This week, Kansas City lost one native jazz artist — Pearl Thurston Brown died Monday at age 84 — as another legend, one year younger, was literally kicking up her legs (to great applause, by the way) onstage at Jardine's. Kansas-born Marilyn Maye turned 83 years old this year and is having the best third act of any of her Girl Singer contemporaries like Rosemary Clooney, Margaret Whiting, Jane Morgan and Kaye Starr (most of them are either long retired or dead).
In the past few years, Maye has been rediscovered by New York City audiences, who have been clamoring for tickets to her Manhattan club dates at Feinstein's or the Metropolitan Room. She even made it, finally, as a headliner in Carnegie Hall, winning a standing ovation at last year's 80th birthday tribute to composer Stephen Sondheim. And as an octogenarian, she's getting the best reviews in her career. A long career: Maye had her own radio show on Topeka's WIBW when she was 9 years old.
Maye says she won't retire: "When you stop working, you're dead," she said, autographing CDs for patrons attending her 7:30 p.m. show last Sunday at Jardine's (one of her two sold-out shows that night). She has club and concert dates booked through 2012 and beyond. If any of those venues care about her age, they don't appear to care. Last month, Maye performed at the Inn at Lake Okoboji in Iowa for the 55th consecutive year. "There's a new owner there," Maye says. "He asked me if I wanted a long-term contract. I said yes."
Maye attributes her 74-year career to good genes, never having smoked cigarettes, and some incredibly lucky breaks. In the early 1960s, while Maye was singing in a smoky Kansas City restaurant's lounge at 35th and Broadway, the Colony Steakhouse, TV star Steve Allen walked in, heard her, and offered her a spot performing on his new NBC Monday-night television show. That led to an RCA recording contract, nightclub dates, summer theater musicals, and — in that last gasp of traditional pop music before the Beatles made The Hit Parade totally obsolete — a solid reputation as a singer of standards. Maye is still belting out show tunes and the songs of Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and George Gershwin. She isn't mired in the past, though. Her current Jardine's set features a song from this year's Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman musical, "Catch Me If You Can." (The Broadway show closes in a few weeks, but Maye's rendition of "Turn Butter Into Cream" brought down the house on Sunday.)
Maye performs next at Jardine's until Saturday, September 3. (The Friday-night show is sold out.) For ticket information, click here.
You started performing so early. Was your mother a stage mother?
Honestly, Mom wasn't pushy at all. She saw that I had talent, and since she played the piano, she could accompany me. If anything, I wish she had been a little pushier. We needed the work. My parents were divorced, and we needed the money.
You're having a hell of an Act III in your career. Is show-business success just as sweet later as it is in the beginning?
I would say yes ... and no. I mean, yes, it's been very rewarding to be recognized when I walk down the streets of New York City or to get such glowing reviews. In New York right now, the audiences really get what I'm doing, and that's been lovely. But the flip side is that I know I don't have longevity to continue this career for that much longer. I'm not, at this age, going to become a nationally known act. But hell, the recognition and adulation that I'm getting right now is a lot of fun.
What is your advice to the young singers who come to your master classes?
My immediate critique is almost always the same: Sing in the right key! Nine times out of 10, these young singers don't even know what key they're supposed to be singing in! I tell them, and they look up at me, and it's like, "Oh, that sounded so much better." I tell them it's all about communication with the audience. You can't sing for yourself — although a lot of successful singers do. But I tell my students, connect with the audience. The audience is the star, not you.
What's the best advice you received as a young singer?
I don't remember anyone ever giving me advice when I started. I had to battle through this thing all by myself, learning everything I could the hard way. But you can never stop learning. That's what keeps you fresh.
You say, in your act, that at your age, you can finally say anything you want. So who was the biggest pain-in-the-ass you have ever worked with over the last seven decades?
I had a manager once who was a jerk, but you know, I'm basically a nice person. I'm not bitchy. I tried to get along with everyone. But let me think about that question. There had to be one.