By ROB LESTER**** Some people only celebrate their birthdays one day out of the year. Such a meager window for partying is not Marilyn Maye, far and away the most beloved and hardest-working singer in nightclubs — who has a big birthday that’s not quite around the corner, but in sight (like the alleged arrival of spring). She typically declares the whole month of April each year for celebration, although if you want to get picky, the exact date is the 10th and, not so incidentally, she’s gonna turn the Big Nine-Oh, although her unflagging energy and vigor and intact musical muscularity makes one scoff, verification wanted, which could cause the biggest demand for someone’s birth certificate as documentation since the brouhaha regarding that piece of paper for President Obama, for different reasons of unreasonable doubt. A month is no longer long enough, as the lady has accepted booking around the country to celebrate the Maye Milestone birthday that take place several weeks before the month comes along, as if its first day being both April Fool’s Day AND Easter Sunday would upstage the beginning of The Merry Month of Maye. Oh, hell, let’s just give in and accept all of 2018 as The Year of Maye, because just as Chinese New Year is declaring its time The Year of the Dog, this is the year of The Doggedly-Determined-to-Entertain Marilyn.
“‘Though it may not be anyone’s birthday, and ‘though it’s far from the first of the year, I know that this very minute has history in it: We’re here.”
—Jerry Herman, lyric for “It’s Today,” the Maye signature song from the musical Mame (which she starred in once upon a time in big-scale productions)
In New York City, her adopted home away from home sweet home, the days NOT “far from the first of the year” ready for her tenth decade with no sign of resting on her laurels or slowing down in her performing, traveling, or her teaching schedule. (She is in constant demand for group master classes, private coaching, and —when time allows—directing other singers’ acts.) She began the year participating in a for-the-public panel discussion among peers in the building where she had some of her most treasured triumphs/treats for audiences in the preceding year: prestigious bookings at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Her full-length concerts with that big orchestra of 17 pieces of top-drawer musicians (TWO in one night!!) were highlights among highlights, knockouts even for those who have seen her again and again and again. I remember arriving early for the second show and chatting with fans I recognized from their past pilgrimages — mostly accomplished singers themselves — who were in agreement that the never-disappointing diva darling dazzler was even more on fire than ever. She thrives on the sparks exchanged among pros, musicians truly in her league and the J@LC gig was big— big on excitement (including, clearly her own) and big on impact. Something even more special than ever was in the air. Hyperbole was everywhere as we spoke. Could she live up to this when I entered the room and she began her late set? Expectation was higher than high, higher than the height to which she raises the bar for any other vocalist of jazz or cabaret stripes, let alone one who has a high-heeled foot in both camps. Suffice to say, it seemed a meant-to-be special time when she surpassed even her own formidable record — and her RCA records from days of yore, recreating some of the classics she put on wax. But I wax philosophical. Oh, if only such moments could be preserved in wax, to be savored for others to learn from, for fans to return to. But time marches on as quickly as Marilyn Maye flits, flies, and flutters across the stage among her beloved instrumentalists. Some trod the boards, as the expression goes. Maye trots. And, in late October 2016, a vision in blue with X-ray vision into songs’ power, she trotted out old favorites, imbuing them with new sparkle and shine. For me, it was, without a doubt, a mega-high point of a year in which I was lucky enough, as a reviewer and music lover, to see many, many top acts. But there are top acts and there are top acts, and no act tops Miss Marilyn Maye. Although she has for years been tagged with the alliterative “Marvelous Marilyn Maye,” it has not escaped our notice that, also, her last name makes the sound of the second syllable of the adjective “amazing.”
Add creme de la creme music mates to the Maye mix of magic and you get an embarrassment of riches: She has shared the stage at this venue (and elsewhere) with Wynton Marsalis, Michael Feinstein, her valued pianist/musical directors being the sensational Tedd Firth and Billy Stritch. They are the equivalent to the icing on the (pre-birthday) cake.
Oh, she’s been in the building plenty of times—at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, as part of the annual Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Convention concerts, coming on and off stage to cheers. And she’ll be back at Dizzy’s next week —February 15— welcomed by the loyal and, as always, new converts who have only heard about the remarkable performer but have not been in the glow of her show.
Then, March brings gigs in Florida and California, as Feinstein’s at the Nikko in San Francisco precedes Feinstein’s/54 Below back in NYC, where her actual birth date will be just the beginning of a Manhattan run to the classy venue where she has graced the room and rocked it like a rocket to rafters time and again. The engagement is cutely titled 90 at Last. But she does not like to overplay the age card, she told me in a phone conversation this week. And she doesn’t need to. No apologies or asterisk necessary. She is that good —singing rings around those decades younger, many of whom are likely to be sitting, admiringly, in the crowd.
Likely there will be some newbies among the dyed-in-the-wool longtime admirers. The subject of a just-aired lengthy “CBS This Morning” profile, her professional profile has been raised even more. TV exposure can do that.
That birth date of April tenth has been, perhaps, awash with stardust since some years before Marilyn’s birth, when, in 837 A.D., Halley’s Comet streaked across the sky for one of its rare appearances. On that date, ten years later, St. Leo became Pope, and in much later years on the date, the US patent system began (in 1790) and on the same date 59 years later, for example, Walter Hunt in New York City patented his invention — the safety pin. The ASPCA was formed on the date in 1866 and the Titanic set sail in 1912 and The Great Gatsby was published three years before Miss Maye was born. She shares her birthday with the man who opened Japan to US trade (Commodore Perry), the founder of the Salvation Army (William Booth), a legendary publisher (Joseph Pulitzer), the first woman to be in a US President’s cabinet (Labor Secretary Frances Perkins), a celebrated writer who became an ambassador (Clare Booth Luce), the man behind “Hee Haw” and the novelty record hit “Purple People Eater” (Sheb Wooley), an actor one year her junior (Max Von Sydow), and the first baby born from a beginning as a frozen embryo (Zoe).