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The Unsinkable Marilyn Maye

Turning the corner of 54th Street in a New York City taxi, the peerless nightclub singer Marilyn Maye is reminded of an early moment in her career. Sixty years ago, while performing on national television, she was also singing at a nightclub. “This was on Broadway,” she says, quickly adding, “on Broadway, I mean, in Kansas City.” (She still lives there. “The closets,” she explains.)

But there was no advertising or publicity pointing tourists toward her show. So she found out from local hotel concierges which cabdrivers worked at the airport, and did a free concert for 20 of them. “I told them: When somebody gets off a plane and says, ‘Where is this Kansas City singer?’ now you know!”

“That was enterprising,” she twinkles.

Still enterprising and still twinkling at nearly 95, Marilyn Maye is the last of a great generation of American Songbook singers. She is both the endurance runner and the mystical Sphinx, a “consummate master of the stage,” the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis says, on the brink of her birthday and her solo debut at Carnegie Hall, where she will perform with the New York Pops, conducted by Steven Reineke, on March 24.

Maye is famous for many things: She made 76 television appearances (the most of any singer) on “The Tonight Show,” and was a friend and favorite of Ella Fitzgerald’s. She works nonstop all over the country, and has had hit runs with birthday concerts, including 10 sold-out nights at 54 Below in Manhattan called “94, Of Course, There’s More.”

Michael Feinstein, the singer and founder of the Great American Songbook Foundation, calls her “more than an entertainer and a great musician — she is a life force that awakens something in other people.” For her fans, Carnegie Hall marks a long-awaited opportunity to see her celebrated in high style after eight decades of commitment to the strange, confounding world of cabaret singing, which has as many casualties as queens.

Maye on the stage of Carnegie Hall, where she will perform with the New York Pops on March 24.Credit…Clark Hodgin for The New York Times

What really astounds her colleagues, though, is not only that she has survived and remains committed, but that Maye’s humor, spirit and above all her voice are in the best shape of her career. Shining octogenarians in saloon singing, like the great Mabel Mercer, were seated and largely speaking their songs; Maye never sits down, and her delivery has never been as effortless.

One secret may be her equanimity: Carnegie Hall will be the most important night of her life … and just another gig in a year, like all her years, jammed with travel, devoted audiences, parties, mentoring, master classes and a steady rush of concerts on any and all-sized stages. She is omnipresent: a photograph of last year’s edition of “Broadway Bares,” the annual midnight benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, reveals her smiling in the front row.

Another secret might lie, perhaps, in her eclectic approach: Maye sings jazz, but she acts jazz too. She enters a song, her life experience coloring every phrase. One admirer, the actress Tyne Daly, calls Maye’s “an evolved technique” that is “emotionally smart.” “She’s totally in the room,” Daly says, “and to tell the story, she uses everything she knows, so far.”

A typical Maye set list — she is famous for putting it together at the last moment — might begin with “Look for the Silver Lining,” a song introduced by the 1920s star Marilyn Miller, for whom Maye was named by her stage-struck mother. It will then often curve into a long set of medleys — she is known in the trade as “Medley Maye” — in which, say, six songs about smiling, from the 1928 “When You’re Smiling” to James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face,” might intertwine.

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“It’s got to be happy, happy, happy in the beginning,” she says. “Don’t get into heavy ballads on your third tune.”

The voice that stitches the set together has superb intonation (inspired by the singer Jo Stafford), with a velvet cushion at the bottom, elastic rhythm and bluesiness she can call on at will. In a set, she almost always sings two signature songs about adulterous love affairs, “Guess Who I Saw Today” and “Fifty Percent.” And she often climaxes with two hymns to survival, Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” and Jerry Herman’s “It’s Today,” punctuated with high kicks.

Onstage, she favors a huge glittering brooch, shell-shaped curvaceous rhinestone earrings and trademark elastic cuff bracelets. She holds her microphone stand with ease or slides it behind her to stroll — “Never turn your back,” she insists — and knows exactly where her bass player, drummer and the pianist are.

Even offstage, she seems ready for the spotlight. “She stayed in my house at different times,” says her frequent designer Bob Mackie, “and she gets out of bed in the morning, and you go, ‘Did you just have your hair done?’”

Her many rules of the cabaret art form, which she proudly teaches any chance she gets, include these: wear big lashes, never sit and never close your eyes. (If you require water, take sparing sips from a wine glass: “It has to have a long stem.”)

She describes her work philosophy this way: “They came to have fun. They’re giving up their evening, and their money, to be entertained. You’re not the star. They’re the star.”

‘I Was Never a Child’

Maye has long fascinated me as the most accomplished figure in our shared and perilous profession. I am not sure that cabaret singing is as dangerous as driving nitroglycerin trucks, but it is a demanding, often dispiriting vocation, leaving one at the mercy of nightclub owners and changing crowds and fickle pianists.

Is Maye a jazz singer? A show-tunes singer? She doesn’t draw a firm distinction. “The lyric is the phrasing, see. It’s the story,” she says. Her current accompanist, Tedd Firth, has this answer: “Is she improvising? A little bit. But does she swing as hard as any singer I’ve ever worked with? Absolutely. The crucial thing is that her understanding of the music is a first-generation understanding. She was singing this music when it was still new.”

Not long ago, Maye and I met at a rehearsal studio near Lincoln Center, where she was working with two protégés. Each stood at attention in a small practice room, accompanied by a quartet, facing Maye, who gestured to her sheet music like a doctor explaining the results of an MRI, pointing out shadings and shadows that might be significant.

Maye carefully watching a student, Susie Clausen, perform for the first time at a New York club.Credit…Clark Hodgin for The New York Times

When one student, Susie Clausen, practiced a spoken greeting — “I’m so glad you are enjoying the show” — Maye stopped her short. “Don’t say that! Just say you are glad they are here. Don’t assume they are enjoying it.” She added a classic Mayeism: “If you don’t take yourself seriously, others will.”

For someone who began singing at age 3, Maye regards herself as a late bloomer. Born in Wichita, Kan., on April 10, 1928, she won an amateur talent contest in Topeka at age 9, for which she earned $3 and 13 weeks on the radio. When her parents divorced, she moved with her mother to Des Moines, Iowa, and at 13 was singing big band at dance ballrooms; her mother kept a little book “so we could remember what age we had said I was to different clubs and agents.”

“I was never a child,” she says frankly. “That’s why I am one now.”

Maye honed her craft in Kansas City, working five nights a week for 11 years at the Colony nightclub, the place on Broadway. Demos recorded at that time got the attention of Steve Allen, who put her on his prime-time television variety show.

Maye with the television show host Steve Allen in 1961.Credit…ABC Photo Archives/Disney Entertainment, via Getty Images

This led to two career developments: the unfailing support of Johnny Carson and attention from RCA Records, for whom she recorded seven albums. As an RCA “commitment singer” introducing show tunes before their cast albums were released, Maye had her biggest radio hit with the title song of “Cabaret.”

She received a 1966 Grammy nomination for best new artist; Tom Jones won. Music styles were changing: “I never got into rock ’n’ roll,” she says. “The Beatles hit when my first albums were released. That’s what went wrong with my career. Goddamn Beatles.”

Maye has been married three times and had a fourth long-term partner. Her first marriage, to a hard drinker and a gambler, lasted a year. Her second (“I don’t know if he died or if I divorced him”) was to a dancer with whom she had a daughter. Her third husband, who adopted her child, was a genius pianist, she says, but “very abusive.”

“I had to leave him, but I didn’t want to leave his fingers,” she recalls. Their daughter, Kristi Tucker, a singer herself, agrees that “it was a beautiful collaboration,” but often unhappy. “What she has been through in her life,” Tucker says, “she needed to be strong.”

It is no accident that pianists and husbands flow together for her. “My pianist has always been the most important man in my life, above lovers, husbands, anybody,” she ruminates.

Billy Stritch, her pianist of 40 years, accompanied her on her triumphant return to New York. She’d been doing musicals out of town, playing the leads in shows like “Mame” and “Hello, Dolly.” (Never appearing on Broadway in New York remains a regret.) But Stritch and her lawyer, Mark Sendroff, insisted that, after 14 years away, she perform at the now closed Metropolitan Room in 2006.

She blew the roof off, winning a whole new audience at 78. “Once she sold out one time, she’d go back, eight shows, three times a year,” Stritch says. “There was no turning back. She was off and running. It began a fantastic third act.”

‘Because It’s Fun’

How has Maye kept on going, singing so well? I talked to voice teachers and doctors, and heard about “vocal folds” and “breath support” and “agility,” and the likelihood that she has a strict exercise and warm-up regimen.

She doesn’t: “She loves to go out to dinner and have her one drink” — an apple martini — “after the show,” reports Mackie.

Mackie credits her playfulness, how she once left behind her false eyelashes on the chandelier when staying at his home. I’ve seen it, too. She does little kicks walking down a staircase, not because it helps her avoid tripping, but, she brightly says, “because it’s fun.”

A classic Mayeism: “If you don’t take yourself seriously, others will.”Credit…Clark Hodgin for The New York Times

People who love and admire Maye think she might have become a bigger star sooner. Put that question to her, however, and the playfulness — the twinkle — momentarily slips away.

“I am 95 f-ing years old,” she tells me, confidently surveying Carnegie Hall from its stage. “I don’t have time to be a larger star. I don’t have time to be any more than this night.” She stares at the empty seats, soon to be full, and gently hums.

Perhaps she became the kind of star she was fated to be. Or, maybe, she has become something better. There remains an unequaled intensity of intimacy when you are singing in a nightclub to a rapt audience. Carnegie Hall won’t make Marilyn Maye bigger; she’ll make Carnegie Hall smaller.

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