Though he is somewhat forgotten today, Samuel Mayes was widely considered one of the finest American cellists from the mid-20th century. Among conductors and orchestral musicians he was highly respected, having served as principal cellist for many years in both the Boston Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra. He was one of a relative few orchestral musicians who frequently recorded for major labels, sometimes headlining the performance but more often sharing the spotlight with such luminaries as violinists Zino Francescatti and Joseph Silverstein, oboist Robert Bloom and violist Scott Nickrenz. Mayes was a versatile musician away from orchestral music, regularly appearing in chamber performance and recitals with a broad range of repertory, from Baroque to modern, but showing a preference as soloist for Haydn, Richard Strauss, Prokofiev, and Kabalevsky. Mayes' discography has withered over the years, but several of his recordings are available from Sony, Nimbus, and Pearl.
Samuel H. Mayes was born in St. Louis, MO, on August 11, 1917. From age four he studied cello with Saint Louis Symphony principal cellist Max Steindel, and before Mayes reached his teens he had become a pupil of Felix Salmond at the Curtis Institute. He graduated from Curtis in 1937 as a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The following year Leopold Stokowski engaged him to serve as the principal cellist of the orchestra. Mayes remained in Philadelphia until 1948, when Koussevitzky invited him to become the principal in the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
During his Boston years Mayes gave many notable concerts as soloist, among them the 1961 American premiere of the Kabalevsky First Cello Concerto, with the composer conducting. Among Mayes' most distinguished BSO recordings was his account of Prokofiev's challenging Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra, issued on RCA in 1964.
1964 was also the year he departed Boston to return to the Philadelphia Orchestra as principal cellist, on invitation from Eugene Ormandy. Mayes left Philadelphia in 1973 and served one year as principal cellist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1974-1975).
From 1975, Mayes taught cello at the University of Michigan. He was not new to teaching: he had earlier served on the faculties of the New England Conservatory, University of Hartford Hartt School, and other notable music schools. Mayes remained active both as a teacher and performer until his retirement in 1987. Thereafter, he occasionally served as principal in the Cincinnati Symphony and Aspen Festival orchestras. He died on August 24, 1990.