Hard to believe New York actress-cabaret artist Sally Mayes hails from the small town of Livingston, TX, which, in her cabaret act, she kiddingly calls "a hell hole not to be believed." In her New York City performances in Off-Broadway's Closer Than Ever (singing about lunch-hour liaisons in "Miss Byrd") and in Broadway's recent She Loves Me revival (as the sexually anxious Ilona) — and on recordings of work by Dorothy Fields, Comden and Green — she offered a big-voiced, sly, urban sophistication. Was she really once a vocalist in an ear-splitting Dallas rock 'n' roll band? She was. Did she once have a Southern twang? She did — she still does. It sneaks out in conversation. Was her hair once long and flowing? It was. It's now short and sleek — urban — under the wig she wears in her latest project, Off-Broadway's Pete 'n' Keely, opening Dec. 14 at the John Houseman Theater. The country girl is in another sophisticated role in the new musical comedy hybrid by James Hindman, directed by Mark Waldrop. Mayes plays fictional Keely Stevens, one half of a divorced "swingin' sweethearts" couple (with George Dvorsky playing Pete Bartel) reuniting for a TV special in 1968. Punctuating the concept (musical-directed by Patrick S. Brady) are 20 or so new and classic pop songs, offering a whirlwind tour of Pete and Keely's romance and career — all before a live audience. As a kid, Mayes watched Carol Burnett on TV and now, she gets to be the height of sophistication: As the Eydie Gorme-like Keely, she's dressed in gowns and costumes by Burnett's costume designer, Bob Mackie. She talked to Playbill On-Line about Eydie, Brady, Mackie and more.
Playbill On-Line: Pete 'n' Keely seems like a perfect fit for you, with you playing an Eydie Gorme-type character who can make her voice both brassy and subtle. It almost seems like the show was created for you, but it was in development before you came aboard...
Sally Mayes: You know what happened? Patrick Brady, who is my music director, was the person they brought on board to do these arrangements. I think probably, in the back of his head, always, it was me he had in mind, because he knew I could do that kind of singing. Once they decided on me, Jim [Hindman] started molding it to me, and George [Dvorsky]. Patrick has been my musical director for, like, gosh, 10, 11 years, and we're great, dear friends as well. We can collaborate without even thinking about it. He knows my voice so well and knows what I can do and what he can push me to do. He knows the notes I can hit. He really knows how to arrange for my voice. His genius — which has not been fully recognized yet, but I'm hoping this show will bring it to light — is that he arranges with such a sense of humor. The things that he does are so funny in such a hip way. That's something that makes this show real special. All the stuff is very humorous, but it's not making fun of them, it's not commenting on them, it's done with a lot of love.
PBOL: And the arrangements feel accurate to the characters and the period. Sort of hyper-square. Entertainingly self-aware, like the hilarious "Battle Hymn of the Republic" Pete and Keely sing. Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme are the immediate association an audience makes with these characters. I have to admit, I am a closet Steve and Eydie fan.
SM: Oh, honey, me too.
PBOL: My parents had these Steve and Eydie albums I found in their Hi Fi cabinet when I was a kid. They were so slickly produced, they screamed entertainment at you — the arrangements, to my 1970s ear, seemed bizarre and wildly fun.
SM: Let me tell you, I think the biggest single influence on me, musically — aside from my father, who was a jazz musician and turned me onto all this stuff — was Eydie Gorme. That's how I learned to sing. Her voice was so beautiful. And she was effortless when she would go up high. Now that she's older it's a little harder for her to sing like that. She just had such skill. She had immediate instincts about what the song was saying.
PBOL: So you knew Steve and Eydie's albums?
SM: I have the "It's Us Again" album. The song, "It's Us Again" [sung in Pete 'n' Keely] is actually their song. My dad would buy them and I would listen to them. My all-time favorite recording of her's is a Billy May arrangement — or is it Nelson Riddle? — of "I Want to Be Around." And there's another one of "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?" Those are Eydie at her peak. And Steve is a great singer! They are still putting it out there. PBOL: Pete and Keely seem to be patterned on Steve and Eydie.
SM: It's a kind of hodge-podge of all of 'em — an homage to Sonny and Cher...a loving look at that whole period of television. When I was a kid, that's what television was — variety. You turned on Carol Burnett. Those sketches! What's so thrilling for me is to have [Burnett designer] Bob Mackie doing the costumes. In all the readings we've done of this, they would go find some horrible vintage chiffon dress and a great big foofy wig and I looked like a sight gag. Well, now I look stunning, but it's still humorous. I never had this kind of care and attention paid to my body and what looks good on me.
PBOL When you were a girl in Texas, you watched "The Carol Burnett Show" —
SM: Oh, yeah. And I watched "Sonny and Cher" and all those variety specials. And nobody does that anymore.
PBOL: You grew up in Livingston, TX, in East Texas. Has performing always been a part of your life?
SM: I was a child performer. I've always sung. And I never sang like a child. I've always sounded just like I sound now, because that's how my father taught me. My father played the guitar and they'd put me on a box in front of a microphone with these big dresses my grandmother made for me, and I would sing. I was in a real rural country area, but I didn't sing country music. I would sing, like, Ella's version of "Goody Goody" with just a guitar. I went through a period of about five years where I wasn't gonna do it and then I got into high school...I did shows in high school and college. I've performed my whole life; I don't know what it means not to perform.
PBOL: As a kid, did you think you wanted to be a pop singer or an actress-singer?
SM: I went through a phase in my 20s when I was a rock 'n' roll singer, but you don't have the longevity. The band was based in Dallas, and it was called "Dallas." [Laughs.] It was the loudest rock 'n' roll band ever. Every club we ever played, they would tell us to turn it down. I think I was a really good rock 'n' roll singer, but I couldn't tell you for sure because I never heard one word. I'm very grateful for that background. I always had the need to act, also. The band split up, and I came to New York. All those years of singing in bars where there was chicken wire in front of the stage to protect you if they didn't like what you were singing really served me well. If you can do that, you can do anything.
Sally Mayes website is at www.sallymayes.com. Her latest album is called "Boys and Girls Like You and Me."
— By Kenneth Jones