Out of all the hundreds — perhaps thousands — of songs Marilyn Maye has performed, there is one she says best sums up her career.
“It’s got to be ‘Here’s to Life,’” Maye says, citing Shirley Horn’s modern jazz classic.
“The full lyric is, ‘So here’s to life / And every joy it brings.’ That’s simply how I feel. I try to think positively.”
At 90 years old, the Kansas City singer is entering her eighth decade of bringing her joyful performances to audiences. She’ll celebrate this fact with a hometown show at Johnson County Community College’s Yardley Hall on Sunday.
“It’s a fantastic concert musically. It’s the great American songbook,” says Maye, who will share the stage with the 18-piece Kansas City Jazz Orchestra.
Powered by a voice as robust as it is familiar, Maye delivers standards, cabaret and show tunes with equal command. Her style remains both old-fashioned and undeniably immediate.
“Her interpretation of songs of the era is spot on,” says Emily Behrmann, general manager of the performing arts at JCCC.
“Marilyn has performed them thousands of times, but this doesn’t lessen the amount of emotion she puts into it and the meaningful way she’s able to communicate that to an audience. It’s like every song she sings is her favorite song. And I know the lyrics mean a lot to her — that whole genre is all about the words and the meaning, and she uses that to her best advantage.”
The vocalist’s confidence in connecting with an audience — any audience, from concerts to Broadway to television — is based around a single strategy.
“You sing to them, not for them,” she says. “The audience is the star. You’re there to serve them, make them have a good time, make them happy.”
Maye, who lives in Overland Park, spends the majority of her schedule divided between playing all manner of intimate venues in New York and going on the road to fill theater-sized halls. This busy schedule takes her from Florida to California, where she renders dozens of shows each year.
“I go home every three or four weeks and unpack, then pack and come back to New York,” she admits.
While her concert schedule has barely slowed, she’s adopted another mode of musical interaction: teaching master classes. She titles them “The Art of Performance,” and they have become a regular part of her split NYC residency.
“It’s not necessarily a singing lesson,” she explains. “It’s just what I believe. But there is a great deal of instruction when it comes to phrasing material.”
While the classes are aimed at developing professional singers, she’s always surprised at how many people audit these sessions just as observers. Sometimes, the observation can be internal for Maye; she’s discovered quite a bit about herself through teaching.
“You learn how you do it,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate to make a living doing it — maybe talented enough, too. … The good thing is that as you explain to somebody something you’ve done for a long time off the cuff, you learn how to pass that along to somebody else. So you apply that technique even more after you’ve dissected it.”
Born in Wichita as Marilyn Maye McLaughlin, she began singing at age 3, often entering local competitions as she grew up. After high school, she moved to Kansas City to work in nightclubs. It was there that prominent comedian Steve Allen caught her act (at the old Colony Steakhouse at 35th and Broadway), and a record deal with RCA followed.
Despite having already worked for years in front of audiences, the 38-year-old Maye found herself nominated in 1966 for a best new artist Grammy. The category placed her in a rather bizarre competition against upstarts such as Sonny and Cher, the Byrds, Herman’s Hermits and Tom Jones. (Interestingly, the Beatles had earned this award the previous year.)
“That sure was a crazy category,” she recalls.
Maye attended the event but ended up losing to Welsh sex symbol Jones. Within the next few years, the Grammys became dominated by contemporary rock acts.
One place where her maturing audience could always find her was on television. Maye racked up an astonishing 76 bookings on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.” Between the host’s 1962-1992 run, she appeared more times than any other singer.
“The band was so great, and Johnny was so wonderful to me,” she says, noting how she bonded with the fellow Midwesterner. “We’d do two performances, then Johnny would comment. His comments were more glowing than my mother would have said about me.”
This wasn’t her only domination of the medium.
“I probably did the Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin shows about as many times,” she says. “All those wonderful shows were great exposure for singers — it was such a nice period in my life.”
Maye has made a return to TV of late. In January, she was the subject of a feature by Mo Rocca on “CBS Sunday Morning.” He titled the segment “Proudly, ‘Old School.” In June, she appeared with Harry Connick Jr. on his NBC daytime series, where she performed “Here’s to Life.”
“I just go where I’m hired,” she says of her busy 2018. “It’s work. It’s wonderful work.”
Although Maye will always consider herself a Kansan, she admits her hometown isn’t the best place to pursue a singing career.
“I don’t think I would have done anything differently. But I might have lived in New York for a longer time because it’s been the city that has really taken me to its heart,” she says.
“I was very honored when we did a concert at the Gem Theater, and they gave me a medallion in the walk (the American Jazz Walk of Fame). That was lovely. But there are just so many more places to perform (in New York) than there are in Kansas City.”
JCCC’s Behrmann recalls seeing Maye at the Metropolitan Club in Manhattan.
“It’s a much smaller crowd than we have at Yardley Hall. But it was packed,” Behrmann says. “She was able to recreate that same kind of vibe in our theater setting the last time she played here. It was still very personal. There was still a lot of interaction with the audience. One guy let his cellphone go off, and she did 15 minutes on that alone. She just kept coming back to it.”
For Maye — though she remains confident in her abilities and appeal — she confesses to being appreciative of the simple fact audiences haven’t forgotten her.
She says, “You’re always thrilled when people come there to hear you.”
Like she sings at almost every performance, “So here’s to life / And every joy it brings / So here’s to life / To dreamers and their dreams.”
Marilyn Maye: “90 at Last” begins at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11, at Yardley Hall in the Carlsen Center of Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park. Tickets are $27-$80 (pre-show dinner package also available). More info at jccc.edu.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”