February 18, 2018

Julie Wilson, cabaret icon and mother

I had chosen Cabaret artist Julie Wilson as my honoree since she would have been 93 this week. As luck would have it, I had also selected Mind Hunter for a blog post. Imagine my surprise when I realized that her son, Holt McCallany was one of the stars of this Netflix original series. Synchronicity at work.

Whenever I was in New York, I would stop in to see Iowa-born make-up artist Steven Herrald and buy products from him. He was also the make-up man for cabaret icon Julie Wilson who was originally from Nebraska. Our paths crossed at his studio where I first heard about her son, Holt McCallany, the actor. She was rightfully proud of his success.

For those who need a refresher on who Julie Wilson was, her career spanned from her Broadway stage debut in 1946 all the way to her cabaret engagements before her death in 2015.
Career highlights included her Tony nomination for Legs Diamond in 1988, a Broadway musical starring the legendary Peter Allen, her appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and roles on the soap opera, The Secret Storm. I even saw tv footage where she did a head stand on one of the late night talk shows. She was an avid practitioner of yoga!

Wilson resided in London in the early 1950s while performing in productions of Kiss Me, Kate, South Pacific and Bells Are Ringing. She also did American national tours in Show Boat, Panama Hattie, Silk Stockings, Follies, Company and A Little Night Music.

She was best known to me as a superlative interpreter of Great American Song with collection recordings featuring material by Cole Porter, Kurt Weill, Harold Arlen, Cy Coleman, Stephen Sondheim, and the Gershwins.

Julie, we miss you but we see a bit of your signature eyes in the face of Holt. Your legacy lives on in son and song.

Marilyn Maye, Cabaret Diva at 89

Cabaret aficionados may recognize the name, but Marilyn Maye needs to be more widely honored for her lengthy career and her indomitable ability to defy age as she turns 89 this month.

Born in Wichita, KS, she and her mother moved to Des Moines, IA for her teen years. While there, she met songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane who helped secure her own 15 minute radio show.
Chicago and Kansas City figure into her early performing career. She met Steve Allen who promptly invited her to be on his TV program, The Steve Allen Show. This led to her appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson where she holds the impressive record of having sung on the show 76 times, more than any other singer.

Marilyn Maye in the 1960s

She had a handful of hit singles in the late 1960s, with the two stand-outs being Cabaret and Step To the Rear.

Her mid-career was not in the national spotlight, but she continued to perform in venues of all sorts. I caught her several times in Okoboji, Iowa where my parents had a summer home. No matter the locale, she brought verve, heart and a consummate professionalism to every performance.

The Mabel Mercer Foundation kicked her career back into overdrive in 2006 with an appearance at Lincoln Center. She has been the toast of New York and cabaret spots all over the country in the past ten plus years.

Her recording of “Too Late Now” by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane is included in the Smithsonian’s Best Compositions of the 20th Century. Chicago Cabaret Professionals bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Award upon her in 2012 (I got to hand her the award.) She was inducted into the American Jazz Museum (Kansas City) as a Jazz Legend in 2015.

Along with her impressive performing schedule, she continues to conduct master classes and teaches privately in New York City and around the country. This octogenarian is proving that age is just a number –  if you have the talent and fortitude of Marilyn Maye. You keep singing, lady! And Happy Birthday.

http://www.marilynmaye.com/index.shtml

Mick Archer’s Piano Bar column featuring Elizabeth Doyle in Chicago Jazz Magazine

Mick Archer has written a lovely article about my encounter with late and great jazz pianist, Marian McPartland and included some of my recollections about playing in piano bars.

http://www.chicagojazz.com/piano-bar-elizabeth-doyle

Elton John show in Las Vegas

There are any number of great shows on the Las Vegas Strip, but Elton John: The Million Dollar Piano is my vote for “not-to-be-missed” musical extravaganza. You have to like rock and roll, but familiarity with John’s song catalogue is not a prerequisite for enjoying this spectacle. He has a kick-ass back-up band with two of the members having played with him starting in 1969. There is definitely some age on this stage, but you wouldn’t know it from their energy and cool-factor demeanor.

Elton wows the audience with his brilliant playing and his powerful vocals (albeit amplified with lots of reverb), but he also talks with the audience about his friendship with John Lennon and his love of performing. When he speaks, you forget you are in a Colosseum with 4,297 other listeners.

A word about the stupendous electric grand piano Elton plays throughout the show, specially made by Yamaha, the instrument features over 68 LED video screens. The 120-foot-wide and 40-foot tall LED screen across the back of the stage adds to the visuals. Videos include shifting design images, a collage of Elton wearing unique clothing throughout his career and a touching white gardenia film tribute to John Lennon.

The audience is singing along during the show, jumping to their feet after numbers, and clapping along with the three percussionists in John’s band. A select few in the front rows are invited to the stage towards the end of the show for the opportunity of shaking the star’s hand.

If my ears did not deceive me, I believe Elton John said his two children, Zachary (age 6) and Elijah (age 3) were seeing their father perform in Million Dollar Piano for the first time that evening in Las Vegas. I bet they were mightily impressed. I certainly was!

Harold Prince: Superlative Director/Producer

Producer/Director Harold Prince turns 89 this week. His remarkable career spans from being assistant stage manager on Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam in 1950 to directing a revue of songs from his hit shows in 2015.

A partial list of his Broadway endeavors looks like a history of musical theater: The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Candide, Sweeney Todd, Evita, The Phantom of the Opera, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Showboat plus countless others.
I have a tiny little connection to him. Harold Prince was being publicly interviewed in Chicago by theater writer Jonathan Abarbanel. My musical Fat Tuesday was then showing at the old Theater Building Chicago. Our stage set was where the conversation took place in front of a rapt audience.
I had the opportunity to give Mr. Prince a hand-written invitation to attend the Pump Room that evening where I was currently performing.
He sent me a lovely letter back expressing his regrets at not being able to attend the Pump Room since he was flying out later that day. He was most gracious in thanking me for the invitation and expressed fond memories of other visits to this famous supper club. As busy as he was, his courtesy and attention to detail was demonstrated in this kind reply to my note.
Happy Birthday Harold. You are indeed a Prince!

Frank Sinatra Jr., some undersung praise

One of the personalities whom I encountered at the Pump Room was Frank Sinatra Jr. who like his father enjoyed the atmosphere and food at this famous supper club.

One night when Frank Jr. was dining at the Pump Room, he introduced himself and gave me advice on how to improve the stage lighting. I found him to be friendly, gracious and helpful.

Another time, he and his big band had been rained out of a Grant Park outdoor concert so he took the whole crew for dinner at the Ambassador East eatery. A few of my musical colleagues played for him and said working with him was a good gig. He used great arrangements and knew what he wanted, having been his father’s music director and conductor starting in 1988.

Frank Jr. had a lovely voice that was similar to his father’s, but comparisons always pointed out that he did not have his dad’s magic.

He had enough of the entertainment gene however to keep singing, acting, songwriting and conducting from 1963 until his death on March 2016. Look up his bio on wikipedia to see how involved he stayed with music and tv projects until his death.

His list of performing venues was impressive too, up until the end, including the Royal Albert Hall in London and Town Hall in New York City.

I’m thinking kind thoughts about this man who sometimes found it challenging to live in the shadow of his famous father on this his birthday week.