photo: Mark Rupp

Going to hear Marilyn Maye—who begins a two-week stay at Feinstein's at the Regency March 2—is a bit like attending a wedding where the bride's family and the groom's family have never met. On one side of the room are the Broadway and cabaret people, who tend to like their singing big and theatrical, with a lot of drama and stage presence. On the other side is the jazz crowd, who want everything hip and cool and understated, and will split the scene if anything doesn't swing. Ms. Maye is the only pop-song diva working today who can satisfy both crowds at once, combining the projection and personality of Ethel Merman with the musicality and virtuosity of Ella Fitzgerald.

 

It's all a matter of timing. Ms. Maye's singing has such relentless drive that she literally rocks your world; so many feet start patting in time that you immediately fear for the building's foundation. In the Maye musical universe, everything swings—even the ballads. She's so hip that basic scat singing is too square for her; she would much rather take a lyric phrase and stretch it into a run of syncopated, chromatic syllables. Even 4/4 swing itself is old hat; instead she likes to convert a familiar song like “Come Rain or Come Shine” into a high-powered 3/4. “I've always loved jazz waltzes,” said Ms. Maye in a phone interview from her home in Kansas City, Mo. The time signature “lends itself to too many songs. It's swinging and yet it doesn't go so fast that you can't deliver the lyric.” One of Ms. Maye's signature showpieces is a tongue-twisting vocal take on Paul Desmond's iconic “Take Five,” which she swings, rather unbelievably, at five quarter-notes per bar—even harder than Dave Brubeck and Desmond (who wrote it).

 

Marilyn Maye and Tony Bennett
Marilyn Maye and Michael Feinstein
Photo: Steve Sorokoff

Unfortunately, her professional timing has never been the equal of her musical timing. By the time Ms. Maye—who celebrated her 80th birthday at the Metropolitan Room two years ago—made it to the big leagues, it was already very late in the day for the traditional American songbook. She cut her first album for RCA Records, “Meet Marvelous Marilyn Maye,” in 1965, on the eve of “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the Age of Aquarius. “I keep thinking that if I could have recorded earlier, my life might have been very different,” she said. RCA had enough faith in her to release seven albums of mostly standard-style songs in an era of diminishing returns. So did Johnny Carson, who had her on “The Tonight Show” a record-breaking 76 times and famously (on the notes to her 1968 album “The Happiest Sound in Town”) dubbed her the “Super Singer.”

 

Ms. Maye's first professional experience was as a singing emcee in a kiddie revue every Saturday morning for several years, beginning around 1939, in the Jayhawk Theater of Topeka, Kan. “I introduced all the other little acts, as well as the cartoons and 'The Lone Ranger.' I sang 'God Bless America' more times than Kate Smith.” It was the first of many long runs in her career.

 

Unlike most singers of her generation, she didn't hone her craft singing with a big band. Instead, she had an extended engagement at a nightclub called the Colony in Kansas City. For 11 years, 10 months a year, she sang there five nights a week. And it was there that she and her pianist and husband, Sammy Tucker (whom she describes as both “brilliant” and an alcoholic), worked out many of her classic routines. Most of the standards on her RCA albums were based on the arrangements she and Tucker fine-tuned in Kansas City.

 

 

Marilyn Maye and Michael Feinstein
Marilyn Maye and Mark Sendroff
Photo: Steve Sorokoff

They also cut an album together titled “Marilyn . . . The Most,” which was distributed mainly in Missouri. It was essentially a demo; they were hoping some label would pick it up, but instead it was heard by Steve Allen. He scheduled her for repeated appearances on his prime-time variety show, and the association with Allen led to the RCA contract and eventually to “The Tonight Show” with Carson. Today, Ms. Maye regularly dedicates concerts to both Allen and Carson: “They're both here tonight—they just have better seats.”

 

Alas, that was precisely the wrong time to launch a career singing jazz and standards; she dented the “Billboard” charts a few times, but never enjoyed a blockbuster hit. (She'll tell you how she turned down RCA's request to do “Strangers in the Night.”) As the support network for her kind of music dried up—the major big-city hotel-based nightclubs folded their tents and silently stole away—she did more and more regional theater (one of her later albums is a one-woman cast recording of Jerry Herman's score to “Hello, Dolly”). Except for a gig at Michael's Pub in 1991 (how did I miss that?), she was barely seen in New York for more than 30 years.

 

Her current Manhattan renaissance is due to Donald Smith, of the Mabel Mercer Foundation, who booked her in his annual Cabaret Convention, in 2005, and to the Metropolitan Room. “I thought, 'Who's going to show up, eight people?' Then when I got there, they were lined up down to the corner.”

 

Over the course of seven Metro runs since then, Ms. Maye has become a New York institution for the 21st century. With her powers virtually undiminished at age 82, she reminds me of the charge I used to get when Rosemary Clooney and Mel Tormé were with us (or when I get to hear Tony Bennett live). On her '60s albums, RCA kept prodding her to do vocal versions of instrumental hits—from “Petite Fleur” to “Mr. Lucky” to “Washington Square” and even to “Java”—things that no one else would or could sing. There's no one remotely like Ms. Maye: Her arrangements are generally killer fast—constantly changing tempo and key, and sometimes even taking side trips through other songs before coming back again—yet she makes them sound as natural and easy as “Jingle Bells.” On any given night, at the Metro (and surely at Feinstein's) the room is packed, not least with dozens of singers. Ms. Maye always thanks them for being supportive, but clearly they're there for their own benefit— to learn how it's done.

 

Mr. Friedwald writes about jazz for the Journal.