With this in mind, my choice was easy one recent Thursday evening. I could either watch another so-called debate among an over-large field of would-be presidents, or I could visit the Quality Hill Playhouse in downtown Kansas City, Mo., to hear a concert by Marilyn Maye. One would be a rich and telling barometer of the nation’s past and future, a ray of hope in this uncertain age. The other would be two-plus hours of talk.
Maye is a national treasure; if you haven’t heard of her, it’s because this nation is so rich and profligate in treasures that we lose track of them all the time. Ella Fitzgerald called her “the greatest white female singer in the world.” Johnny Carson featured her on “The Tonight Show” 76 times — more than any other singer, white, female or otherwise. I remember one show, ages ago, when the man who put America to bed each night turned to the camera after one of Maye’s appearances and said simply: “That, young singers, is the way it’s done.”
She’s enjoying a moment, embraced by fans who weren’t alive when she was nominated for a Grammy as Best New Artist in 1965, an award she lost to a pelvis-thrusting Welsh singer named Tom Jones. Last year, Maye celebrated her 90th birthday with a run of sold-out shows (“90 at Last!”) at Feinstein’s/54 Below club in Manhattan. She returned this year for an eight-night stand she called “Marilyn Maye: I Wish I Were 90 Again!” And she’s booked for next April, too, with a tentative title: “92 and I’m Not Through.”
Indeed, she isn’t. Glittering from head to toe in a dark sequined pantsuit and dazzling earrings, Maye strode onto the Quality Hill stage to feast on the bounty of the Great American Songbook. “I woke up singing this morning, / Got out of the right side of bed,” she breathed, making a shared intimacy of the little-known verse from Jimmy McHugh’s classic, “It’s a Most Unusual Day.”
From those opening words through 90 impeccable minutes, Maye placed her age-ripened voice and musical virtuosity in the service of great lyricists: Alan Jay Lerner, Lorenz Hart, Alan Brandt, Marilyn and Alan Bergman, Harold Arlen and so on. “It’s all about the lyrics,” she told me after the show, which she performed entirely on her feet, occasionally jumping for emphasis. And after an additional hour, also on her feet, spent greeting her fans, one by one. “You don’t sing for the audience, you sing to them, and if you don’t add the meaning to the music, it doesn’t come through. There’s a failure to communicate.”
Maye favors medleys woven around timeless themes: songs about happiness, about love, about rainbows (“Why are there so many songs about rainbows?”). Also songs about betrayal, about heartbreak. The medleys are arranged by her brilliant piano player, Tedd Firth, but she curates them herself from her filing-
cabinet brain, packed with thousands of songs. During our interview, she briefly fumbled for the name of a song from Jerry Herman’s 1966 musical, “Mame.” Then to find it, she launched into the lyrics, line after perfect line, until at last she came across the embedded title.
Beloved in cabaret hot spots from San Francisco to Palm Springs, Calif., New York to Provincetown, Mass., Maye remains rooted in the Midwest, where the original TV host Steve Allen discovered the Wichita-born
singer at a nightclub in postwar Kansas City. I’m wary of regional stereotypes. Yet I can’t help thinking Maye’s earnest and accessible approach is a product of this particular soil. She sings with her heartland on her sleeve. Booked long past her 92nd birthday, her schedule features not just Birdland and Lincoln Center in Manhattan but also gigs in Wamego, Kan., and Lake Okoboji, Iowa.
“I’m busier than ever,” she said, a cup of tea in her hand, slippers on her feet, seemingly fresh as the proverbial daisy at the end of a two-show day. Maye’s joy in this fact was contagious, and as I said goodbye, I counted the evening’s pursuit of happiness a smashing success. “Here’s to life,” she’d sung to close her set. “May all your storms be weathered / And all that’s good get better.”
Come to think of it, that’s pretty sound politics.