At some point in the 1970s, popular music became synonymous with rock and its offshoots. Most everything that got played on the radio or sold a lot could trace its lineage back to the forms that exploded on the scene in the 1950s. But in the 1960s, that conquest was not yet complete. A large number of artists whose influences came from elsewhere could have highly successful careers without ever appealing to the pop/rock audience. We met one of them, John Gary, in a recent post—a guy whose album sales and TV work kept him in a very comfortable income bracket for the better part of a decade even as he remained utterly unknown to a younger audience.
One way to learn who these people were is to look for artists who repeatedly hit the top 10 of Billboard’s Easy Listening/Adult Contemporary chart without ever cracking the Hot 100. By that measure, the most successful of them might be Marilyn Maye.
Maye’s website calls her a “cabaret singer.” Born in Kansas, she became a radio singer at age 11 and later sang with territory bands in the Midwest. A 1955 supper-club gig in Kansas City led to her being discovered by Steve Allen and eventually, a contract with RCA. She was nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy for 1965, and given that the Grammys were still holding the kids’ music at arm’s length in that year, she might have been a favorite to win it, but she did not. (Tom Jones did; her fellow unsuccessful nominees included the Byrds, Herman’s Hermits, and Sonny & Cher.)
Maye recorded prolifically after snagging her Grammy nomination. She made four albums in two years and recorded a version of “Cabaret” that hit the radio in the fall of 1966 before the musical’s official opening on Broadway. It became her first Top-10 hit on what was then the Easy Listening chart. The next spring, “Sherry!,” the title song of a musical that flopped, also hit the Easy Listening Top 10. (You want trivia, you got it: Sherry! was based on the play The Man Who Came to Dinner, with book and lyrics written by James Lipton, now known for hosting Inside the Actor’s Studio.)
Maye’s biggest hit came on “Step to the Rear,” a song from yet another short-lived musical (How Now, Dow Jones?), which went all the way to #2 on the first Easy Listening chart of 1968. Although it didn’t make the Hot 100, it had a remarkably long afterlife: The Ford Motor Company used it in commercials for its Lincoln and Mercury models for the next four years; Maye sang it in commercials and traveled around the country doing appearances for dealers.
During a New York show in 1966, Ed McMahon was in the audience, and brought her to the attention of Johnny Carson. Carson was so impressed by her first performance on The Tonight Show that he gave her an open invitation to come on whenever she was in New York, or later, in Los Angeles. Over the next several years, she would appear 76 times.
So despite being largely unknown to the vast pop/rock audience, Marilyn Maye was, by a lot of relevant measuring sticks, a big star for a long time. She sang in nightclubs and major hotels during the 70s; in the 80s, as nightclub culture faded, she began appearing in musical theater productions. Today, Marilyn Maye is 84 years old, and still singing.