Nationally known singer Marilyn Maye bought a motor boat at Bahnsen's Sporting Goods in Omaha in 1968 and christened it “Maye Day.”
The wordplay on the distress call “Mayday,” she recalls with a chuckle, came about because “the idea of me and a ski boat would be a disaster.”
Don Gibbs volunteered to tow her boat to Lake Okoboji, Iowa. “I didn't think anything would come of that,” he said, “but we became really close friends.”
Don, a retired Creighton University professor, is one of many friends that the “Amazing Maye” has made in frequent Omaha performances over many decades. But this weekend is different.
After numerous club and cabaret appearances, the American musical icon will sing for the first time with the Omaha Symphony. Tickets for her “American Songbook” shows at 8 tonight and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Holland Performing Arts Center range from $19 to $83.
Johnny Carson, who started his broadcast career in Omaha, dubbed her “Super Singer” during her record run of 76 appearances on “The Tonight Show.” One night he looked into the camera after she sang and said, “That, young singers, is how it's done.”
Maye is still doing it. Many of her old Omaha musical haunts are gone — Club 89, Angelo's, Caesar's West, the Flamingo and Peony Park. But she keeps going, figuratively skiing atop the warm waters of a nonstop singing career even at 85.
“I'm busier than I've ever been,” she said this week. “I just keep moving. I love the audiences and the music. I've been receiving lifetime achievement awards, and I tell people I'm not through yet.”
It's a lesson for others. If you're healthy and competent and you love your job, why retire?
“I don't know how to do anything else,” Marilyn quipped. “I can't cook.”
But she cooks onstage, still receiving rave reviews in New York and Los Angeles. Leonard Maltin said recently that he sat with dazzled show-business veterans on Aug. 23.
“I witnessed one of the greatest nightclub performances I've ever seen when singer Marilyn Maye took the stage at Catalina Jazz Club in Los Angeles,” he wrote. “I've always loved her voice, but here I witnessed her mastery of an audience, her savvy and showmanship.”
Says Gibbs, her Omaha friend of 45 years: “She is absolutely one of the finest singers we have, and the fact that she still sings as well as she ever did is simply astonishing.”
He says he once was “sort of a groupie,” having heard her sing in New York, Kansas City, Mo., Las Vegas and elsewhere. “I even saw her sing at the Kansas state prison.”
Marilyn was born April 10, 1928, in Wichita, Kan., the only child of Kenneth and Lyla McLaughlin. At 7, Marilyn began winning talent contests as her mother accompanied her on piano.
They lived in Topeka and Des Moines, where she sang on radio as a teenager, and she eventually became a staff vocalist in Louisville, Ky. She then was booked into The Colony, a supper club in Kansas City, which turned into a long-term gig.
She was “discovered” by TV star Steve Allen. But if not Steve Allen, wouldn't the next person with a national TV show have discovered her?
“Who knows?” Marilyn said. “I sang five nights a week for 11 years at The Colony in Kansas City. You can have great talent and go undiscovered. So much of it is chance and being at the right place at the right time.”
With a movie or miniseries about Carson said to be in the works, Marilyn recalled that Johnny always would pop his head through the doorway of the makeup room and say, “Glad to have you back, Marilyn,” but that she never got to know him well.
“His delivery was so creative, and he was just the best,” she said. “His great talent as an interviewer was that he really listened to what was being said.”
One of Marilyn's dearest Omaha friends was Dr. Lee Bevilaqua, athletic physician for Creighton University as well as for jockeys at the old Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack. He owned a horse that he named “Sound of Maye.”
Marilyn sang at the 1998 funeral of the guy everyone called “Doc.”
Gibbs was a friend of Doc's, and that's how he came to tow the boat to Okoboji, where he jokes that Marilyn became “the terror of the lake.”
She may not water-ski anymore, but she still loves Lake Okoboji, where she has sung for 57 summers in a row. Unlike skiing, her singing does far more than skim the surface.
“She has a real way of telling the story of a song,” Gibbs said. “Some of the things she does are real acting.”
She loves teaching the art of singing in classes, and she loves performing. Later this month, she is booked again at the New York club 54 Below. She also has sung recently in New York at Feinstein's and spoke with singer Michael Feinstein about his performance last year with the Omaha Symphony.
This will be her first time to perform in the 2,000-seat Peter Kiewit Concert Hall.
A Philadelphia critic once wrote that calling Marilyn Maye a jazz cabaret singer is like calling Picasso a painter. It's true, but it leaves a lot out.
This weekend the versatile Maye won't leave a lot out. And when it's all said and sung, the “terror of the lake” will leave lots of happy fans in her wake.