35 Years, On Stage and Off:
Billy Stritch on his Collaboration with Marilyn Maye
Billy Stritch is one of the premier singer-pianist-accompanists in the world. His most recent Broadway credit was musical supervisor and pianist for Liza Minnelli’s Tony Award winning show “Liza’s At The Palace,” for which he also re-conceived the legendary vocal arrangements performed by Kay Thompson and The Williams Brothers. In addition to his twenty-two year association with Liza, Billy also accompanies and arranges for Linda Lavin and is the musical director, accompanist, and featured soloist for “Jim Caruso’s Cast Party at Birdland,” every Monday night. But Billy’s longest professional association is with Johnny Carson’s favorite singer, the legendary Marilyn Maye. Marilyn and her trio, led by Billy, performed at Birdland for Valentine’s week, February 10th through 14th, 2015. When Billy celebrated his birthday on Thursday February 12th, on stage with Marilyn, they also marked thirty-five years together.
Birdland: You’ve been accompanying Marilyn Maye for thirty-five years, almost to the day. Is it even possible to summarize your collaboration?
Billy Stritch: Marilyn Maye is a constant source of inspiration and fun and to this day, I’ve never seen anyone who can match her onstage. A few come close, but to me, Marilyn is the gold standard and I’m a lucky man to have had all the fun and good times I’ve had with her. I know every show we do together will bring something fun and new, both for me and the audience.
BL: When did you hear her for the first time?
BS: I first heard Marilyn back in my hometown of Houston, Texas, when I was eighteen years old. She was doing regular engagements at a club called Rosco’s.
BL: Did you know right away there was something special about her as a performer?
BS: Once I heard her, nothing could prevent me from returning almost every night. I’d been lucky to see lots of concerts and theater growing up but I’d never experienced anything like her! That amazing voice combined with her spontaneity, humor, and showmanship changed my life.
BL: How soon after did you get to work with her?
BS: From that point on, I was a bit of a stalker — following her around between sets and asking all sorts of questions — something we joke about now. I was also doing my own gigs by this point, playing cocktail music in some lovely restaurants. After a couple of months I got her to come hear me at one of my gigs. I think she was impressed when I asked her to sit in. I surprised her by being able to play some of her very intricate arrangements.
BL: You have a reputation as an incredibly intuitive accompanist. Was this an early indication?
BS: Well, I had been going to see her night after night and I just was like a sponge, taking it all in and memorizing as much as I could.
BL: So she probably knew right away that you would work together?
BS: It wasn’t long before she asked me to accompany her on some gigs. One of the first was entertaining aboard the old SS Rotterdam on the Fiji to Hong Kong leg of their world cruise. That was an amazing time. I turned twenty on the ship.
BL: You are friends off stage as well. Any inside scoop can you share?
BS: It was on that first cruise that I learned what a heavy duty shopper she is. Don’t go shopping with Marilyn unless you really have the stamina to keep up with her!
BL: Just like when she’s performing?
BS: She has amazing energy and that doesn’t seem to change with the passage of time. Thirty five years later and she is as strong as ever, both onstage and off. I only hope I have half her energy when I’m her age. Who am I kidding? I don’t have half her energy NOW!