Marilyn Maye, the queen of cabaret, is always on.
Maybe that’s why Johnny Carson invited her on “The Tonight Show” a record 76 times.
Maybe that’s why she’s funnier than her Las Vegas pal Shecky Greene.
Maybe that’s why she teaches a five-hour master class on the art of performance, not just singing.
Maye is so on that she’ll call you five minutes after an hourlong interview because she wants to e-mail you reviews of her current tour.
She’s tireless. At age 90. And a terrific conversationalist, with a quick cackle and a deep Della Street speaking voice.
“I want people to have fun,” she said. “The audience is the star. I’m not the star. It’s not about me. It’s about them. I want them to have a good time. That’s my job.”
Off the top of her head, Maye can rattle off every gig she has this month — dates and venues in three different time zones with a 3:30 a.m. flight to California.
She’ll tell you about all the famous folks, including Scarlett Johansson and Tommy Tune, who stopped by her various appearances in New York City, where she reinvigorated her career a dozen years ago.
She can name the Twin Cities musicians who will accompany her on Saturday and Sunday at Crooners in Fridley.
And then there’s her birthday next month in the midst of her eight-night stand at Feinstein’s 54 Below in Manhattan.
“I’ve been there my last four birthdays,” Maye pointed out. “Last year, the show was called ‘90 at Last.’ This year it’s called ‘Oh to Be 90 Again.’ I told the audience that last night and got the biggest laugh. I’ll tell it again tonight.”
Even though the Kansas City-based singer has lived in the Midwest most of her life and appeared 61 consecutive years at Lake Okoboji in Iowa, this is only her second engagement in Minneapolis.
“I know there are many Minneapolis people who come to our shows there in Okoboji, that wonderful summer resort in Iowa,” she said. “This year we’ll be there June 25 and 26. By now, I know four generations of people there.”
Working with famous comics
Wherever she plays, Maye delivers selections from the Great American Songbook along with more recent tunes by the likes of Billy Joel and James Taylor. She typically closes with a one-two punch of Taylor’s “Secret of Life” and the modern-day jazz standard “Here’s to Life.”
“They’re my mantra. Once you hear the [“Secret”] lyrics, you’ll know why. ‘Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill, but since we’re on our way down, we might as well enjoy the ride.’ And I’m definitely enjoying the ride.”
Maye’s performances feature plenty of jokes and jocular comments.
“In my earlier life, I worked Las Vegas a lot. I worked with Alan King and I worked with Shecky Greene. I think my timing comes from that.”
And, back in the day, she did several two-week road trips with Steve Allen, Bill Dana and Louis Nye.
“Four hours in the car with those guys, I’m sure that was a great education for me,” she reminisced. “We just had fun.”
Her own radio show at 15
Born in Wichita, Kan., she started singing at 3, winning amateur contests at 9 and gigging with bands at 12. At age 15, she was hosting her own radio show, “Marilyn Entertains,” in Des Moines, where her mother moved after a divorce.
After high school, Maye became a fixture in Kansas City clubs before getting discovered by Steve Allen, who invited her on his late-night variety show. That led to a contract with RCA Records and the 1966 hit “Cabaret.”
Maye was a finalist for the Grammy for best new artist along with Sonny & Cher, the Byrds and Herman’s Hermits, among others. Tom Jones took home the trophy.
Maye’s big claim to fame was that Carson invited her on “The Tonight Show” an unprecedented number of times for a singer.
Was it their Midwestern connection since he’s from Nebraska and she Kansas?
“No. I didn’t realize it till he was gone,” she explained about Carson. “I did a tribute concert in the Johnny Carson Theatre in Norfolk, Neb. — Norfork, I think they say — and I realized that he was from there. Wow! He was a Midwesterner, too.”
When she was on “The Tonight Show,” the host didn’t much visit with her backstage.
“He’d pop in the makeup room and say ‘Are you gonna do ‘Here’s That Rainy Day?’ That was his favorite song. ‘Johnny, I’ve already done it three times.’ ‘Well, that’s all right.’ That was all of our conversation. He was smart enough not to talk to you because something that should be said, should be said on camera. He was the expert at conversation.”
But she didn’t converse with him on TV much, either, because she preferred to sing.
“You had the choice of doing one song and sitting down and talking, or two songs. I’m about the singing. The band was so great. I sat five times out of the 76 times. His comments were better than anything I could say. After the songs, he’d give glowing comments.”
Although Maye was featured last year on Harry Connick’s TV talk show and “CBS Sunday Morning,” she would like to appear on a late-night show once again.
Jon Batiste, bandleader on “Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” believes she belongs.
“She’s one of the best in the world of delivering a song onstage. She really knows how to tell a story,” said Batiste, who has attended a few of Maye’s New York shows. “There are not many people today — you can count them on one hand — that every time you see them you learn something about how to deliver a song.
“I’ve been trying to figure out how to have her on the [Colbert] show since I first saw her. It’ll happen.”
At the top of Maye’s very short bucket list, though, is headlining at Carnegie Hall.
“I’ve done Carnegie as a guest singer with New York Pops. I’ve never really done my full concert there,” she said. “The room is daunting and the sound is wonderful. That would be fun.”