Singer Marilyn Maye, who returns to the Metropolitan Room this week, has been delighting audiences and record buyers for over 50 years.
While she was always more interested in performing in clubs and on record than in musical theater, Maye certainly has a native affinity for the medium. That started even before her birth in Wichita, when Lila McLaughlin decided that if her baby were a girl, the kid's name would be Marilyn. Why? Her favorite performer was Marilyn Miller, the first female musical theater superstar. "And my mother's favorite song was 'Look for the Silver Lining,' which Miller made famous in Sally in 1920," says Maye. Not to mention that her cousin was Joy Hodges, a Broadway star of the 1930s and '40s.
With such a legacy, it's no wonder that Mrs. McLaughlin envisioned a showbiz career for her daughter. "Mother was a very strong lady," Maye recalls, "so thank God I had talent, because she was determined to make me a singer." That happened before puberty, when Marilyn got the chance to sing for songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane -- and impressed them. Buoyed by their confidence in her, she got her own 15-minute radio show when she was all of 14!
"By then, mother and I were alone, so I had to make a living, and this is what I could do best," she recalls. "We were constantly lying about my age. My mother actually kept a book with all the different ages we'd told people I was. There were the older ages for nightclubs, and younger ages for shows that didn't involve liquor." After she graduated from high school, the renamed Marilyn Maye took off for Chicago and sang in almost every club that would have her, including the Moose clubs. ("That's where I learned that you can't sing for an audience, but you must sing to them.")
She was eventually noticed by Steve Allen, who had her record "I Love You Today," a song from his 1963 musical Sophie. Soon, RCA Victor paid attention, and producer Joe Rene brought her "Cabaret" and all the other up-tempo songs that would follow. "I started doing all those snappy, march-around-the-breakfast-table songs, and they were turntable hits," she says, referring to singles that got a lot of radio play but didn't rack up astonishing sales as records. Maye knows why that happened: "I was too late to have a big career. You know who was up for Best New Artist in 1967 at the Grammys? The Byrds, Herman's Hermits, Horst Jankowski, Sonny & Cher, Glenn Yarbrough, Tom Jones -- and me. How's that for a crazy line-up?" (By the way, Jones won.)
While "Cabaret" is certainly the best-known show song she ever sang, Maye had a bigger hit with "Step to the Rear" from How Now, Dow Jones? Many years later, someone at Lincoln-Mercury thought that "Step to the Rear" would make a good commercial for the company, and she was recruited to sing "Lincoln-Mercury leads the way" for four years.
But that wasn't the only reason that "Step to the Rear" went to the head of the classics that Maye recorded. "I've written 12,000 versions of it for politicians," she says. "Governor Robert D. Ray of Iowa, who won six terms, used it -- and, at every inaugural ball, he'd give a nice tribute to me. 'Step to the Rear' became such a big thing in Iowa campaigns that, one year, Governor Ray's opponent put out bumper stickers that said, 'I Have a Purpose -- Not a Song.' " And then there was that household-name politician whose contract stipulated that if he won after using "Step to the Rear," she'd get an extra $1,000. "Which he still owes me," she says with a smile.
"It was amazing that I was able to as much as I did in the 1960s," Maye reflects, "and even more amazing that I was able to carry on into the '70s -- because by that time, of course, music had totally changed." Perhaps, but Johnny Carson liked her enough to have her sing on The Tonight Show no fewer than 76 times. "That's the biggest record among my records," she puns.
Along the way, she played La Mome Pistache in Can-Can and the title roles in Mame and Hello, Dolly! at the Starlight Theatre in Kansas City. Dolly! excited her so much that she made an album on which she sang every one of Jerry Herman's songs from the score -- not just Dolly's, but also those that were written for Vandergelder, Mrs. Molloy, Barnaby, and Cornelius.
Another show that gave her great pleasure was Follies, in which she played Sally Durant Plummer. During the Houston run, she met original Broadway cast member Harvey Evans, who played Buddy to her Sally. "He said to me, 'You've got to perform in New York for the kids who never saw you. You've just got to!' And that's what I'm doing."