The recent controversy at NBC over The Tonight Show has brought back many memories for singer Marilyn Maye. That’s because Maye has the distinction of being the most frequently featured singer on the show during Johnny Carson’s tenure as host more than 20 years ago.
Steve Allen discovered the Des Moines native singing in a nightclub in the ‘60s and put her on his prime-time TV show. Before long, she had a recording contract with RCA and was a 1965 Grammy nominee for Best New Artist (only to be beat out by Tom Jones). While performing at an LA nightclub, Ed McMahon heard her sing and invited her to perform on The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson fell in love with her voice, and there began a relationship that would last decades.
“There will never be another Johnny Carson—the wit and the humor—he made stars, his ego wasn’t so big that he had to be the star,” she says of her friend. “He was so wonderful to his guests and to me. It’s a shame, sad that there isn’t a show of that caliber (today) that brings as much fun and happiness.
Despite 76 appearances on the show, the cabaret scene was quickly edged out by rock and roll and pop and Maye found herself again performing in the small dinner clubs that still dotted the Midwest.
Now 81 years old, the singer has been rediscovered by a new generation: “I’ve never stopped working and this isn’t a comeback,” she insists, talking about her critically-acclaimed, sold out runs for the past three years at Michael Feinstein’s Rainbow Room in Manhattan.
The audiences include many jazz lovers, but increasingly include younger singers interested in hearing the singing legend perform the standards in the way they were intended. Now Maye is conducting master classes during her stays in New York City.
“The young people who are interested in the American Songbook are doing their homework and studying the history of the performers. They knew me,” she says.
Audiences in South Florida have long embraced Maye’s music and the singer returns to West Palm Beach this week for a two-week run at The Colony.
She plans to highlight the music of legendary composer Johnny Mercer with a show she calls, “Mercer the Maye Way,” with her distinctive take on his most popular songs.
“I don’t think you can get any better than that….everything from wonderful ballads to happy ‘nonsense’ material to Academy Award winners,” she says and she thinks West Palm audiences will approve.
“They’re a more mature audience…did I say that all right?” noting the older demographics, but hoping younger audiences will also be interested like New York City. “It’s interesting because they do know the music. They heard it the first time around. It’s lovely because it’s a knowledgeable crowd as far as entertainment is concerned. They get it and The Colony is a lovely room….an elegant place to be. You can really feel like you have a night out there,” she says.
Ultimately, the biggest joy for the singer is entertaining her fans, young and old, gay and straight. With a career spanning nearly 70 years, she has touched millions and and has no plans to slow down.
“The good news is people still love what I do and the young people are discovering me,” she chuckles. “This isn’t the time to retire. Heavens, no!”
The Colony Hotel, West Palm BeachMarch 16-20, 23-27. Tickets $60, $100 for dinner and show. For info, go to TheColonyPalmBeach.com