Deciding on which of some 50 women to begin Women’s History Month in a projected yearlong series, “Bay Area African American Women in Music,” presented a dilemma since there are so many distinguished possibilities.
Then, it became obvious when the latest CD by veteran San Francisco vocalist Mary Stallings, “Feelin’ Good” on the HighNote label in New York City, arrived in the mail. Not only is Stallings an internationally known song stylist of sublime subtlety and emotional depth – SFJAZZ producer Randall Kline has called her “the world’s greatest jazz singer” – but she is now in her 64th year as a recording artist.
Stallings’ fourth album for HighNote includes tunes associated with Cal Tjader, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie, all of whom she has recorded and toured with over the years.
She will perform at the Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia on Friday, March 6, featured alongside other such artists as Chaka Khan, Ramsey Lewis and Bobby McFerrin.
One of 11 children, Stallings was born and raised in San Francisco’s Western Addition and attended First AME Zion Church growing up. A performance by gospel singing star J. Earle Hines stands out in her memory.
“I was so impressed,” she recalls. “I went home singing. I said, ‘Mama, I want to be a singer.’ That’s the first time things started making sense to me – religiously also.”
“When you’re touched like that at such a young age, something happens that will stay with you the rest of your life. I knew that was my calling – to sing,” she says.
Stallings made her debut at age 11 with a 78 RPM gospel single recorded at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church in Oakland for the local Olliet label.
She began appearing in nightclubs as a teenager, including a week with Louis Jordan’s band at the 53 Club in Oakland when she was 18. She was soon singing at the hungry i, Purple Onion, Facks and other San Francisco venues, often opening for such comedians as Lenny Bruce, Shecky Green and Don Rickles.
Her next Bay Area appearance will be at the St. Mary’s Cathedral Events Center, 1111 Gough Street in San Francisco, on Thursday, April 23 at 7:30 p.m. She will also be presented with the San Francisco Housing Development Corporation’s Arts & Culture Icon Award.
“I’m blessed,” Stallings says. “There’s nothing like getting in front of an audience and giving your heart and having somebody walk up with tears in their eyes and tell you how much they appreciate you. You’ve reached somebody’s soul. You’ve tapped into something very special, and that’s a powerful feeling to know that you have done that.”
For more information on her upcoming performance, call (415) 822-1022.