Marilyn Maye has been described as a singer, an entertainer, and sometimes an actress and comedian, but the word that most of her fans would use is "phenomenon." She is an unstoppable ball of energy, equal parts of Ella Fitzgerald and Ethel Merman, one that would be remarkable at any age, but even more so for a woman gearing up for her 90th birthday in April and who has been entertaining professionally for at least 80 of those years.
At 89, Maye's raw firepower is astonishing, but we shouldn't let that overshadow the other attributes of her music, namely her amazing subtlety, her gift for underplaying a lyric, and her capacity for narrative. She is one of the few artists of any generation who is a great jazz singer with a remarkable sense of swing and concurrently a full-on theatrical singer with an equally great sense of drama and storytelling. Not to mention humor; she can deliver a punch-line like no one else and, with a single wink of her eyes of the expression on her face, make an entire audience laugh so hard that they can barely breathe.
For most of the 1940's and 1950's she sang at nightclubs in Kansas City, where she learned her craft: how to swing, how to belt the blues, how to personalize a lyric, and how to capture the full attention of an audience—and then hold it. She worked steadily, but later she somewhat regretted that she didn't have much incentive to spread her wings beyond her native Missouri. It wasn't until about 1960 that she came to the attention of TV superstar Steve Allen, who put her on his NBC variety show, and her career began to reach the national stage when she was in her mid-thirties. From Mr. Allen she attracted the attention of other tastemakers and impresarios, including Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson, as well as RCA Records, for who she made seven albums and many singles in the late 1960s.
In the 1970s she was the queen of the late night talk and variety shows, making more appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson than any other entertainer. She worked extensively in regional theater (she was everybody's favorite "Dolly" throughout the Midwest), but for a long spell she also worked extensively in every city in the country except for New York. It wasn't until 2006 that she made her "comeback" in the city, starting at the Metropolitan Room (then Feinstein's, Birdland, Iridium and 54 Below) and, beginning around 2015, as a special guest at Jazz at Lincoln Center.