When Mae Arnette was growing up in New York City, she dreamed of being a dancer, or maybe an opera singer. She’d have scoffed if someone had told her that one day, instead of singing Rigoletto at the Met, she’d sing “The Star Spangled Banner” at Fenway Park in Boston. But that’s what happened, at a Yankees game no less, in September 1991. It was just one of the many venues where Arnette sang in her adopted city. She died in Boston July 30, 2023, at age 91.
Mae always wanted to be an entertainer, and with parental encouragement, she started early. At age six, she tap-danced in a Stars of Tomorrow talent show at Town Hall. At 12, she was tapping regularly as a member of a Harlem troupe, Mary Bruce’s Starbuds. Then somebody discovered she could sing, too, and at age 14 or 15 she sang professionally for the first time, at Murrain’s nightclub, uptown on Seventh Ave. At 16, she won an Amateur Night contest at the Apollo Theatre, singing Billy Eckstine’s “Prisoner of Love.”
Mae attended what was then called the Music & Art High School in Manhattan. She studied dance and classical music, and trained to be an opera singer—she was a big fan of tenor Lauritz Melchior. She sang with the renowned All City High School Chorus of New York at Carnegie Hall.
Mae Arnette was 20 when a phone call changed the direction of her life.
Getting Established in Boston
In 1952, Mae’s uncle, Johnny McIlvaine, was booking the entertainment at Sugar Hill, a nightclub on the edge of Boston’s Theatre District. That September, he needed an immediate replacement for his headliner, Ida James. He called Mae in New York. This was a classic nightclub show, with four acts, a chorus line, and a show band. The band was one of Boston’s best—that of pianist Sabby Lewis. They’d be friends for almost fifty years.
Arnette was drawn to Boston, so different from the dense streets of New York, calling it “a miniature town.” She decided to move, but it didn’t happen right away. Arnette spent the 1950s going back and forth between the two cities, following the work, not settling in Boston until 1958.
When the Sugar Hill show ended, Arnette found work at Eddie’s Cafe on Mass Ave, singing with the bands of pianist Dean Earl and alto saxophonist Tom Kennedy. She worked at Eddie’s for three months. Then she crossed the street to sing at Wally’s Paradise. That’s probably where she met pianist Red Garland, then working in the house band. Arnette and Garland were an item for a short time, working locally and north into Canada. Afterwards, Garland found lasting fame with Miles Davis, and Arnette resumed singing in New York. She got a taste of Broadway in 1957, as Claudia McNeil’s understudy in the Langston Hughes musical comedy, Simply Heavenly.
Johnny McIlvaine again came through with a singing job that brought Mae to Boston to stay in 1958. He was then managing the Professional & Business Mens Club, a small room tucked into a South End brownstone. It was a quirky place, a private club, operating under the radar. “A hell of a time,” remembered pianist Al Vega, who often worked there. Mae sang as many as six nights a week with whatever trio was in the house. She met Billie Holiday there on her last trip to Boston in 1959; Holiday advised her to add some gospel music to her repertoire. Fred Taylor, then working as a booking agent, often listened to Mae there.
“She had a great voice and was a fabulous entertainer. She came out of the real roots of showbiz. She’d been in a chorus line, she did tap, she was equally at home singing jazz or R&B. I found her nightclub work all over Massachusetts, and in Rhode Island.” There were numerous bookings around Boston, with two particularly notable. The first was the Caribe Lounge in the Theatre District. She sang there with the piano/bass duo Jes 2 (Gerry Gottschalk and Tony DeFazio), and the club kept extending the engagement, pushing it past the one-year mark. Work was plentiful in the Theatre District in the early sixties, and sometimes Arnette doubled at the Tic Toc across the street.
Taylor also introduced Mae to Lennie Sogoloff, and she became a favorite at Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike in the club’s early years, through 1964, singing for weeks at a time with the trios of Al Vega, Ray Santisi, and Sir Charles Thompson. Arnette enjoyed a close relationship with Sogoloff. When she was hospitalized in 1966, he organized benefits to help with her medical expenses, and brought bands from the club to entertain the patients. When she finally started singing again, Sogoloff had a “Welcome back, Mae!” week at Lennie’s, pairing her with saxophonist Houston Person. In 1967, he booked her for two weeks, together with Jon Hendricks. “That was fun!” she recalled. “Everything improvised. He made you work!”
Organ trios were everywhere in the mid sixties, and Arnette got in on it, touring the northeast with Philadelphia organist Dayton Selby for about six months in 1964-65. Their tours stopped locally at Estelle’s and Lennie’s.
As the rock wave washed away opportunities for singers like Arnette, she stepped back from performing in the late 60s and early 70s to raise her son.
The 1970s: “A Musical Explosion”
Mae Arnette resumed regular performing in 1974. She was in her 40s, and in her prime. All the elements were in place—superb phrasing and diction, unhurried delivery, a commanding stage presence. She excelled in particular as an interpreter of ballads. Arnette treated her performances with reverence; she was always known for the elegance of her dress and stage manner. It was at this time that the local pundits started calling her “Boston’s first lady of song.”
There weren’t many area clubs reliably presenting mainstream jazz then, but she sang in all of them, including the Scotch ‘n Sirloin, Sandy’s, the Merry-Go-Round, and Lulu White’s. She liked working in a nightclub because of its intimacy, and how it allowed her to communicate with her audience. Listeners didn’t talk much during Mae’s sets.
There were more concerts in the 1970s, too. She was at the peak of her powers when she sang in a series of Jordan Hall concerts organized by Ran Blake, including three dedicated to the music of Billie Holiday. “I’ll never forget Mae’s performances in Jordan Hall in the seventies,” wrote Blake in an email. “She created a musical explosion. The timbre of her voice was exquisite. She got one of the biggest ovations that I have ever heard in my 80 years of attending concerts.”
Steppin’ Out in the 1980s
There was less club work in the 1980s, but the decade found Arnette working in every kind of concert setting, among them the Franklin Park Zoo, the DeCordova Museum, and the Church of the Covenant for the Jazz All Night shows. She sang Ellington tunes with the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival in 1981, and sang them again with the Harvard Jazz Band at Sanders Theatre in 1986. She traveled to Europe to sing with saxophonist Scott Hamilton at the 1984 Stockholm Jazz & Blues Festival. There were Caribbean trips on cruise ships.
Arnette dabbled in acting in 1983, starring in Berlin Kabarett at the Next Move Theatre. Reviewer Kevin Kelly dismissed the production as “an embarrassment,” but he praised Arnette’s singing, calling it “mesmerizing.” (Despite her, the show flopped.) She turned up on network television that same year, in an episode of Trapper John, M.D. on CBS.
Arnette found late-career success working with the Dimock Community Health Center in Roxbury, as an event coordinator for, and performer in, their annual “Steppin’ Out” gala. She organized the entertainment for their first one in 1988, and every one thereafter until 2005. Dimock honored her with their Hall of Fame award in 2008. They honored Fred Taylor for his fundraising efforts at the same time. Fred recalled that as the emcee recited the names of previous awardees, Mae leaned over and deadpanned, “Fred, we’re the only two still living.”
Mae Arnette on Record
To say Mae Arnette was under-recorded is an understatement. She never recorded an album of her own. There were some singles, forgettable pop records, made for Big Top in 1958 and Aurora in 1959. Then in 1959 she recorded four cringe-worthy tunes, also for Aurora, singing English lyrics to traditional Russian melodies with balalaika accompaniment. “Dark Eyes” became “Oh Chichornia;” “Song of the Volga Boatman” became “I Got the Blues.” These were made to coincide with the pending visit of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to the U.S. A State Department-sponsored trip to the Soviet Union would then follow. “The Russian Rock and Roll is in with Khrushchev!” proclaimed Aurora’s Billboard ad that September. “But then Khrushchev pounded his shoe on the table at the United Nations in 1960, and went back home, and that put an end to any plans for a trip.”
Then came a long wait, to 1977, when Mae recorded one gem-like track on Phil Wilson’s album, Getting It All Together (Outrageous 1; link below). Then another long wait, to 1991, when Mae sang with Sabby Lewis, on a Rockwood Recording cassette, The Best Deal in Town. As far as I know, that’s it. I’d love to be proven wrong. The NEC and Harvard libraries have some concert recordings, but accessing them is a challenge for the casual listener.
Some unissued recordings do exist. In the 1950s, Arnette recorded with session musicians led by trumpeter Buck Clayton, and Mae owned well-worn copies of these test pressings. She’d forgotten most of the details. She mentioned an unsuccessful audition with Columbia, but added that they chose to concentrate all their efforts on promoting Nina Simone. Clayton was a Columbia artist in the 1950s, and Simone recorded for Colpix, a Columbia Pictures subsidiary. Those test pressings were probably the leftovers of Arnette’s Columbia “experience.”
Why was Mae shut out on the recording front? That she was poorly managed probably entered into it. And she might have fared better if she’d stayed in New York. But the late 50s were a fertile period for singers like Mae. Five other versatile, “jazz and more” vocalists emerged then who were born between 1929 and Mae’s birth year, 1931—Lorez Alexandria, Abbey Lincoln, Gloria Lynne, Della Reese, and Dakota Staton. All released their first major-label album between 1956 and 1958. Yet there was Mae, just as talented, on the outside. After missing out at Columbia, she was limited to singing gimmicky songs for the comrades. And that was not a path leading to wider recognition.
I mean Mae no disrespect when I say that hers is a case of “life is not fair.” It is cold comfort to know there were many other singers in other cities who shared her fate.
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We tend to regard Mae as a jazz singer, but she objected to the label. She considered herself an entertainer, a stage presence in the tradition of Josephine Baker. In a revealing interview with Steve Schwartz in 1989 for the Boston Jazz Society, she said, “I don’t even know how I got the name of being a jazz singer. I sang everything, and it’s only since I’ve been singing around Boston that I’ve been classified as a jazz singer…I sing some jazz, yes, but I am not just a singer. I’m an entertainer. I dance, I sing, I act, but I’ve been pigeonholed and for some reason I can’t get out of that pigeon hole.”
Although Arnette never achieved the breakout success she long sought, her adopted home town recognized her. In January 1988, Arnette received the Martin Luther King Jr Music Achievement Award from the City of Boston, given in thanks for her lifetime of contributions to the city’s music scene. They knew a great entertainer when they heard one.
And here’s the proof. Mae singing with Phil Wilson’s group in 1977, Stevie Wonder’s “All in Love Is Fair.”