Marilyn Maye has appeared on The Tonight Show a record 76 times, received a Grammy Award nomination for “Best New Artist” of 1965 and recorded numerous albums for RCA Records. We chat about her friends Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, Mel Tormé and Ella Fitzgerald who described her as “the greatest white female singer in the world.” What did she learn from Ella?
“Sing in tune and sing in the right key. I often people sing their songs in a key that suits the pianist more than it suits them. In that case,” she says, “get a new pianist”. Marilyn has worked with pianist Billy Stritch for over 34 years. Her other “plan A” as she calls him is Tedd Firth. When I say Marilyn’s show I noticed how Billy watched her like a hawk, anticipating her next move physically and vocally. He looked like he was loving every minute and was very much a part of the show.
Unusually for London, Marilyn has been getting standing ovations every night this week at the Crazy Coqs. I asked her if a standing ovation could be somehow engineered, wheedled out of the audience with a few tricks. “No,” she said flatly, “I don’t think you can manufacture a standing ovation, it has to be honest. In fact, the whole performance has to be honest.
I think there are times certain performers walk on stage and they are a whole different person to what they are in person. With me what you see is what you get and I believe in that. I believe the audience can tell when they have taken on a grand persona, they pick up on honesty. I think subconsciously people really do get it when you are honest and that it’s really you.”
The importance of the right lyric
Communication is another cornerstone for Marilyn. Seeing her this week I felt that she was talking to us through the songs she sang. The lyrics were part of her conversation with us. “There are certain songs that communicate better than others. Many times you see people who sing for themselves. I sing not for the audience but to the audience. It’s conversation. There’s a story in every song and I choose my songs based on the lyric.”
Being a jazz singer
I describe Marilyn as a jazz singer with a cabaret sensibility and we discuss what makes a jazz singer different to a cabaret singer. Marilyn thinks the common idea that people have of jazz singers is that they sing with their eyes closed, but she communicates. “I can sing the same songs with my eyes open looking into your eyes. I think jazz singers think I shouldn’t entertain, that I should be aloof and sing for myself, but I think you can do it all: entertain and sing jazz and communicate. I don’t see anything wrong with being a jazz singer who communicates.”
Did she dream of stardom? “No. I never dreamed, singing was my work.” It’s clear Marilyn Maye is a hard worker and an astute businesswoman. In her dry spell in the 90s when super clubs (“upholstered sewers as musicians used to call them”) were closing she rolled up her sleeves, looked around and found new venues. She created work for herself.
Keep it real
“You have to be real, you have to know your craft and you have to work. I have so many people that study with me who would rather spend time on hiring the musicians or promotion – that comes so secondary to the work you do for the audience because the audience is the star, not you.”
Recorded in London 9th October 2014.