"Baseball was my first love", Maye told me, but that preference
may have had a pragmatic basis to it. "I always said I could sing
at 50, but I couldn't play baseball at 50". While he gave baseball
the edge in his mind, the evidence shows that music didn't exactly take
a back seat in his time allotment. He started his singing career at Jefferson
High School in South Central L.A., a hotbed of musical talent that is
alma mater to a long list of jazz and R&B greats. At the same time
that major league scouts were taking notes on his diamond exploits, Maye
was also running with a crowd that would "all go doo-wopping up and
down the halls". Following a brief stint as a charter member of a
nascent version of The Flairs, Maye co-founded a quintet called The Carmels.
While they never got around to recording, The Carmels belonged to a scene
that, although most of its members were still in school (Jefferson, as
well as others), was already making records the magic of which endures
to this day. This contingent included Cleve Duncan, leader of The Penguins;
Alex Hodge, a founding member of The Platters; his brother Gaynel Hodge
of The Hollywood Flames and The Turks; Curtis Williams of The Hollywood
Flames and The Penguins; Obie Jessie, who went on to have a fine solo
career under the name Young Jessie; Cornell Gunter, an original Platter
and early-edition Coaster; and the now-legendary Richard Berry.
After graduation Maye was drafted by the Milwaukee Braves, but in early 1954,
before setting out to play for their farm club in Boise, he entered a
studio to cut his first record. Teaming up with Berry and bass singer
Johnny Coleman to form The "5" Hearts (with the "5"
in ironic quote marks, a wink to the fact that there were only three of
them), Maye recorded "The Fine One", on which he dueted with
Berry, and "Please Please Baby", with Berry taking the lead.
The disc appeared on Flair, a subsidiary of Modern, L.A.'s premier R&B
label. The following year the same group recorded again for Flair, this
time as The Rams. The resulting single paired "Sweet Thing",
a raucous group-sing over barrelhouse piano, with "Rock Bottom",
a beat number on which they made like a hopped-up Ink Spots.
Around the same time as the second Flair recording was a session, credited
for the first time to The Crowns, that went out on Modern proper. Maye
took the lead on the A-side, the street corner blues "Set My Heart
Free", while Berry provided one of those mid-song basso profundo
soliloquies that was quickly becoming something of a signature for him.
"I Wanna Love", a mambo, announced Maye as an important new
lead voice, a likable and identifiable presence ideally suited for the
featured role. Already in place at this early date is a subtle plaintive
lilt at the ends of many of his lines, a trait which could easily have
lapsed into gimmick but which Maye would use with discretion and grace
throughout his career, turning it instead into a welcome trademark of
Maye was rising up the ladder in music just as he was in baseball. The
problem, though, was one that could have been spotted from afar: he could
only concentrate on music during the winter months, when baseball was
in its off-season. Maye reflected that such time-sharing held him back.
"When I was playing baseball all the requisite hours, I was a year
behind in music, and I never got a chance to catch up with the music trend
that I should have been with. I truly was behind the time, and I acknowledge
that. Baseball and singing collided".
The Braves elevated Maye steadily through their minor league ranks, and
he tore the joint up at each stop along the way. Rarely hitting below
.320, from Boise his ascent took him to Eau Claire, Yakima, Evansville,
Jacksonville, Wichita, Austin and Louisville (there being a whole lot
more minor leagues in that pre-expansion era than today). These small
cities were not exactly thriving centers of the jive, yet Maye still managed
to coax the furtherance of his musical education from them, and other
like podunks he'd pass through on the team's bumpy bus tours. "I'd
watch all of them, any entertainer when I was in a town. You learn from
each other. My stage presence wasn't polished, so I'd go to learn how
to get my stage presence from the other top guys who did it for a living".
Given the preponderance of night baseball, it would be almost impossible
to pull off this kind of candle-burning today.
Most of Maye's best recordings were made during his minor league years,
with a revolving lineup of Crowns, often including his brother Eugene
Maye, behind him. RPM, another label from the Modern combine, knocked
out a succession of fabulous singles by Arthur and The Crowns in 1955,
highlighted by back-to-back L.A.-area hits "Truly" and "Love
Me Always", the Treniers-like "Loop De Loop De Loop", and
"Please Don't Leave Me", an enchanting ballad. The following
year Maye and his group moved over to Specialty, where they made "Gloria",
a rhythmic doo-wopper with a sublime chanted refrain, and its flip, the
rollicking "Oh-Rooba-Lee". ("Cool Lovin'", one of
Maye's finest rockers, was done at this same session, but went unreleased
at the time.)
The group next appeared on Johnny Otis' Dig label, where under Maye's
name alone they did "This Is The Night For Love", a Maye original
with some radiant falsetto parts, coupled with the uptempo "Honey
Honey", featuring a stunning Mickey Baker-styled guitar solo. Following
the end of the 1956 baseball season Otis convened a veritable all-star
team of L.A.'s top harmony vocal talent, including Maye, Berry, Mel Williams
of The Shields and the reigning king of the L.A. rhythm and blues scene
(and fellow Jefferson alum), Jesse Belvin. Billed as The Jayos (for Otis'
initials), the group recorded a stellar album of covers of recent R&B
hits. The Jayos' versions of such tunes as "Earth Angel", "Only
You", "Gee" and "One Mint Julep" approach the
excellence of the originals, and the fact that Maye was chosen from among
that mighty heap of talent to sing lead on most of the songs stands as
a de facto tribute to his abilities and versatility.
Although the quality was certainly present, none of these nor any of Maye's
other releases became national hits. Besides the time-lag problem, Maye
believed his records were underpromoted. "I think the guys that recorded
me didn't take advantage of what they had. I don't know if they knew they
had a good product or not. If they had got out and worked the record
he trailed off.
1965 (flipside detail)
Nineteen-fifty-nine was a watershed year for Maye. Batting .339 with 17 homers for the
Braves' top farm club in Louisville, in mid-July Maye finally received
his call-up to the big club in Milwaukee. It was an eye-opening experience,
in more ways than the obvious. "I never saw a major league game until
I played in one", Maye recalled (although until 1958 big-league
ball had yet to reach further west than St. Louis). His two singles for
Cash in that year turned out to be not only his last releases for any
of the important L.A. R&B labels, they were also his last with The
They were also, however, among the best records of his career. "Will
You Be Mine", a Maye composition, is highlighted by the Crowns' oohs
and aahs harmonizing with a tinkling celeste, creating a uniquely beautiful
effect. Flipped with a remake of "Honey Honey", slower yet even hotter
than the first rendition, the record was released after Maye's call-up
to the majors. Consequently, the artist credit on Cash's label read, "Lee
Maye of the Milwaukee Braves". Not only was this the only time his
alternate career was pointed out on one of his record labels, it was also
one of the few records credited to the baseball variant of his given name.
Why was he "Arthur Lee Maye" in music yet "Lee Maye"
in baseball? Maye himself couldn't explain the distinction. "I don't
know. I have no idea". It certainly didn't help him commercially.
"A lot of people maybe didn't know that Arthur Lee Maye was Lee Maye
singing", he said. Maye's final release for Cash coupled his own
soaring, majestic "All I Want Is Someone To Love" with "Pounding",
a throbbing rocker that climaxes with a seamless swoop upwards into a
Maye hit an even .300 in 51 games with the Braves in 1959. Coming off
two successive appearances in the World Series and with three future Hall
of Famers on the squad, the Braves that year finished second in the National
League, two games behind the Dodgers, the eventual world champions. Alas, Maye's rookie
season would be the closest he'd ever come to winning a pennant. The following
year he was hitting above .300 again, yet was sent back to Louisville
for more seasoning. There he clobbered the ball once more, and in 1961
was brought up to the majors to stay.
Playing baseball in America's major league cities also served to give
Maye access to a more professional music circuit. "I met a lot of
dynamite singers. I sat in with James Brown, I met Sam Cooke. I knew Joe
Tex, Jackie Wilson. I worked with Little Willie John. Entertainers recognize
each other. I worked the Apollo in New York, and that was one of my biggest
moments. I had a ball. When I opened a show up in L.A. we had Billy Stewart,
Barbara Mason, The Exciters. Jerry Butler headlined the show. It was a
thrill for me just to be up with those guys, all of them had hit records".
Just as he was now singing with bigger names, he was likewise playing
alongside some of the biggest stars in baseball, particularly the future
home run king. "Henry Aaron doesn't get the credit he deserves, I
don't care what anyone says", Maye responded upon the introduction
of Aaron's name. Without either of us mentioning that it was Martin Luther
King Day, Maye segued into the issue of racism in baseball. "Let's
face the facts, we still got some of that slave mentality. I don't make
no bones about that. If Hank Aaron had been white he'd have been the greatest
thing that ever picked up a baseball bat". No dispute there, beyond
pointing out that Willie Mays did come close to that level of veneration.
Perhaps Aaron's due acclaim was inhibited by an additional factor. "And
if he'd have played in New York he'd have been the greatest. In Milwaukee
you didn't get that kind of press".
Maye also played with Tommie Aaron, Hank's younger brother. I had
misremembered Tommie as being an outfielder, and asked Maye if he ever
filled out an outfield with the two Aarons. "Tommie was a first baseman.
He was one of the best first baseman, one of the best glovemen you'd ever
want to see". I brought up the name of another Brave, pitcher Lew
Burdette, who had capitalized on a 1957 World Series in which he thoroughly
manhandled the Yankees by cutting a smoking little country boogie number
(and Cowboy Copas cover) called "Three Strikes And You're Out"
for Dot. Did Maye ever get to hear Burdette's record? "Oh, shit",
he chuckled, but didn't elaborate whether he was referring to the record,
or to Burdette himself.
Maye broke through in a big way in 1964, the one season of everyday
playing time he would enjoy in his big league career. In 153 games he
hit .304, with 179 hits, 96 runs and a league-leading 44 doubles. But
early in 1965, after another strong start and on the verge of full-fledged
stardom, Maye injured his ankle, and upon his recovery was dealt to the
Houston Astros. The move to the cavernous Astrodome didn't do much for
his batting numbers, but, with Houston offering a much hotter R&B
climate than Milwaukee, it did bring new focus to his music career. He
landed a management deal with Huey Meaux, who set Maye up with more regular
gigging than he'd ever done before. An engagement at the Dome Shadows,
a Houston club, was an auspicious one, however. The joint's name was clearly
a reference to the Astrodome, then brand-new and, as the world's first indoor stadium, billed as the Eighth
Wonder of the World. Astros owner Judge Roy Hofheinz sued the nightclub's
owner, M.M. Stewart, over his use of the word "dome". Stewart
responded with a $1 million countersuit, and booked Maye in part to thumb
his nose at Hofheinz. "What I do after the curfew is my own business",
Maye was quoted at the time, thumbing his own nose a little in the process.
Meaux also cut a slew of studio sessions on Maye. The bulk of them emerged
early into the pair's contract, with a sequence of exceptional singles,
in the backwoods soul vein perfected by Arthur Alexander, released on
Jamie throughout 1965. Other records during the next few years were sporadic,
with scattered singles on Tower, Pacemaker, ABC Paramount and Buddah.
"When you're playing baseball and singing it's a very tough career
for both of those", Maye told me, "because you have to be at
both places at the same time of the year, and you can't do that".
1968 (flipside detail)
Besides limiting the chance to cross-promote his two careers, being "Lee
Maye" in baseball came back to bite him in another way. In 1967 the
Reds brought up a slugging first baseman named Lee May, creating some
confusion between the two, with an especially nettlesome episode standing
out. "In Houston this girl claimed she had a baby for me", Maye
recalled. "But it wasn't, it was the other Lee May. My wife got ahold
of the story, but we got it straightened out". Unable to maintain
a grudge (although still not exactly laughing about the matter), Maye
said that once he met the "other" Lee May, "we became good
Before the 1967 season Maye was traded to the Cleveland Indians. He spent
the rest of his career in the American League, playing a season or two
apiece with the Indians, Senators and White Sox as a platoon outfielder
and pinch hitting specialist. In Washington he encountered another memorable
figure. "I played my next to last year for a guy I really respected,
Ted Williams. I thought he was the greatest hitter that ever lived in
baseball, but as a manager he was a bastard. He didn't give a shit about
nobody". Maye's stats for the A.L. phase of his career were as consistent
as they were respectable, averaging 325 at bats, a .275 batting average
and nine home runs a year. (A line-drive hitter, Maye clubbed only 94
homers during his 13-year career.) He hit .281 in 1968, the Year of the
Pitcher, when Carl Yastrzemski led the league batting just .301.
After a .205 season in 1971 in Chicago, Lee Maye's baseball career came
to a close. Just as the beginnings of his twin careers coincided, so too
did their endings. "I quit music for a while. I had all kinds of
contract trouble with certain people, and after my baseball career I didn't
sing for a long time". He had a country single on the obscure Happy
Fox label in 1976, and a release for R&B revivalist Dave Antrell's
eponymous label in 1985, but that was about it. In the '90s Maye was rediscovered
by the Doo-Wop Society of Southern California, but by the
time I caught up with him his once-dynamic singing voice had been silenced.
"It's been gone about five or six years. I have high blood pressure,
and the medication I take for it makes me hoarse. I can't hit those pretty
high notes that I used to hit". Yet he took solace for his inability
to croon any longer in the music that he did sing when he could. "Everything
gets old, everything grows. But the records don't get old".
Playing and recording when he did, Maye wasn't able to sock away gazillions
of cabbage leaves during his years as a professional entertainer. After
his simultaneous retirements, he spent the next 20 years working for Amtrak.
"I worked at [L.A.'s] Union Station. I did everything there was to
be done at Amtrak, and I enjoyed it. I retired four years ago". He
held no resentment for the exhorbitant incomes earned by latter-day ballplayers.
"I'm glad they're getting all they can. Timing is the greatest thing
in a person's life, and you only play the game for a short while".
He kept an eye on baseball, and the man who faced Gibson, Tiant and Koufax
(not to mention Blue Moon, Mudcat and Catfish) insisted that Pedro Martinez,
then with the Red Sox, was greater than all of them. "That guy's
got the best stuff I've ever seen".
Unusual for musicians of his era, Maye's hobby was collecting records,
especially those of the vocal harmony groups. Rarer still, he said he
owned a copy of all of his own records, although some of them he had to
rebuy in later years. And while he couldn't literally wail 'em any more,
"every song I recorded I can sing to you today".
Richard Berry, who died in 1997, held a special place in Maye's life,
personally as well as professionally. "We were real, real tight.
We never had a cross word. The songs I didn't write for myself he would
write, and just about every record I made he sang on. Any song that Richard
would write, he'd call me and ask, 'Hey, is this a good song for anybody?'
He would play it, I would sing it, and he'd use me as the judge of the
song. Richard was one of the most talented people you'd ever meet, and
more than that he was a great friend".
As befit a lifetime .274 hitter who sang on the original "Louie Louie",
Arthur Lee Maye reflected back with satisfaction. "I have a wonderful
life, and I enjoy people listening to my music. I never dreamt that people
would still be playing them old funky records today. It's a thrill".
No regrets, although perhaps wishes. Given the advent of digital technology,
where a singer can literally phone in a performance and have it sound
as clean as if he were there in the studio, time-management in a pursuit
of joint careers today is much easier than it was in Maye's heyday. "If
I was playing baseball today, and the way I can sing, I would be double
dynamite!" Hits of both kinds.