Marilyn Maye’s long-lasting love affair with gay audiences is entirely mutual

920
Marilyn Maye
Marilyn Maye

The consummate entertainer and foremost arbiter of the Great American Songbook, Marilyn Maye is unparalleled and seemingly indestructible. 

Set to ring in her 96th birthday with a series of concerts at New York’s 54 Below from April 9 through May 6, her longevity is unprecedented — she is in her ninth decade as a professional performer. However, her age is the least compelling part of the story. 

Her 1965 debut recording for RCA, Meet Marvelous Marilyn Maye, had much more than a catchy title. First-timers at her concerts are captivated by her uncommon vulnerability, winking humor and ability to hit high notes with pitch-perfect precision. She makes it all look easy, though it’s really the result of carefully honed talent and hard work. 

A Kansas native, Maye worked steadily in her teens and young adulthood in regional night clubs, including a nearly 10 year gig as headliner at The Colony in Kansas City. (Her pianist then was husband number two — she often jokes about being unlucky in love in her stage patter, yet bitterness isn’t in Maye’s vocabulary.) 

Everything changed when the legendary Steve Allen caught her act and featured her on his national TV show. She quickly became a fixture on numerous programs, with a record 76 appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson alone. Carson so enjoyed her that he once turned to the camera following a performance and said, “That, young singers, it’s how it’s done.” 

Albums on RCA followed, with a flurry of Billboard adult contemporary hits and a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. Maye introduced songs written for Broadway shows before the shows themselves debuted — in fact, she charted with her version of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret” years before Liza Minnelli became iconic in the role of Sally Bowles. “She says she knows it’s mine!” she laughs. 

Her hit “Step to the Rear” was so catchy that politicians used it in ad campaigns before it was re-written as a jingle for Lincoln-Mercury — Maye was given a shiny new car every year the commercial aired. Her recording of “Too Late Now” was selected for preservation by the Arts Council of the Smithsonian Institution as one of the 110 Best American Compositions of the 20th Century. 

Yet the nightclub circuit gradually faded, and Maye found her talent less in demand. Timing was not on her side — just as doors were opening for her, the Beatles took America by storm, and an emphasis on the singer/songwriter soon followed. She was poised for stardom a little too late. 

She still recorded occasionally, starred in touring productions of musicals like Mame and Hello, Dolly! and returned to her faithful old haunts — they include Lake Okoboji, Iowa, where she is set to appear for a whopping 67th consecutive year this August. (She still performed virtually during the pandemic.)  

Things changed in a big way when Maye was invited to perform at Lincoln Center for the Mabel Mercer Foundation in 2006. Following rave reviews and unprecedented enthusiasm, Maye was persuaded by jazz great Billy Stritch to plan a headlining show soon afterward at New York’s Metropolitan Room. She was skeptical that more than a handful would show up — when she saw a crowd lined up around the block, she thought they must be queuing for another show. 

Marilyn Maye
Marilyn Maye photo by Kevin Alvey

Maye has been selling out cabaret spaces in New York ever since and has become a beloved fixture in Provincetown as well. Mo Rocca, Mark Cortale, Daniel Nardicio, Stritch and many more gay men of note have done their part to elevate Maye to a platform befitting her talent, and it’s clear that gay men are her most ardent of followers. As she puts it, “What would I do without my boys?” 

Whether she’s performing in a converted movie theater to under 100 people or to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall as she did last year (Mayor Eric Adams surprised her on stage and declared March 24 Marilyn Maye Day) Maye never fails to make her audience feel like it’s a first-class night at the Copacabana.  

When she sings “I’m Still Here,” Stephen Sondheim’s anthem of show business survival, she doesn’t have to embellish a thing — she is living it. Like her many Bob Mackie designs she remains chic, sparkly and — above all — timeless.  

Following a long day of work — she still takes on students for master classes — Maye took time to speak with me about her forthcoming engagement at New York’s 54 Below, planned summer performances and much more.   

How did your sessions go today? 

Marilyn Maye: I had three students today for two hours each, and we’re putting together their acts. We work together on technique, audience connection and all that.  

Marilyn Maye
Marilyn Maye on the town

How to hold an audience is a skill you’ve honed well over your career. 

MM: Well, I’ve been fortunate with great people sitting out there, wonderful music lovers, people that listen to the lyric, because that’s our purpose and what we’re here for— to deliver the lyric. 

Will there be a cute name for the 54 Below residency this time? I still remember two years ago it was 94, Of Course There’s More... and there was I Wish I Were 90 Again! for your 91st.  

MM: No. I don’t want to name it. I remember last year thinking it might end up being 95, She’s Still Alive! [Laughs.] 

I’m glad you didn’t use that one! 

MM: What did you think 96 would be?  

I was thinking what could rhyme with six that could fit. Maybe She Still Kicks because you still do the high kick [during
“It’s Today!”].

MM: Oh, yes. Or maybe Some New Tricks. Oh, no, we can’t do tricks… [Laughs.] Some New Shticks? I think not. 

I had the good fortune to see you several times last year, and I have to say it’s remarkable how you change the show consistently to suit the theme, the occasion, the season. 

Marilyn Maye on stage
Marilyn Maye on stage at 54 Below

MM: I try to. It’s always a challenge because you don’t want to always sing the same things, so you try to do a different show, and then people come up after and say “Oh, I loved the show, but you didn’t sing ‘Guess Who I Saw Today’” or “You didn’t sing ‘Fifty Percent,’” you know? I do try to change songs and arrangements around, but it’s lovely to know they don’t care whether I change things or not — I love that they come to hear the same songs, too. That’s a great compliment. 

In addition to your shows in New York, you’re coming back to Provincetown and Fire Island in the summer. 

MM: Oh, yes, and of course, in P Town, we usually do the last week of August and the first week of September. Now, the Art House is closed, which broke my heart — it’s just the perfect space for us to play and has felt like home all these years. But I think we’re going to play Town Hall this summer, this time for just one night — which will kill me to only do one night! 

I just heard — it will be August 25. You’re in good company for the season with Melissa Errico, the Indigo Girls, Claybourne Elder…lots of talented performers. 

MM: Oh, wonderful. Yes, I love being there — P Town audiences, you know, they just, quote, “get it,” unquote! I’m grateful that they come, and that they have a taste for what I do. 

Harry Connick, Jr. drove up to see my last show last year at the Art House. He had me on his television program a few years back, too.  

I saw that. I loved that appearance and performance. 

MM: Thank you! I’ve been to some of his shows, and once he brought me up on stage and played for me — he’s such a dear, dear man. 

We’ll be back to Fire Island this summer again, too [July 13] – last summer there was wonderful.  We had the best time — it was so hot! We were at the Ice Palace. 

How funny. Hot at the Ice Palace.  

Marilyn Maye on stage
Marilyn Maye in her element

MM: [Laughs.] It was packed and just so much fun, so we’re gonna do it again. The man who owns it is the manager of a new gay place [Red Eye NYC] here in town. Do you know about that, Rudy? 

Yes, Daniel Nardicio, right? 

MM: Yes, that’s right. Oh, he’s a doll! 

It really is remarkable — not just in Provincetown or Cherry Grove — how prominent gay fans are at your shows. 

MM: Well, I always say I love my boys. They’re the hippest audience.  

You know, I had a pianist for 20 years — he became like my son. He joined me when he was 19, and he was truly a great, wonderful pianist. He was so young when he auditioned that I had to ask, “How do you know how to play like this?!” He just said, “I’ve been listening all my life.”  

You’re speaking of Mark Franklin, right? 

MM: Yes. Do you know about him? 

I really enjoy the album you made together, Rapport. 

MM: Oh, thank you, yes. Of course, he died too young. And let me tell you, he was drop dead gorgeous. He was so important to me, certainly as a pianist, but it went far beyond that. He was important as a friend. 

Gay audiences just get the entertainment aspect of what I do, they’re music lovers, and they understand how I connect with the lyric and with the person.

Do you have a way to explain the rapport you have with your gay audience? Is it something you try not to intellectualize? What are your thoughts on that? 

MM: Well, my original statement was that they get it. They just get the entertainment aspect of what I do, they’re music lovers, and they understand how I connect with the lyric and with the person. Many times, someone will say, “I thought you were singing directly to me” even when I have a large audience, and I’m so honored when they say that because that’s the way I try to make it. I don’t sing for them, I sing to them. 

Oh, yes, you’ve been emphatic about that — not for them, but to them. 

MM: Yes. I mean, of course I’m singing for them [in a sense], but the connection is to them. 

One quote that follows you around is Ella Fitzgerald saying that you were the greatest white girl singer in the business.  

MM: You have to know the beginning of that. In fact, she [said that] on two different national television shows — one was Carson, and I can’t remember the other one. She was always asked, “Who are your favorite singers?” She said Carmen — meaning Carmen McRae — and Sarah, meaning Sarah Vaughan — “and my favorite white girl singer is Marilyn Maye.” So it wasn’t a racist comment. [Laughs.] 

Oh, of course not. 

MM: She was anything but that. She became my very dear friend. Most of our conversations were long ones we’d have after the last show of wherever we were appearing, either in a place where I was appearing and she would come to hear me, or in a place where I would go to see her. We would talk in the dressing rooms until they finally made us leave. She was a dear, sweet person. 

I’m sure those talks often included giving each other advice about the difficulties and vagaries of such a crazy business. 

MM: There [was some of that] but mostly we talked about musicians — various musicians, what they did or didn’t do. She’d often ask [my opinion of her appearance] and I’d say, “Oh, you look beautiful!” which of course she did. She was just a precious angel.  

She had an assistant called Petey. He’d kind of line up the people after her shows who’d want to meet her. She’d sit somewhere backstage and really just talk to everybody who’d want to line up. She was just darling. 

My daughter Kristi [Tucker] went to see her one time when I was in another town and I said, “Oh, give her my love — ask for Petey!” She did, and he moved her way to the front of the line. She later said, “Mother, I was kind of embarrassed…” But he had insisted and was so sweet. Ella got really close to her, looked at her face real close, and said, “Oh yes, you are Marilyn’s daughter…”

People in and out of the industry talk about her so fondly to this day that it feels almost like she’s still with us. 

MM: Oh, yes. When they talk about the greatest singers, she has to be included.  

She sang the melody and the first chorus [of a given song] as it was written, and after that she branched out and did her thing, that singular thing only she could do that was special, precious and very personal. 

And there were other allies who were instrumental in helping you along the way, not the least among them Steve Allen and Johnny Carson. How integral was their support at a time when television was becoming more central in Amercian households? 

MM: Well, Steve first heard me in Kansas City and hired me to come perform on his television show on the west coast. This led to [more work with Steve over the years] and my RCA contract, with seven albums and 32 singles. He was an angel, too. And then Johnny followed. I did his show 76 times, more than any other singer. 

Incredible. 

MM: The comments he would make my own mother probably wouldn’t have even said! [Laughs.] He was just wonderful, so darling… He would turn his chair completely around to face me when I sang. I always had a choice of singing two songs or doing an interview and singing one song, and most of the time I’d sing two songs — it was such a great band, with Doc Severinsen, and I’d bring my own pianist.  And I did the Mike Douglas show as well… 

Those were such great, great times — that kind of [musical presentation on TV] just isn’t on anymore, not really, except American Idol and shows like that

Oh, yes! My mother says she and my grandparents would always stop everything they were doing and watch the screen whenever you performed on Mike Douglas. 

MM: Oh, how sweet! Yes, I did his show many, many times. And I did The Merv Griffin Show many times as well. Those were such great, great times — that kind of [musical presentation on TV] just isn’t on anymore, not really, except American Idol and shows like that. Of course, Merv was a singer, and so was Mike Douglas, so they were wonderful to me. Mike Douglas actually flew my daughter in once to surprise me when she was just a teenager — which was a cute and lovely thing — and we sang together, which is a lovely memory. She just surprised me walking in right there on camera. 

And I did Ed Sullivan’s show a few times, too! Now I live here [in New York] and can see [The Ed Sullivan Theater] from where I live. 

A kind of coming full circle. 

MM: Isn’t that funny? 

It also strikes me as funny that these days most guests would choose to do an interview and sing one song rather than sing two like you would do. Now it’s such a personality-driven culture. 

MM: Oh, I think I would still sing two. That’s what I have to say! 

And you had a lot to say when you debuted at Carnegie Hall last year. 

MM: Oh, yes. Were you there? 

Yes indeed. I was way up in the balcony, but you came through loud and clear. 

MM: Oh, bless your heart. And we sold out! It was such a special night, and there were lots of people that I love and adore there, and lots of stars that were there. David Hyde Pierce was there — I love him so. And Warren Buffett was there. 

Oh my. 

MM: He took a plane in. He comes to see me in various places, and we’ve become friends. He sent me a cute letter that said, “Only you would get me to come fly in and fly out!” [Laughs.] I saw him right after [the performance] because he had to fly right back to Omaha. I was honored he was there. 

Really, I couldn’t have been more thrilled — [some friends] came from Des Moines, Iowa, and another dear friend and his husband came in from Houston to see me. Sometimes you don’t see people for years and then you see each other again and you’re right where you left off. I’m so grateful to everyone who came. 

People say, “What is your secret?” The answer I give them is to keep moving. Just keep moving. Do not retire, or, if you do, find something else to get involved in.

You’ve also been firm that the answer is “no” when it comes to retirement. 

MM: Absolutely. What else would I do? I always say, “I can’t cook!” [Laughs.] And I realize I am very, very blessed, and I think my using it helps. I still love doing my master classes and coaching people on their acts, plus my mind is working, my voice is working — it’s just no time to retire.  

People say, “What is your secret?” The answer I give them is to keep moving. Just keep moving. Do not retire, or, if you do, find something else to get involved in. You’ve got to keep your mind and body going and use whatever talent it is that you have to offer. 

I have to say — and I’m reminded of how you sing “Misty,” which is one of my favorites — that the mark of a great jazz-informed singer is that when we might expect you to turn left, you turn right.  

MM: How funny that you mention “Misty.” I played this one show at a private club a few months ago here in New York, and somewhere in the middle I asked the crowd what they’d like to hear, and a man shouted out “Misty.” I was working with [pianist and musical director] Tedd Firth — and we hadn’t done it in a long, long time — but we just went right into it and the audience received it beautifully…and loudly! 

It’s such a lovely song. Devastating and yet so beautiful. 

MM: You’re right. We need to do that one more often! And it really shows off a singer’s range.  

I know you try to not speak too much about your life in your act and keep it focused on the audience, but you’ve certainly also infused some humor into your shows, like mentioning how your husbands were all alcoholics, and your getting through that. 

MM: [Laughs.] It’s a true story. You couldn’t make it up. 

Probably the love of your life that’s been with you the longest is what you do.

MM: That’s right, that’s right. What I do with a song. 

I have no experience with men at all. [Laughs.] Okay, I have some experience with men, but none to pass on that would be helpful.

I wonder though if you might have any wisdom to share about what you’ve learned through the years with men. Maybe you could help some of us out! 

MM: I have no experience with men at all. [Laughs.] Okay, I have some experience with men, but none to pass on that would be helpful. I think my friendships are the valuable things that I know about. It’s a wonderful thing to have friends in your life — that sustains you most of all. 

I do think it’s important in my act not to get too serious though, because people didn’t come to hear your problems. They came to be entertained. I’ve had people say things like, “Oh, I almost didn’t come, I’ve had such a terrible week, but I’m so glad I did because I feel so much better now.” That’s the nicest thing anyone could say and why I do what I do.

I particularly loved an interview you did not long ago with John Cameron Mitchell. He’s such a talented person, and so incisive and warm. 

MM: Oh, yes. He is. 

He told you he was crying at one of your shows and you said, “Oh, my goodness, I hope that’s a good thing” or words to that effect, and it made me think that there’s something sacred between you and the gay audience, there’s a rapport there… 

MM: Oh, no doubt about that. 

It made me think of the hard knocks of life that women go through that straight men don’t really understand, but gay men understand them. We go through similar things in a way because we’re not straight men. They sort of have a little easier time of life than women and gay men do. And you — when you imbue your life experience into your work — we can feel that. And I think that’s why it’s a good cry, like he said. 

MM: I think you just described it, Rudy. [Laughs.] That’s perfect, honey. 

I do think there’s great sensitivity there, and I’m not sure if that comes with birth or with experience, with the way you’re spending your life, but either way, it’s that sensitivity — that good taste to zero in on the lyrics and the performance and to give me their hearts for that hour or hour and a half, however long the show is. I think they give me that, that honor of not being preoccupied with anything else but with the entertainment.  

The phones are down and we’re just together. 

MM: Yes. 

Before I let you go, I wanted to ask you one very important thing. Your dear friend Shecky Greene — the great comedian — just passed away on New Year’s Eve, and we recently lost Chita Rivera as well, which was a shock to so many of us because she seemed unstoppable… 

MM: Oh, yes. I can’t say we were close friends, but Chita and I certainly admired each other. She was very complimentary to me, and I, of course, to her. 

And we spoke of your dear friend Mark Franklin earlier, and the husbands you loved in spite of their flaws. You have outlasted so many people, and yet you retain this remarkable joie de vivre and optimism. Do you have any advice for how to cope with the losses of those we treasure and hold dear and keep pressing on?

MM: I don’t think you ever really cope with [grief]. I just lost another friend a few months ago. I’ve worked at one summer resort for over 60 years, and one of my dearest friends up there, she’s gone now, too. It’s always painful, but you reflect on the good times. In many cases, it’s a whole family you know — with her, I also know her sons and their sons, so just a couple months after she died, one of her sons came with 10 people to my show in Minneapolis and we had a wonderful time reminiscing about her. You’ve just got to keep them alive with your thoughts and telling stories — fun stories. 

The same [is true of] my friend from North Carolina. He and his husband John were married in New York. They were together 30-some years. He [my friend] just came to see me, and I was thrilled that he misses me and wanted to see me. It’s almost exactly a year ago that John died. John sent me flowers at almost every opening. When his flowers stopped coming it was a great mark — a symbol — that he’s not with us anymore. And it was painful.  

You tell a lot of the fun stories — well, they can’t be happy stories all the time, but it’s important to keep a sense of humor when we remember people. I have a good sense of humor. I owe that partly to having worked with so many great comics over the years, like Shecky, and that’s helped me a lot. Like with Mark — he was so cute and so fun. That’s what I try to keep in mind, the positives. And really, you keep people alive in some way when you share stories about them. It’s important. 

And I think of the Art House [in Provincetown] as well. Isn’t it a crime that it’s closed? It’s been a perfect little gem for all of us. 

Oh, yes. I hold out hope someone will take it over and give it new life. 

MM: I hope so. The woman that runs the sound, she’s the best, and the lighting man is great. There’s not a bad seat in the house, and everyone has a wonderful time. It holds such a special place in my heart, and everyone there has been so great to me. It’s hard to imagine P Town without it. It’s just so perfect. 

Tell Warren Buffett to buy it with some of his pocket change. 

MM: Right! Good idea! [Laughs.] 

Tickets and show information can be found at 54Below.org as well as MarilynMaye.com