By Lee Hildebrand
Jeanie Tracy has spent much of her career in the shadows. Long in demand as a background singer, the Oakland vocalist has sung harmony on recordings behind some of the biggest names in the business, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Carlos Santana, Rod Stewart and Barbra Streisand, among them. And she has been featured anonymously on commercial jingles for AC Transit, Burger King, the California Lottery, Hunt’s Ketchup, Jack in the Box, Mazda, Nissan, Rice-A-Roni, Sizzler, Taco Bell and countless others.
Tracy’s obscure early 45-rpm recordings — “Where Did You Come From?” on the L.A.-based Smogville label from the late ‘60s and 1974’s “Making New Friends” on Marvin Holmes’ Brown Door label in Oakland — command more than $100 each on eBay. Her records and live appearances with the late cross-dressing San Francisco disco queen Sylvester and other dance music artists have made her a favorite at gay events across the country, including the annual Southern Decadence festival on Labor Day weekend in New Orleans.
During her time with Sylvester in the early ‘80s, Tracy was joined on backup vocals by her friends Martha Wash and the late Izora Rhodes, originally known as the Two Tons o’ Fun, later as the Weather Girls. “They were the tons, and I was the fun,” Tracy quips.
Last Saturday, at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre’s new location at 450 Post Street in San Francisco, a half block from Union Square, Tracy stepped onto the stage as the star of “Mahalia: A Gospel Musical.” The play, written by Minnesota playwright Tom Stolz and directed by Hansberry Theatre co-founder Stanley E. Williams, traces the life of Mahalia Jackson from her early days in New Orleans through her pioneering work with songwriter Thomas A. Dorsey in popularizing a then-new musical genre known as “gospel” and on to widespread acclaim as “the world’s greatest gospel singer.”
Although Tracy frequently stumbled over her spoken lines and sang in a register higher than Jackson’s during most of the play’s first act, she later dropped down to a robust contralto and managed to capture much of the soulful, melissmatic magnificence associated with the late gospel queen on such selections as “How I Got Over,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Didn’t It Rain,” “Walk in Jerusalem” and “I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About in My Songs.” Complementing her in the cast were singing actors John “Jambi” Borens and Yvonne Cobbs-Bey and the superb piano accompanist Charlene Moore.
This isn’t the first time Tracy has played Jackson on stage. Twenty-five years ago, she replaced Jennifer Holliday as the star of the New York production of “Sing, Mahalia, Sing,” directed and choreographed by George Faison.
“Mahalia: A Gospel Musical” continues through March 7, with performances at 8 p.m. on Thursdays through Sundays, at 4 p.m. on Sundays and half-price matinees at 2 pm on February 27 and March 6. Phone (415) 474-8800 or visit www.LHTSF.org for more information.
Send comments and story ideas to Lee Hildebrand at LeeHilde@aol.com.