|The unsinkable Marilyn Maye due at Feinstein's
by Andrew Gilbert Published in SF Gate
May 13, 2015
The death of Julie Wilson last month left a gaping hole in the heart of cabaret, and if there's anyone who can step into her glittering shoes as the art form's presiding spirit, den mother and consummate interpreter of the Great American Songbook, it's Marilyn Maye. In the midst of an extraordinary late-career resurgence, the 87-year-old vocalist opens a two-night run at Feinstein's Friday fresh off yet another New York City triumph, a Frank Sinatra tribute titled "Her Way."
"We'll do excerpts from that show," Maye said from her home in Kansas City, Mo. "But we're focusing on the songs we haven't done in the Bay Area before. I'm really blessed. My voice is working beautifully, and I'm performing all over the place. I don't believe in sitting down, in using a barstool when I sing. It decreases your energy."
A lack of energy has never been a problem for Maye. She's been on the move since her Depression-era childhood, when her mother helped make ends meet by entering her in amateur song and dance contests, which she usually won. By 11, she had her own weekly radio broadcast. Despite that precocious start, Maye didn't rush into the national spotlight. She was well into her 30s when Steve Allen caught her act in Kansas City and invited her on his syndicated television show.
It's difficult to overstate just how ubiquitous Maye was in the 1960s and '70s. A favorite of Johnny Carson's, she made 76 appearances on the "Tonight Show," more than any other singer. And after the supper club scene evaporated ("When they took away the businessman's expense account, those rooms were doomed," she said), Maye reinvented herself as a musical theater performer in Sondheim's "Follies" and Jerry Herman's "Hello Dolly" and "Mame."
"I've sung Mercer and Cole Porter all my life," she said. "You have to tell a story. Every song is a little play within itself. I like to put together medleys and tell a bigger story that way. You can also get more material in, not having to stop for applause."
Maye comes to San Francisco with the irrepressible pianist Billy Stritch, who leads a trio with the top-shelf Bay Area rhythm section tandem of bassist Daniel Fabricant and drummer David Rokeach. She's also conducting a Sunday master class. Given that every Maye performance is a case study in vocal control and lyric interpretation, it might seem redundant, but, in recent years, she's found tremendous satisfaction mentoring singers and even directing other artists' shows. Her first directive is to connect with your listeners.
"I've had three marriages and a meaningful love affair in my life," she says, "and my happiest love affair is with my audience."